‘Combat Fatigue, ‘War Neurosis’, ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Shell Shock’ are all terms that were once used to describe what we now know to be PTSD – a distinct, psychological condition, stemming from experiencing or witnessing some form of trauma. This, often debilitating, affliction once had stigma attached to it too. But then again, it was also thought to be attributed to being ‘hexed by ghosts’. In reality, PTSD is actually a fairly common, and completely natural reaction to traumatic events, affecting around 8% of Canadians, according to results from Statistics Canada’s Survey on Mental Health and Stressful Events conducted in late 2021.
Quite understandably, combat PTSD (a specific type of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by men and women who have been in combat) is one of the most common forms. Back in WWII, this condition (as it would be diagnosed today) was responsible for 40% of all discharges. It’s estimated that around 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. Up to 20% of veterans who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year. And so on.
Clearly, if you are struggling with PTSD, you are not alone. What’s more, there are people out there studying new treatment options for you every day. And one with immense promise, which was overlooked for decades due to prohibition and stigma, is cannabis.
Can Cannabis Help PTSD?
While finding a treatment that works it’s often quite unique for each individual, we do know that common pharmaceutical medications, such as opioids, have quite high potential to do more harm than good. Although these medications, which are frequently prescribed for PTSD alongside anti-depressants, can provide short-term relief in the mind and body, prolonged use can easily result in addiction, which can lead to a fatal overdose. According to provisional CDC data, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the US reached a shocking eighty thousand people in 2021. Unfortunately, those with a mental illness, like PTSD, are twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder compared to the general population, making opioids extra risky.
Conversely, and in stark contrast to what we were led to believe by long-outdated campaigns such a ‘Reefer Madness’, using cannabis for PTSD is a much, much safer option. And one that appears to be extremely effective too.
Medical Marijuana for PTSD
Right off the bat, it’s not possible to have a fatal overdose on cannabis. It’s even highly unlikely that it would cause any adverse effects, particularly if medical cannabis is used under the guidance of a clinician.
The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence published a Critical Review of THC (the main, psychoactive compound in cannabis attributed to ‘getting you high’) which states:
“The toxicity of Δ 9 -THC is very low compared to most other recreational and pharmaceutical drugs….It has been calculated that a lethal dose in a 70 kg human would be approximately 4 g and that such a dose could not be realistically achieved in a human following oral consumption, smoking or vaporising the substance… RCTs in which Δ 9 -THC has been sometimes given daily to participants for periods of years, generally report low to moderate toxicity and a low incidence of serious adverse events.”
As well as being generally safe to use, medical marijuana for PTSD has been shown to have tremendous therapeutic potential.
In June 2022, the UK Medical Cannabis Registry presented a total of 20 new research papers for the first time at the International Cannabinoid Research Society Conference covering a wide range of conditions, including PTSD.
In June of this year, the UK Medical Cannabis Registry reviewed data from collected 162 PTSD patients, all of whom were given a daily dose of 5mg CBD and 145mg of THC and assessed the outcome at 1, 3 and 6 months. All patients noted significant improvement in ‘impact of events’, anxiety and sleep quality, with any adverse effects graded as ‘mild’ or ‘moderate’, with insomnia and fatigue having the greatest incidence. No serious side effects were reported.
Another study, funded by Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation, found that cannabis products administered to 14 combat veterans with PTSD at individually prescribed doses over 90 days yielded dramatic results. Overall, PTSD symptoms reduced across the board by 47% and astonishingly, 71% of participants achieved PTSD remission by the end of the study.
Furthermore, another paper revealed that 150 PTSD patients who used cannabis over the course of a year reported a decrease in symptom severity, and were 2.57 times more likely to recover than patients not using cannabis.
While impressive, how does using cannabis for PTSD work?
How does cannabis for PTSD work?
Consultant Psychiatrist & Senior Clinical Lecturer, Dr. James Rucker, specialises in cannabis and psychedelics for mental health conditions. He explains that the efficacy of using medical marijuana for PTSD largely comes down to its ability to help mediate the fight or flight response.
“Emerging research with cannabis shows it dampens down a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is overactive almost constantly and highly sensitive in people with PTSD. With that comes a reduction of the primary symptoms of PTSD such as fear and anxiety, which then results in an ability to not avoid the things you were avoiding because they trigger you so much. Then you can start to face the things that were triggering you and begin to think about them in a different way.”
THC for PTSD
On top of this, specifically using THC for PTSD (just one of over 140 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant) can help prevent PTSD nightmares. This is due to the way that THC alters ‘sleep architecture’.
Evidence suggests that, even in low doses, THC use supports the body in stage 1, 2, and 3, but can reduce REM sleep – the stage in which we have our most vivid dreams. While this side effect of cannabis may not be ideal for all (REM sleep is also believed to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity), it can certainly be beneficial to veterans who struggle to sleep due to night terrors – a common symptom of combat PTSD.
One 2020 study, performed by researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, also concluded that “THC modulates threat-related processing in trauma-exposed individuals with PTSD” which “may prove advantageous as a pharmacological approach to treating stress- and trauma-related psychopathology.”
A further study found that, again even at low doses, THC “can enhance the extinction rate and reduce anxiety responses”, potentially allowing space for sufferers of PTSD to ‘overwrite’ traumatic memories.
Incredibly, all this is merely scratching the surface of why cannabis for PTSD, and perhaps most importantly THC for PTSD, is proving to be such a successful treatment for so many veterans in Canada, and around the world. Fortunately, we are lucky enough to live in a country where cannabis is readily available. However, to get the most out of cannabis for PTSD and find the right dose and strain for you (which will allow you to use cannabis therapeutically, without feeling stoned all the time!) it’s important to do so with guidance.
If you’re curious about trying medical marijuana for PTSD, or you’d like to know more about it, we welcome you to reach out to us here at VFHG for advice on your healing, health, and well-being.