Can CBD Be Used to Treat and Prevent PTSD?

UPDATED ON MARCH 8TH, 2019

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder which has symptoms including anxiety, anger, depression, irritability, sleep problems, and sadness. According to the National Insitute of Mental Health, about 8% of people in the United States get PTSD at some point throughout their life.

PTSD can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a serious accident to them or someone else, a terrorist act, war, combat, rape or other violent personal assault, a childhood trauma, or a natural disaster. These events can include mugging, kidnapping, a car accident, a plane crash, a physical attack. People often times feel symptoms of PTSD by starting out with feeling stressed and in danger when no real threat exists. They start to lose interest in wanting to go out and stay away from places or events that remind them of the traumatic experience. It is also common for people to experience feelings of numbness, guilt, being easily startled, feeling tense, having problems sleeping, and experiencing angry outbursts.

Treatment for PTSD often involves medications which come with a variety of risks and unpleasant side effects. In studies, CBD has shown to be very effective in lessening the emotional impacts of traumatic events and help patients who suffer from PTSD. Cannabinoids are effective at allowing patients to experience less anxiety and fear, along with improving their sleep. 

Current Treatments

Most commonly, PTSD is treated with both therapy and medications. The therapy portion often includes talking about the experience, and then slowly exposing patients to situations that are triggers, or remind the patient of the experience. This is done slowly, and in a safe way with the intent to restructure the way that person thinks about these triggers and make sense of bad memories. The end goal is to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the triggers.

Antidepressant medications are often prescribed as part of PTSD treatment. These medications are meant to help patients with feelings of sadness, anger, worry, and numbness. PTSD is most common in war veterans, who often experience uncontrollable anxiety and flashbacks of experiences during war. Antidepressant medications can help with the feeling of anxiety and stress. They do not prevent the trigger or the feeling associated with that trigger.

Unfortunately, antidepressant medications also come with side effects such as headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, drowsiness, agitation, sexual problems, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Additional medications are often prescribed to help treat the side effects. 

Is CBD a Better Option in Treating PTSD?

CBD is able to interact with the endocannabinoid system which is responsible for maintaining emotional homeostasis and regulating memory. The regulation of memory includes storing memories, consolidating them, and retrieving them. Cannabinoids are able to block the continuous retrieval of the traumatic event which reduces the association with anxiety that PTSD sufferers experience. This effect CBD has on memory retrieval allows for PTSD patients to manage the re-experience of feelings, the feeling of needing to avoid triggers, and of feeling numb. It helps prevent the brain from retrieving the underlying trauma and prevents traumatic memories and nightmares from occurring. As times goes on, a PTSD patient will have less retrieval of the trauma, fewer memories of the trauma, as well as fewer triggers, and therefore their emotional well-being becomes more stabilized.

The NYU Langone Medical Center conducted research with people suffering from PTSD. They found that PTSD patients have much lower levels of anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain. Anandamide is responsible for stimulating the endocannabinoid system. When the endocannabinoid system is stimulated by anandamide, the response reflects positively in people’s mood. 

When CBD is taken, it also acts on the cannabinoid receptors and can help turn off traumatic memories. This allows people to stop paying attention to them. When there is a lack of endocannabinoids such as anandamide, a person can experience symptoms of PTSD such as fear and anxiety. One could say that anandamides act as a natural antidepressant and can also impair memory. Antidepressant medications are not capable of doing this. They treat the symptoms rather than fix the cause.

Unlike antidepressant medications, evidence suggests that CBD has the ability to go beyond just temporary relief. CBD has shown to potentially dampen the strength and emotional impact of the traumatic memories PTSD patients experience. Furthermore, when CBD has been administered shortly after the exposure to an intensely stressful event, it has proved to help prevent patients from developing PTSD-like symptoms. For these reasons, this has made CBD a popular treatment for PTSD patients.