PTSD has a long and tragic relationship with substance abuse.
Often, it’s an attempt at self-medication, which says something profound about our current medical approach to treating trauma.
With opioids and alcohol, it represents an escape through inebriation.
But when it comes to cannabis, it’s very a different story.
PTSD: Neurological Imprinting of the Endocannabinoid System
According to the latest scientific research, people with PTSD uniformly have significantly lower levels of anandamide, one of the body’s natural cannabinoids. Anandamide draws its name from Ananda, a Sanskrit term roughly translating to bliss.
That PTSD lowers the levels of bliss is certainly nothing revolutionary.
But pinning it down to a specific chemical, now we’re getting somewhere interesting. Scientists found that individuals with PTSD had higher levels of CB1, a primary receptor of the brain’s endocannabinoid system – a compensation by the body to try and get as much as possible from what little anandamide there was.
Martin Lee, a researcher with one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of cannabis and PTSD, believes that the experience of trauma creates a powerful imprinting on the nervous system, especially in the amygdala, the brain center of fear and anxiety that is especially rich in CB1 receptors.
The intensity of the imprinting permanently lowers the baseline endocannabinoid levels.
So, knowing this, what can we do to raise the endocannabinoid levels?
How Cannabis Boosts The Endocannabinoid System
In pharmacology, there are generally two ways to boost neurotransmitter signaling:
- Stimulate the receptor with another chemical that is similar in structure.
- Block the destruction or recycling of the neurotransmitter.
It does both.
THC is structurally very similar to anandamide and stimulates the CB1 receptor. So when a person with PTSD ingests THC, their endocannabinoid system lights up in a way that is otherwise very difficult for them to achieve.
CBD, an endocannabinoid with many documented medical benefits, handles the second pathway. It stimulates a whole different set of receptors that help to block the breakdown of anandamide.
A Tool, Not a Cure
It’s clear that cannabis is a powerful tool for treating the symptoms of PTSD. It’s probably the most effective thing we have.
But at the same time, it’s important to make the distinction between treating symptoms and curing the condition itself.
Truly healing PTSD has to address the imprinting itself and that requires a skilled therapist. Cannabis can help an individual become functional again. It can help them integrate back into society. It can get them back to a place of balance, which is more than any other treatment has done so far.
But healing the trauma requires a well-rounded approach. And while cannabis is a powerful tool to help that process, it is not the sole solution.