For years, there has been widespread anecdotal evidence that cannabis is useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, but formal research has been hard to come by. While formal research is still in its beginning stages, thanks to the decades-long
federal ban on cannabis research, recent and upcoming changes to those laws have made it easier for scientists to examine the possible medical benefits of cannabis more fully.
In the meantime, some small-scale studies seem to support what many folks have been saying all along. Here’s a look at what PTSD is, what the latest research says and why scientists think it may help to use marijuana for PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — is an anxiety disorder that develops in people who have witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event. It affects about 3.5 percent of U.S. adults every year, and 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD throughout their lifetime, with veterans making up a large portion of that population. It may result from a single traumatic experience or the
cumulative stress of repeated exposures to anxiety and fearful situations, referred to as complex PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Most people are familiar with some of the extreme symptoms of PTSD — reliving a traumatic event when exposed to something that triggers the memory, for example, and nightmares — but those are just a few of the symptoms that people suffering from the disorder experience. Other symptoms may include the following:
- avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma, which can limit social interaction
- dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma
- hyperarousal, which means being in a continual state of high alert
- the belief that the world is a dangerous place
- a loss of trust in oneself or others
- difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- being startled by loud noise
People who cope with complex PTSD may also experience the following symptoms:
- a changed world view
- relationship and trust issues
- difficulties in regulating their emotions, particularly fear, sadness and anger
- detachment from the trauma, sometimes to the point of “forgetting” it completely
Causes of PTSD
While most people experience some traumatic events in their lives, not all people who go through trauma develop PTSD. Despite extensive research, scientists haven’t pinpointed any biomarkers that would explain why some people are more susceptible to PTSD than others. However, they have found that PTSD is associated with an increased expression of CB1 receptors in the
endocannabinoid system. Cannabis effectively binds to those receptors, reducing anxiety.
Common Medications Used for PTSD
medications most commonly used to treat PTSD include antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications. The side effects for these drugs include nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, constipation and insomnia.
Cannabis as a Natural Remedy for PTSD
People with PTSD, including veterans, have been self-medicating with cannabis for decades. They report that it helps reduce anxiety, increases appetite, reduces hyperarousal and promotes better sleep with fewer nightmares. However, there is still little research to support those reports. Furthermore, much of the research that exists or is being conducted focuses on THC and often uses nabilone, a THC synthetic form, rather than the whole plant.
Those studies have had contradictory results or have been too small to reach firm conclusions. One study found that nabilone successfully reduced
or eliminated nightmares associated with PTSD. In contrast, a study conducted among combat veterans experiencing PTSD found that those using medical marijuana reported a 75 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms compared to when they were not using medical marijuana.
More recently, a
study published in June 2020 used the survey results from more than 11,000 users of StrainPrint, an app that helps people figure out which strains of medical cannabis are most helpful in managing their symptoms. That study found that cannabis reduced the severity of intrusions (or returning thoughts of a traumatic event) by about 62 percent; flashbacks by 51 percent; irritability by 67 percent; and anxiety by 57 percent. The study authors suggested that the beneficial effects of cannabis may be due to the combination of CBD, THC and other cannabinoids in the whole plant rather than to one
Finally, a study published in August 2020 found that low doses of THC, when combined with CBD, help suppress the anxiety associated with traumatic memories and accelerate the extinction response — a common therapy used to treat PTSD.
Cannabis to Manage Symptoms of PTSD
The study also notes — as do many other studies into the effects of cannabis as a natural remedy for PTSD — that cannabis may help manage acute symptoms. Still, it, “might not have long term beneficial effects on the underlying condition.” The same can be said of the medications commonly used to treat PTSD — but cannabis doesn’t have the same list of negative side effects associated with its use. In fact, cannabis is often used to help reduce those very symptoms, including insomnia and
Thinking About Trying Cannabis to Relieve PTSD Symptoms?
If you choose cannabis to help reduce the symptoms of PTSD, it’s important to understand the different effects of various strains and choose those that will be effective against the symptoms you experience. Indica strains, for example, help relax the body and prepare you for sleep, while Sativa strains show benefits in combating anxiety without making you sleepy.
The early research seems to bear out what anecdotal evidence has been saying for years — cannabis may help manage the symptoms of PTSD that make it difficult to navigate daily life. A trained dispensary consultant, like
Garden Remedies’ Cannabis Advisors, can help you choose which strains are most likely to help you manage your symptoms in ways that best fit your lifestyle and needs.
Deb Powers is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who has been writing about cannabis and the cannabis industry since 2014.