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New Research Reveals Why Cannabis Helps PTSD Sufferers

Amy Rising, an Air Force veteran, smokes medical marijuana. Rising has been working on legislation . [+] for veterans’ freedom to treat PTSD with medical cannabis. (Photo by Kevin Cook for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Washington Post via Getty Images

PTSD patients have been saying for years that cannabis helps with their PTSD. This debilitating condition causes chronic problems like nightmares, panic attacks, hypervigilance, detachment from others, overwhelming emotions, and self-destructive behavior. In some cases, these overwhelming symptoms can even lead to suicide. And while research on the topic has been somewhat inconclusive, many PTSD patients continue to report that cannabis does help.

Now, new research suggests the biological mechanisms behind this therapeutic effect.

Two recent studies point to the way that cannabinoids may help treat PTSD. One shows how cannabis can reduce activity in the amygdala – a part of the brain associated with fear responses to threats. Meanwhile, another suggests that the plant’s cannabinoids could play a role in extinguishing traumatic memories. Both effects could be therapeutic for those suffering from PTSD – according to recent studies.

One study, from researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, looked at how cannabis use impacts the amygdala response of those dealing with trauma related anxiety, such as PTSD. Previous research has shown that cannabis has the potential to reduce anxiety, or even prevent heightened anxiety in threatening situations. But up to this point, no studies had investigated this response in adults dealing with trauma – such as those with PTSD.

The Wayne State University study took on this challenge, and studied the amygdala responses in three groups of participants – healthy controls who had not been exposed to trauma, trauma exposed adults without PTSD and trauma exposed adults with PTSD. Using a randomized, double-blind procedure, the 71 participants were either given a low dose of THC or a placebo. Then they were exposed to threatening stimuli and their amygdala responses were recorded.

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Those exposed to THC had lowered threat-related amygdala reactivity.

This means that those who took low doses of THC showed measurable signs of reduced fear and anxiety in situations designed to trigger fear. Since these results were found in all three groups, it suggests that even those with PTSD were able to experience less fear with THC in their system.

DENVER, CO – JULY 15: The Colorado Board of Health had a rule making hearing about people with . [+] PTSD qualifying for medical marijuana at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offices in Denver. Christopher Latona, center, and his dad Mike Latona, left, both testified in support of approving medical marijuana for PTSD which Christopher has suffered from since returning from his US. Army service in Afghanistan. They were photographed on Wednesday July 15, 2015. The board voted 6-2 not to approve the change. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images )

Denver Post via Getty Images

The authors conclude that the research suggests “that THC modulates threat-related processing in trauma-exposed individuals with PTSD” and add that the drug “may prove advantageous as a pharmacological approach to treating stress- and trauma-related psychopathology.”

A second study, from researchers at Brazil’s Federal University of Parana, explored another potential way that cannabis could help those with PTSD – extinguishing the intensity associated with memories of their trauma. This mode of treating PTSD was first hypothesized by Yale associate professor of psychiatry R. Andrew Sewell who suggested that cannabis may be able to help PTSD patients “overwrite” traumatic memories with new memories in a process called ‘extinction learning’.

In an interview with East Bay Express, Sewell explained that the extinction learning process usually helps trauma resolve on its own. He gave the example of an Iraq War Veteran who gets PTSD symptoms while driving under bridges – after dodging explosives thrown down from bridges during the war. “Suppose some part of your reptile brain thinks if you walk under a bridge you’re going to die,” Sewell explained “life becomes very hard.”

Army veteran Kevin Grimsinger 42 and other vet’s and supporters from Sensible Colorado submit a . [+] petition to add PTSD to the list of conditions approved for the use of medical marijuana to Mark Salley the communications director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Wednesday July 7th, 2010. Joe Amon, The Denver Post (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver Post via Getty Images

For most who experience traumatic incidents, these fears subside after 6 months or so because of the extinction learning process. New memories of the traumatic trigger form and override the old. Someone with a traumatic experience of explosives being dropped from bridges, may at first feel terrified as they approach any bridge – with traumatic memories flooding their mind. But after months of nothing bad happening around bridges, most will begin to feel bridges are less dangerous, as many memories of driving under bridges safely accumulate. The old memories still linger, but they don’t cause the increase in fear when the trigger (like the bridge) is present. So while most with trauma remember the traumatic incidents, those memories no longer trigger intense fear.

But for those with PTSD, extinction learning doesn’t happen. The trauma attached to the old memories continues to cause problems.

Still, Sewell believed that cannabis could help. Cannabis stimulates CB1 – a receptor in the endocannabinoid system that Sewell says has improved extinction learning in animal studies. Interestingly, those with PTSD show impaired functioning of the endocannabinoid system – which may be why they are unable to go through the normal extinction learning process.

Sewell theorized that cannabis might be able to jump start this process – allowing those with PTSD to access extinction learning like their healthy counterparts, and curing the PTSD by helping them to move on from their trauma. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his research before he unexpectedly passed away in 2013.

But this recent study from Brazil’s Federal University of Parana looks deeper into the question. These researchers conducted a thorough review of the cannabis literature from 1974-2020 looking for evidence from controlled human trials to support or refute the theory that cannabis helps with ‘extinction’ of traumatic memories.

The researchers found that cannabis could help. Low doses of the cannabinoid THC or THC combined with another cannabinoid CBD were both able to enhance the extinction rate for challenging memories – and reduce overall anxiety responses. From their study, it seems that THC drives the extinction rate improvements, while CBD can help alleviate potential side effects from higher doses of THC.

The authors conclude that the current evidence from both healthy humans and PTSD patients suggests that these forms of cannabis “suppress anxiety and aversive memory expression without producing significant adverse effects.”

These studies provide some answers about why cannabis is helping PTSD patients feel better – both immediately and in the long run. Still, future studies may help clarify a range of questions about how and when to use cannabis effectively for PTSD, and whether there are risk factors associated with using the drug for this condition.

Two recent studies point to the way that cannabinoids may help treat PTSD. One shows how cannabis can reduce activity in the amygdala – a part of the brain associated with fear responses to threats. Another suggests the plant’s role in extinguishing traumatic memories.

CBD for PTSD: Benefits, Dosage, & Side-Effects

CBD may help eliminate stress & anxiety from PTSD.

Learn how it works, how much to take, and what CBD oils are most effective.

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PTSD affects at least 10% of people at some stage in their life [1].

Most of us have experienced trauma in some way. It can come from many places — abuse, war, accidents, disasters, or traumatic loss. It can overwhelm and affect our ability to cope. Response to trauma can have devastating consequences.

If someone is feeling distressed, disconnected, or isolated after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, they may have PTSD. Current treatment methods are often unsuccessful and some have unwanted side effects.

Recently, studies have confirmed the ability of cannabidiol (CBD), a component of Cannabis sativa to be extremely beneficial in improving PTSD symptoms.

Here, we discuss PTSD, its symptoms, and how high-quality CBD oil products can help to support trauma recovery.

Let’s get started.

MEDICALLY REVIEWED BY

Updated on November 06, 2020

Table of Contents
  • Can CBD Oil Help With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
    • 1. It Stops Nightmares
    • 2. It Prevents The Formation of Fear Memories
    • 3. It Reduces Anxiety and Depression Symptoms
    • 4. It Helps With Insomnia
  • What’s The Dose of CBD Oil For PTSD
    • CBD Oil Dosage Calculator
  • Endocannabinoid Dysfunction & PTSD
    • The CB1 Receptors: Regulating the Brain & Nervous System
    • The CB2 Receptors: Regulating Pain & Inflammation
  • CBD vs. THC for PTSD
    • Research Supports CBD for PTSD
  • What is PTSD?
    • What is a Traumatic Event?
      • Some Examples of Traumatic Events Include:
    • What Are The Symptoms of PTSD?
      • Signs & Symptoms of PTSD (According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America):
    • Risk Factors for PTSD
    • How Is PTSD Diagnosed?
    • How Trauma Affects The Nervous System
    • Conventional Treatments for PTSD
      • 1. Yoga & Meditation
      • 2. Good Sleep & Hygiene
      • 3. Leverage Social Connection & Close Relationships
      • 4. Exercise
      • 5. Eating a Well-balanced & Clean Diet
  • Key Takeaways: Using CBD For PTSD
  • References Cited In This Article
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    Can CBD Oil Help With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

    Researchers have discovered many promising benefits of CBD to alleviate the symptoms associated with the disorder — especially in people that haven’t responded well to conventional therapies.

    The benefits of CBD oil for PTSD include:

    • May prevent nightmares
    • may prevent the formation of “fear memories”
    • Alleviates symptoms of anxiety & depression
    • Alleviates insomnia

    1. It Stops Nightmares

    Clinical Trials have shown that CBD ceased or significantly reduced flashbacks, nightmares, and persistent memories in patients with PTSD [7].

    2. It Prevents The Formation of Fear Memories

    CBD disrupts the feelings of long-term fear memory processing, consequently reducing stress and anxiety [8].

    3. It Reduces Anxiety and Depression Symptoms

    CBD has a range of calming effects that reduce anxiety, panic attacks, compulsiveness, and the long-term effects of stress [9].

    4. It Helps With Insomnia

    CBD improves the quantity and quality of sleep and reduces night sweats. [10]

    What’s The Dose of CBD Oil For PTSD

    If you’re considering trying CBD oil for the first time, it’s important to start with a small dose and increase gradually.

    Dosage recommendations vary and depend on the product you choose. Use our CBD dosage calculator below to find the best dose based on your weight and desired strength.

    The most common method of taking CBD oil is in the form of drops. Place the dose under your tongue where it’s easily absorbed and swallow after 30 seconds to a minute.

    Studies have shown high dosage ranges from 12 mg to 25 mg of CBD can significantly decrease anxiety symptoms, taking effect within 1-2 hours after taking the oil [1].

    The key is to start low and go slow.

    Be patient. Keep a daily journal of dosage and track your symptoms. You’ll know you’ve reached the ideal dose when your symptoms start to improve.

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    Endocannabinoid Dysfunction & PTSD

    The two major cannabinoids found in Cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are both compounds that influence the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) but have very different effects.

    Recently, researchers have focused on the importance of the endocannabinoid system as an essential emotional regulating system the body uses to maintain homeostasis — or support ‘balance’ in the internal environment despite changes in the external environment.

    The ECS plays a crucial role in brain and nervous system function and is involved in modulating other factors such as appetite, sleep, pain, and cognitive function [9].

    Researchers believe that chronic stress, or a traumatic event, can impair the ECS signaling in the brain, therefore, leading to a host of symptoms described above.

    For those with PTSD, the ECS system is integral to the regulation of emotional behavior, learning, and responses to traumatic events.

    To break it down, CB1 and CB2 are receptors that cannabinoids like CBD target.

    The CB1 Receptors: Regulating the Brain & Nervous System

    These are found in the brain and the nervous system. CB1 receptors play a role in fear memory formation, appetite, pain tolerance, and mood. The mood enhancing neurotransmitter anandamide activates CB1, and when anandamide levels are low, it creates a deficiency of CB1 receptors leading to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

    The CB2 Receptors: Regulating Pain & Inflammation

    The CB2 receptors regulate inflammation, a primary cause of many diseases.

    High concentrations of CB2 receptors are found in the immune and gastrointestinal system. CB2 receptors bind with CBD and regulate appetite, immunity, inflammation, and pain.

    It’s thought that in people with PTSD, ECS signaling is disrupted due to endocannabinoid deficiencies or excess — resulting in increased anxiety, fear, and unpleasant memories.

    Most cannabinoids act on both CB1 and CB2 receptors, helping them to regain normal function.

    As a result, CBD may be useful for PTSD patients.

    CBD vs. THC for PTSD

    CBD is the primary non-psychoactive component of cannabis and has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anxiolytic and antipsychotic actions— it’s different to THC— which produces the mind-altering effects you may commonly hear about, also known as causing a ‘high’.

    CBD doesn’t make you ‘high’— hence its popularity as a therapeutic agent.

    Another advantage over other agents (such as THC) is CBD has fewer complications at high doses [1].

    Research Supports CBD for PTSD

    Promising research shows that CBD is effective in attenuating some of the major symptoms of PTSD— such as preventing the consolidation of fear memories, reducing anxiety and improving sleep.

    In a recent 2018 review, researchers found that CBD offers a safe, therapeutic alternative for treating PTSD— with significant improvements in these symptoms, particularly in reducing the retention of unpleasant memories [1].

    Other research has confirmed that nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid, is effective in blocking trauma-related nightmares in patients that did not respond to traditional therapies [8].

    As acceptance of CBD widens, more countries have approved the use of medical-grade cannabis for the treatment of PTSD. CBD is recognized as a suitable treatment option with its ability to reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and eliminate flashbacks — all without risk of serious side-effects.

    What is PTSD?

    PTSD is a chronic psychological condition that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event.

    You may be wondering if you or someone you care about has PTSD.

    Often, people don’t believe they meet the criteria or have the ‘right’ to have PTSD, because it’s regularly associated with first responders and military veterans.

    However, PTSD can affect anyone.

    What is a Traumatic Event?

    Traumatic events can mean experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events that cause intense fear or threat to safety.

    Some Examples of Traumatic Events Include:
    • Domestic violence or abuse
    • Witnessing someone being killed or seriously injured
    • Surviving a car/train/bus accident or plane crash
    • Surviving a heart attack or receiving a serious medical diagnosis
    • Being a victim of rape or sexual assault
    • Victim of a crime, kidnapping, stalking or torture
    • Experiencing a life-changing event, such as divorce, unemployment or the death of a loved one
    • Experiencing a natural disaster like bushfires, earthquakes, floods
    • Experience in war or civil conflict or terrorist attack

    What Are The Symptoms of PTSD?

    People living with PTSD often experience multiple symptoms as the body and mind try to cope with the stressful event.

    PTSD can manifest in many ways — developing into anxiety and depression or reckless behavior. Gut issues, migraines, headaches, and reduced immunity are common symptoms associated with PTSD.

    Signs & Symptoms of PTSD (According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America):
    1. Flashbacks of the trauma
    2. Physical symptoms (such as racing heartbeat, sweating, brain fog)
    3. Trouble sleeping
    4. Overly emotional, mood alterations (such as rage, shame, blame, negativity)
    5. Emotional detachment
    6. Negative beliefs and feelings
    7. Intrusive thoughts and memories
    8. Hypervigilance/anxiety
    9. Living in fear
    10. Nightmares and strange dreams
    11. Difficulty maintaining employment
    12. Difficulty concentrating
    13. Avoidance and Social isolation
    14. Substance abuse

    PTSD symptoms can last between a few months to many years after the event — sometimes leading to chronic illness.

    Sufferers often feel like they’re on guard, or something’s always about to go wrong, and they’re left feeling exhausted and in fear — which can continue for many years after the event.

    Bodily symptoms of shortness of breath, tremors, increased heart rate, memory loss, and poor concentration can hijack our ability to lead a healthy life.

    Risk Factors for PTSD

    Anxiety and fear are normal adaptive responses that help us cope with threats to our survival. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but some factors can influence their likelihood of developing it.

    Some risk factors of PTSD include:

    • A long-lasting or intense trauma (such as childhood abuse or domestic violence)
    • First responders and military personnel where there is greater exposure to traumatic events
    • Having existing anxiety and depression
    • A family history of anxiety and depression

    For survivors of trauma, it can be extremely difficult and frustrating to try to understand the psychological and physical changes occurring — and what can be done to ease them.

    How Is PTSD Diagnosed?

    A doctor may perform a physical exam and a psychological assessment, using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

    PTSD is identified by signs and symptoms in the following three categories for a period extending from 1 month [3]:

    1. Reminders of the Exposure — Flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts
    2. Activation — Hyperarousal, agitation, insomnia, irritability, aggression, impulsiveness
    3. Deactivation — Numbing, isolation, avoidance, confusion, anxiety, depression

    How Trauma Affects The Nervous System

    The nervous system is a complex system that involves nerves and cells, known as neurons, which transmit signals from the brain to various parts of the body.

    When the brain experiences any event that has negative consequences from a stressful or dangerous situation, the hormone adrenaline kicks in via the sympathetic nervous system. This is commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ which is a natural, built-in stress response.

    However, in PTSD, the stress response is heightened, and instead of returning to normal soon after the threat is over, it’s pushed beyond its limits, and becomes ‘stuck’.

    The nervous system loses its ability to self-regulate, leading to psychological and physical distress.

    This state is known as hypervigilance. The body is continuously alert in order to avoid danger. As a result, people can startle easily, have increased sweating, a rapid heartbeat, and quick breathing.

    Conventional Treatments for PTSD

    Conventional treatment usually involves psychotherapy, and can also include medications, such as antidepressants to improve symptoms.

    The Mayo Clinic explains the symptoms, causes, current diagnosis, and treatment to treat both children and adults with PTSD.

    Those suffering PTSD symptoms often feel their only option is a life relegated to pharmaceutical drugs and therapy. Medications have their place and can be life-saving — but are often ineffective.

    Unfortunately, remission in PTSD patients is relatively low. These medications can also have unwanted side effects [4], including:

    • Nausea
    • Dry mouth
    • Weight gain
    • Sexual dysfunction
    • Insomnia
    • Constipation/diarrhea
    • Dizziness
    • Headache
    • Worsening of depressive symptoms

    Opioids are also prescribed to patients with PTSD, however, they’re highly addictive medications and patients with PTSD may be at a higher risk of developing opioid use disorder compared to patients without PTSD.

    Thankfully CBD offers a safer treatment option for people with PTSD without the side effects.

    If you’re thinking about trying CBD oil, it’s important you speak with your doctor before stopping other medications.

    When combined with conventional treatment, natural therapies can be beneficial in recovery from PTSD in addition to lifestyle modifications such as:

    1. Yoga & Meditation

    Research has shown yoga improves emotional regulation, heart rate variability and reduces anxiety and stress [5].

    2. Good Sleep & Hygiene

    Ensure enough quality sleep and rest by adopting healthy sleeping habits. Relaxation exercises and improving your sleeping environment so it feels restful and comfortable will help.

    In addition to getting enough sleep, showering and taking good care of your hygiene goes a long way to maintain your mental health.

    3. Leverage Social Connection & Close Relationships

    Use support networks such as family and friends or organizations in your local area. Depending on where you live, there are likely support groups where you can connect with others who have PTSD. Meetup is another excellent way to bond with like-minded people.

    4. Exercise

    A natural and inexpensive way to improve mood, appetite, and sleep is by finding an enjoyable way to get movement into your day — even if it’s simply going for a walk, preferably in nature.

    5. Eating a Well-balanced & Clean Diet

    Limit caffeine and alcohol can decrease anxiety symptoms [6]. A poor diet high in sugar and processed type foods can lead to low mood, fatigue, increased anxiety, and weight gain.

    Although PTSD is not curable, it doesn’t have to run your life.

    Key Takeaways: Using CBD For PTSD

    Living with PTSD can be difficult. There is no cure but there is hope.

    Used in addition to therapies, CBD may relieve many of the symptoms related to PTSD — such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and prevent nightmares and flashbacks.

    CBD Oil offers a safe and effective treatment to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

    CBD may help eliminate stress & anxiety from PTSD. View the best CBD oils for post-traumatic stress & anxiety disorders.