Medical Cannabis: A New Hope for PTSD Victims?

Medical Marijuana, Cannabis, PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder - Qualifying Condition for a Medical Marijuana.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder - Qualifying Condition for a Medical Marijuana.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is among the most common psychiatric disorders in the world.

Yet, despite affecting ~3.5% of the US adult population, it has spent much of its existence obscured by a shadow of ignorance. A basic understanding of PTSD existed as early as the 1600’s‒according to Dr. Matthew Friedman of the National Center for PTSD, “Shakespeare’s Henry IV appears to meet many, if not all, of the diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”.

Despite this, PTSD was not formally categorized by the APA until 1980, and this late start has understandably limited science’s understanding of this disease. 

What Is PTSD

Once known as “shell shock” or later “combat fatigue”, PTSD is a disorder associated with a traumatic experience, such as rape, severe car accidents, terrorist attacks, military combat, or a number of other similarly impactful events.

For someone who develops PTSD, their brain and nervous system’s functions are profoundly altered. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, however, the mechanisms behind these alterations are poorly understood due to their difficulty to create accurate research models with animals.

It seems likely that a number of stress responses become chronically activated, such as changes to the autonomic nervous system, gut microbiome, increased levels of inflammatory cytokines within the brain, and a proverbial rap sheet of equally unpleasant‒and, frankly, difficult to pronounce‒physiological changes. And to complicate matters further, it is believed that every case has a different balance of these mechanisms, making a “one-size-fits-all” approach to treatment very difficult.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD symptoms are generally categorized into four groups: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative outlook, and changes in physical and emotional reactivity. While every case will have its own unique set of symptoms, some of the most common are trouble sleeping, changes in usual behavior/personality, and traumatic flashbacks. 

Medical Cannabis and PTSD

As previously mentioned, the NIH has made it clear that the exact processes underlying PTSD are not fully understood. However, while there are many theorized mechanisms for PTSD, the good news is that they are generally somewhat related, insofar as they are predominantly biological stress responses. 

In theory, then, if one were to activate a stress-reducing mechanism in the brain, it could balance out the majority of these problems. And this is exactly what researchers at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem set out to investigate. 

One of the brain’s most powerful systems to regulate stress responses is the endocannabinoid (eCB) system, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, low levels of eCB activation have been linked to a variety of psychiatric disorders. 

As the name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can be artificially stimulated with cannabinoids, chemicals found in the cannabis plant.

The Israeli team found that using the cannabinoid Δ(9)-THC, patients had “a statistically significant improvement in global symptom severity, sleep quality, frequency of nightmares, and PTSD hyperarousal symptoms”, and, crucially, added that “Δ(9)-THC was safe and well-tolerated by patients with chronic PTSD.” 

While this study was admittedly small in scale, it is difficult to overstate the implications of these results. Despite the frustratingly complex nature of PTSD’s neurophysiology, a single chemical‒just one of the dozens of potentially beneficial cannabinoids found in cannabis‒showed enormous promise in the treatment of this pernicious affliction. If you are one of the many people who suffer from PTSD, it would be well worth your time to ask your doctor about medical cannabis treatment.