Humans have relied on cannabis to alleviate adverse symptoms from various illnesses, including physical and mental health issues. Anxiety and depression are among the many issues cannabis is known to improve, making it an excellent candidate for treating conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recent investigations into the herb’s therapeutic value, particularly for PTSD, have yielded surprising discoveries about how cannabis and your endocannabinoid system heal trauma.
New research investigates cannabis’s potential as a PTSD treatment
Cannabis is rapidly gaining more acceptance in the medical field and earning greater validity as a therapeutic substance. The herb’s improving reputation inspires researchers to study its potential for treating notoriously challenging mental health conditions.
Recent studies have demonstrated cannabis’s efficacy as a stress and anxiety regulator and its ability to influence cognitive and emotional functions. These traits lead scientists to hypothesize that cannabis may hold the key to managing conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
A team of researchers led by Luca Steardo Jr. examined 234 scientific publications to validate their prediction. Ultimately, they settled on ten papers to construct a comprehensive review of cannabis’s ability to manage PTSD.
Steardo and colleagues learned that medical cannabis is highly effective in treating this mental health condition. Notably, the herb can help prevent the development of sleep disorders, managing or stopping suicidal thoughts, and helping you maintain a restful sleep, undisturbed by random awakenings. Generally, cannabis was also shown to help improve patients’ quality of life and alleviate pain.
Plus, current knowledge of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) reaffirms cannabis’s potential therapeutic value for PTSD patients. Research has illustrated the ECS’s role in several biological processes, including nerve cell functions, memory processes, emotional and stress regulation, and pain modulation, primarily.
Although this broad range of uses is beneficial, scientists especially homed in on cannabis’s ability to regulate anxiety and stress. More specifically, they gravitated to the herb’s inclination to “the extinction of aversive memories.”
Cannabis can help you overcome traumatic memories
One of the key factors influencing cannabis’s potential as a possible PTSD treatment is the ECS’s locations throughout “memory-related brain areas.”
When you consume cannabis, the phytocannabinoids (chemical compounds made in the plant, known as “cannabinoids”) interact with your ECS at various receptors. These receptors have different names and functions that influence your cannabis experience in their own ways.
One of the most well-known receptors is cannabinoid receptor 1, or CB1. These are the ECS sites spread across the brain’s memory regions, where they can either improve or harm your memory processes. Thanks to this powerful point of influence, researchers found that these sites can be used as targets for therapeutic treatments, as the ECS has a “central function in extinction of aversive memories.”
An “aversive memory” is a negative type of memory that people usually develop after traumatic events. In a broader evolutionary context, these help humans avoid future threats based on experience from past confrontations or dangers.
The development of aversive memories is a vital survival mechanism. However, in modern life in many parts of the world, the process often results in a lower quality of life and excessive anxiety.
Yet, researchers have found that endocannabinoid (the cannabinoids your body makes) levels rise in a part of the brain called the “basolateral amygdala complex.” This area is known to control aversive memory extinction. Further, they demonstrated that the CB1’s participation is required at the very moment of extinction.
These discoveries prove a much more active role of the ECS in the management of PTSD and related conditions, showing incredible promise for innovative mental health care.
How cannabis helps PTSD patients
It’s great that cannabis helps aversive memory extinction. At the same time, studies have also shown that PTSD patients suffer from the dysregulation of those processes managing aversive memories. Plus, their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, essential to stress adaptation, is always switched “on,” so to speak. This interferes with the ECS’s signaling functions and contributes to negative PTSD symptoms.
Interestingly, scientists found that reduced endocannabinoid levels and up-regulated (increased numbers) CB1 receptors are common in PTSD patients’ brains. This means that supplementing those lost cannabinoids with a cannabis treatment could return their cognitive and emotional processing to normal levels.
Steardo Jr. and colleagues’ literary review summarized major scientific findings about cannabis and PTSD as follows:
- Reduces PTSD symptoms, including nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and arousal
- Decreases frequency of suicidal thoughts
- Lowers PTSD social impact
- Improves quality of life
- Significantly reduces the frequency of recurring and distressing dreams
- Decreases threat-related brain activity
- Helps alleviate pain
Past research has demonstrated delta-9-THC’s capacity for managing PTSD. For instance, the review notes that a daily 6 mg dose of nabilone and 2-3 g of 20-25% THC medical cannabis dramatically reduced reported pain indexes. Considering that people with PTSD often suffer from chronic pain, this is a critical point of interest in medical research.
Still, the researchers believe CBD is a much better candidate for treating this condition. The latter would produce significantly fewer adverse effects, ensuring the patient gets the therapeutic benefits they need without unnecessary discomfort or inconvenience.
Many people self-medicate with cannabis to soothe the debilitating symptoms of various mental health conditions. Since PTSD is challenging to manage without medical help, many turn to cannabis for help. This trend increased scientists’ urgency in seeking a better understanding of cannabis’s effects on the disorder.
Research has yet to uncover all that the endocannabinoid system can do for cognitive maintenance and restoration. Yet, the latest results are promising, illustrating cannabis’s potential for improving PTSD patients’ overall quality of life, and even helping them overcome the traumatic memories that changed their lives’ courses.