CBD for PTSD: A Therapeutic Alternative

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The subject of mental health will forever be an important topic of discussion throughout every stage of life. Looking after your emotional, psychological and social wellbeing is fundamental as these factors influence your thoughts, feelings and actions. However, sometimes the mind isn’t easy to control, which can take a toll on your overall health. 

Many mental health conditions interfere with one’s own abilities and stresses of day-to-day life. PTSD, known as a post-traumatic stress disorder, is one of them. This long-lasting condition can be difficult to live with and not all of the traditional treatments available, such as medication and therapy, are effective. 

More and more people suffering from debilitating illnesses have been turning to natural resources for some relief. A current favourite is cannabidiol (CBD) which is commonly used as an option for treating different types of chronic pain. Could CBD be a therapeutic alternative for PTSD? We’re here to unearth the basics and explore the research behind the benefits. 

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a psychological condition that may be developed after experiencing a potentially traumatic event. According to the National Centre for PTSD, women are more than twice as likely to be affected as men; however, it can affect anyone; approximately 10% of people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. In 2019 alone, roughly eight million US citizens were affected by PTSD. 

Symptoms manifest themselves at different levels, including re-living traumatic events repeatedly through intrusive memories and nightmares, avoidance of particular distressing issues and reduced social skills. Changes in mood, level of arousal and cognition can occur, leading to panic attacks, hypervigilance, depression and anxiety. It could even be life-threatening in some cases.

Trauma can derive from several situations, for example, abuse, accidents, disasters, painful loss or war. This trauma can translate into PTSD symptoms that can last for months or sometimes years after the event. Sufferers tend to feel as if they’re exhausted, fearful or constantly on guard; their body is continuously alert in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and their mind anticipates negative thoughts. 

To break it down, doctors may diagnose PTSD by identifying the following signs and symptoms that would be endured for a minimum period of one month:

  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.

 The first-line treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy. Various other medications include serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, antiadrenergic agents and second-generation antipsychotics. However, the efficacy of these have been questioned and may cause considerable side effects, so the development of additional treatment options is essential.

Benefits of CBD for PTSD

PTSD patients have reported that CBD and cannabis help to relieve some overwhelming symptoms. The range of calming effects may eliminate compulsiveness, intensities of anxiety and depression, as well as the long-term effects of stress. CBD may also prevent the formation of fear memories, and clinical trials have indicated that CBD can cease or significantly reduce flashbacks, nightmares and persistent memories for those with PTSD. Using CBD oil for sleep can also improve the quantity and quality of sleep, alleviating insomnia, night sweats and fatigue. There is potential CBD value in numerous neuropsychiatric conditions. 

The Endocannabinoid System

It’s been suggested that PTSD patients show impaired functioning of the endocannabinoid (eCB) system, which modulates the function of the immune tissues, brain and endocrine. The system plays a central role in the process of aversive memory extinction through the act of CB1 receptors. Cannabis could help to stimulate CB1 receptors to control excessive neuronal activity. 

In animal studies, this has specifically improved ‘extinction learning’ where traumatic memories are overwritten with new memories. The action of reactivating existing memories from the past, known as reconsolidation, has also been blocked in different rodent behavioural models. In a study from the Brazil’s Federal University of Parana, it appears that low doses of the psychoactive element in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), drive the extinction rate improvements in humans, while CBD can help alleviate potential side effects. 

The eCB system is essential for determining learning and emotional responses via synaptic processes. CBD could therefore be advantageous in the therapeutic treatment of PTSD by causing indirect activation of the eCB system. Interventions could regulate responses related to potentially traumatic experiences and aspects of the disorder. Likewise, the Journal of Young Investigators highlights the system in the protection against PTSD. 

What Does Research Suggest?

To date, there is minimal evidence regarding the use of CBD for PTSD in humans. However, studies have confirmed how CBD may alter aspects of unpleasant memories and promote substantial advances in the symptomatology of PTSD. 

Research indicates that taking CBD immediately after a disturbing event might make it more challenging for the brain to form the memories that might develop later down the line and cause PTSD symptoms. According to Frontiers in Neuroscience, symptoms of PTSD may worsen with a hyperactive amygdala – a part of the brain closely linked to fear responses to threats. CBD may reduce hyperactivity by causing the hippocampus to grow in the brain. 

The form in which CBD is taken may change the effectiveness of the drug. For instance, it can be used as a topical, such as CBD oil, or consumed as an edible like CBD oil gummies. A 2019 study found that taking CBD capsules orally alongside routine counselling resulted in a reduction of PTSD symptoms in adults. In 2018, a literature review suggested that combining CBD with THC may assist in treating PTSD symptoms. Additionally, a 2016 case report found that applying CBD oil to the skin of a child with PTSD effectively treated anxiety and sleeping problems. 

Final Thoughts

The World Health Organization affirms CBD as a non-toxic, safe and addiction-free compound. However, further clinical trials need to be carried out in order to substantiate the effectiveness of CBD in reducing symptoms of PTSD. The amount of evidence is increasing, though, and CBD may be helpful as a pharmacological approach to treating stress and trauma-related psychopathology in addition to healthy lifestyle modifications.

 Preclinical studies have shown positive results of CBD helping to resolve trauma – both immediately and in the long run. In future, we hope to see an overall decrease in PTSD symptom severity. If it’s well-tolerated, then adding CBD into the mix with regular psychiatric care may have a beneficially therapeutic effect for patients with PTSD.

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