Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that affects some people who experience trauma or witness a shocking event.
PTSD is prominent among military veterans, and it affects women more than men. But it can affect anyone. It’s estimated that 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.(1)
People with PTSD may explore several therapies before finding what works for them. Different forms of cannabis such as CBD oil, marijuana, and delta-8-THC (also known as D8 and delta-8) have gained popularity as alternatives in recent years.
In this article, we’re exploring cannabis’s place within the PTSD therapy landscape. But first, we’ll take a look at PTSD’s causes and symptoms to understand how cannabis might be able to help.
What Causes PTSD?
Going through or witnessing a traumatic event can cause PTSD.
When we encounter traumatic circumstances, it’s not uncommon for fears from that event to come up later on. In most cases, the fear fades as new memories take the place of the trauma. This is called extinction learning.
PTSD occurs when traumatic memories and their place in our nervous system don’t get unprogrammed. When extinction learning doesn’t happen, PTSD can occur.
PTSD is a type of stress, but the symptoms are more intense than “regular” stress. Symptoms can affect behavior, mood, sleep, and emotions.
Some symptoms of PTSD include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Irritability and anger
- Memory loss
- Changes to mood
- Avoidance of situations or reminders of what caused the trauma
Note that we said some symptoms — this is by no means a complete list, and PTSD can present differently in each person.
While it’s understood that stress of any kind is tied to the nervous system, doctors aren’t sure exactly why PTSD happens to some people who’ve been through shocking situations and not to others. However, one burgeoning area of research is revealing clues to the body’s stress response within the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Only a healthcare professional can diagnose PTSD. It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you believe you might have PTSD or a mental health condition.
The Role Of The Endocannabinoid System In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The ECS was discovered through cannabis research in the 1980s. Since then, the system has been linked to a wide range of essential functions including appetite, pain, sleep, and stress response.
It’s believed the ECS manages the body, helping it maintain homeostasis. It’s also theorized that imbalances in the ECS may be at the root of or involved in physical and mental health challenges. This theory is known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency disorder (CECD).(2)
PTSD can be difficult to study in-depth, and ECS research is relatively new. But it seems there are correlations between ECS health and PTSD — and cannabis may be able to help.
A 2019 review concluded that trauma changes how the ECS functions in humans and animals.(3)
Research examining the ECS in World Trade Center survivors with PTSD found they had lower levels of a key endocannabinoid called 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), which is involved in many functions including emotion and cognition.(4)
Based on preclinical evidence, cannabis compounds appear to restore balance to the ECS by increasing 2-AG, which may reduce PTSD symptoms.(5)
In a nutshell, cannabis shows promise as a potential PTSD therapy.
Cannabis For PTSD
Now that we’ve emerged from the deep dive into the inner workings of the ECS, let’s zoom out to see how cannabis has been used to manage PTSD symptoms in real life.
People with PTSD have been turning to cannabis for decades. Although it took some time for science to catch up with the trend, it’s now a fast-paced area of cannabis research.
Here’s a snapshot of the latest findings:
- An FDA-regulated study published in 2021 found that participants who smoked cannabis were 2.5 times more likely to show signs of recovery compared to those who didn’t use cannabis.(6) The forms of cannabis included flower with 9% THC, 8% CBD, and 8% THC, and an 11% CBD-only strain. All participants reported a reduction in the severity of their PTSD symptoms.
- One small study of 11 people found that CBD capsules helped to reduce nightmares and other symptoms.(7)
- Remember the extinction learning we talked about earlier? A review of studies and trials published between 1974-2020 determined that THC might help this process, especially when used with CBD.(8)
- A clinical trial is observing the effects of different types of CBD oil — including broad-spectrum CBD and isolate CBD — in 150 people with PTSD.(9)
Outside the lab coat setting, a new form of cannabis called delta-8-THC is starting to gain attention. While it hasn’t been studied as extensively as other cannabinoids, D8 produces a lighter high than “regular” delta-9-THC with less paranoia. And it’s federally legal, making it an accessible choice.
Can Cannabis Replace Other PTSD Therapies?
PTSD therapy tends to involve multiple methods — such as talk therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and other trauma-focused psychotherapies. It may also include medications.
Someone with PTSD shouldn’t consider trading off his or her current treatment plan for cannabis without talking to a doctor first. But cannabis might be an option that works alongside other treatments to aid recovery and improve quality of life.
How To Use Cannabis For PTSD
If you’re curious about trying cannabis to help with PTSD symptoms, you might be wondering how to go about that.
Many US states have legalized medical cannabis, which is great because you could qualify for your local medical cannabis program. You’d then work with your healthcare team to integrate cannabis into your treatment plan.
If you aren’t going the “green card” route, it’s still a good idea to fill your doctor in. Then you can source things yourself.
Because research has looked at a broad swath of cannabis products, there isn’t currently a “best cannabis for PTSD.” You can really take your pick of products, though we recommend sticking with products you ingest such as CBD oil drops, and Delta-8 edibles. Taking cannabis orally ensures the cannabinoids will enter your bloodstream, which doesn’t happen with topical CBD.
You could also go the inhalant route, using vape pens or smoking CBD or Delta 8 flower. However, smoking isn’t the best for overall health.
Whatever form of cannabis you choose, make sure it’s top notch. That means it’s:
- Made from an organically cultivated plant
- Nano-optimized to improve absorption
- Made with quality ingredients and no fillers or additives
- Got a certificate of analysis (COA) proving its potency and purity
When your cannabis checks all these boxes, it’s primed for the best possible results.
The Bottom Line
People with PTSD have several therapeutic options available to them, including cannabis.
Cannabis compounds interact with the ECS, which studies suggest may reduce PTSD symptoms. Ongoing research including clinical trials is expected to reveal more about the best ways to use cannabis for PTSD treatment.
For now, PTSD patients can explore their medical cannabis options or choose from a number of high-quality recreational CBD and THC products on the market.