It’s Veterans Day—a time for every American to reflect on what it means to serve your fellow countrymen. No matter what your political affiliations, we all need to acknowledge that brave men and women have risked their lives for this country and our freedom. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice. They’ve deserve our honor, our respect, and our eternal gratitude.
Coincidentally, it’s also #WeedWeek, making this the perfect time to reflect on the interesting relationship between cannabis and veterans. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a psychiatric condition that sometimes follows witnessing or experiencing extremely distressing episodes, such as wartime conflict or sexual trauma. Many survivors of these episodes return to normal given a little time. However, some will have anxious and stressful reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time. PTSD sufferers often relive these experiences, either in their dreams or when triggered by some event in everyday life. They may have difficulty sleeping. They may feel detached or estranged from their loved ones. Many feel alienated by the normality of everyday life.
But here’s the interesting thing: cannabis and PTSD are intimately linked. To explain this, let’s take one step back.
The cannabinoid system in humans regulates homeostasis at every level of biological life. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. Dr. R. Mechoulam, the Israeli scientist who spearheaded cannabis research in the 1960s, found that ingesting the cannabis plant triggers this system.
The cannabinoid system is implicitly involved in memory--notably, memory extinction, which is the process of removing associations from stimuli. You can think about it in negative-Pavlovian terms: an animal which has been administered an electric shock after a certain noise will eventually forget about the shock after the noise appears alone for a few days. For reference, rodents without cannabinoid systems simply never forget - they continue to cringe at the noise indefinitely.
This has major implications for PTSD sufferers. These individuals respond to stimuli that reminds them of their initial trauma, even when it is no longer appropriate. By aiding in memory extinction, cannabis helps patients reduce their association between stimuli and the traumatic situations in their past.
Cannabis as treatment for this disorder has become popular in the past few decades as studies have found that nearly 1 in 5 soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD to some degree. However, it’s important to note that while there is a lot of self-administering going on, it’s highly advisable to consult a doctor or medical professional if someone is suffering from PTSD, as certain strains of cannabis can be better than others for this condition. For example, some high THC cannabis strains might actually aggravate the anxiety, whereas a more CBD-heavy strain may be more effective in counteracting the anxiety.
It’s also important to note that cannabis is no panacea. Studies have found that cannabis is a good short term solution, but over time, the brain may become less sensitive to the THC, requiring higher and higher doses. This may bring on unwanted side effects.
The most successful case studies of cannabis treatment of PTSD have combined it with other forms of therapy for a long term, lasting solution.
While more research is certainly warranted, treating PTSD is another great reason for medical cannabis to be made available in all 50 of the States these brave men and women have fought so hard for.