Marijuana & PTSD #2: The Science Of Your Brain

Can marijuana help prevent post-traumatic stress? Here’s the science behind how the herb may lend a hand.

May 3, 2016

Cannabis has shown a lot of potential in the treatment of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). Though some states prevent PTSD patients from accessing medical marijuana, others have readily included it in their list of qualifying conditions. Our Marijuana and PTSD series aims to explain how and why this herb may be a useful tool for those with post-traumatic stress. Our first segment in the Marijuana and PTSD series went over how the plant may help you manage symptoms. In this second piece, we’ll discuss how the cannabinoids interact with your brain. Without further ado, here’s Marijuana and PTSD: The Science of your brain.

Your body and post-traumatic stress

Marijuana PTSD 1 6 Year Old Cut From Basketball Team Because His Dad Smelled Like Weed
Photo credit

Your body and brain remember traumatic events. Years after the experience in question, you may find yourself a little fuzzy on the details. Your physical body won’t be. Trauma can physically change the structure and chemistry of your brain. Whether a single traumatic event or a series of continuous assaults, like intense stress and abuse, are shocks that your biological system cannot forget without some extra help.

After experiencing intense trauma, your fight-or-flight response may become significantly more sensitive than before. Your brain will begin to send distress signals at inappropriate times, the moment it even remotely perceives a sign of stress. Things like loud noises, unexpected touch, and confined spaces can trigger fear which leads to a variety of mental and physical ramifications.

Some of these ramifications include:

All of these symptoms can significantly disrupt your life. Even small things like having a jet fly overhead while walking down the street can insight a panic or memory that may take several hours to recover from. Every PTSD patient’s triggers will manifest themselves in different ways. Fortunately, compounds in medical marijuana may be able to extinguish this fear response and help you ease out of a stressful episode.

How is this possible? Recent research has found that the endocannabinoid system contributes to stress regulation. Here are the details.

Do endocannabinoids impact PTSD?

Marijuana PTSD 2 6 Year Old Cut From Basketball Team Because His Dad Smelled Like Weed
Photo credit

The endocannabinoid system plays a significant role in post-traumatic stress. Research from the NYC Langone Medical Center has shown that those with PTSD actually have irregularities in their endocannabinoid levels. Endocannabinoids are the cannabis-like compounds that occur naturally inside our bodies. This finding is the primary reason that some suggest endocannabinoids may become a surefire way to diagnose post-traumatic stress in the future.

PTSD patients have low levels of a particular compound known as anandamide. Anandamide is the chemical that THC replaces. When we smoke or consume marijuana, the primary psychoactive THC connects with the CB1 receptor in the body and brain. Anandamide also interacts with this receptor.

All about anandamide

In the PBS documentary Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan explores the purpose of anandamide in the brain. He explains:

“It didn’t seem adaptive to me to have a drug for forgetting. Memory, we understand, has great survival utility […] But why would forgetting be adaptive? I asked Mechoulam [Raphael Mechoulam, the father of THC] this question, and he said: ‘Well, tell me, do you really want to remember all the faces you saw on the subway in the morning?’

Pollan is the bestselling author of a book by the same name.

According to the Langone study, people with PTSD don’t produce enough anandamide. This greatly disrupts the memory-extinguishing process. In another study, Giovanni Mariscano and a team of researchers tested the trauma-response in mice with blocked CB1 receptors. The mice were subjected to a foot shock and corresponding tone. The research team tested the rodents’ ability to remember or forget this stressful event.

Mice with blocked CB1 receptors not only remembered the foot shock, but they continued to display a fear response to the tone. The researchers also found that levels of endocannabinoids spiked during the memory extinguishing process. When mice were in the act of forgetting the trauma, there was a measurable activation of the CB1 receptor in the brain.

In many ways, anandamide has a vital function in preserving mental health. It’s almost like our body’s built-in mechanism for overcoming day-to-day adversities. In post-traumatic stress, this mechanism seems to be dysfunctional. Compounds in the marijuana plant may prove to be extremely beneficial in balancing out natural endocannabinoid levels, or replacing them when they’re absent.

Psychoactive THC directly interacts with the CB1 receptor. It binds to the cell-site and produces observable effects within minutes after consumption. The second most prevalent cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), also works to increase levels of natural anandamide in your system. As you may already know, CBD is non-psychoactive. CBD prevents the breakdown of the body’s endocannabinoids, improving what’s known as “endocannabinoid tone”.

These are all positive signs of the strong therapeutic potential of marijuana.

Success with synthetic cannabinoids

Marijuana PTSD 3 6 Year Old Cut From Basketball Team Because His Dad Smelled Like Weed
Photo credit

Though many PTSD patients use medical marijuana, cannabis-based treatments for the disorder are still controversial. Fortunately, research with cannabinoid pharmaceuticals has also demonstrated positive results. Back in 2009, scientists tested the efficacy of Nabilone in PTSD patients with treatment-resistant nightmares. Nabilone is a synthetic drug that functions similarly the active compounds in marijuana.

The trial was a success. The study looked at 47 patients that had persistent nightmares that were not responsive to antidepressants or hypnotics. 72% of the patients had a significant reduction in nightmare intensity. 

To return to the Langone study cited earlier, lead author Dr. Alexander Neumeister stressed the urgent need for the development of effective pharmaceuticals for PTSD. He articulates:

“There’s not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD. That’s a problem. There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressant simple do not work. In fact, we know very well that people with PTSD who use marijuana — a potent cannabinoid — often experience more relief from their symptoms than they do from antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. Clearly, there’s a very urgent need to develop novel evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”

Between the success of the Nabilone trials and the recent DEA go-ahead to study medical marijuana in veterans with PTSD, things are looking up for post-traumatic stress patients hoping for more effective treatment.

Can marijuana prevent more trauma?

Marijuana PTSD 4 6 Year Old Cut From Basketball Team Because His Dad Smelled Like Weed
Photo credit

There’s one more surprising benefit to medical cannabis use: marijuana can reduce the impact of a traumatic stress before it starts. A study from the University of Haifa in Israel found that when animal models were exposed to THC directly after a traumatic event, they showed no PTSD symptoms during later tests. The neuroprotective qualities of cannabis actually may help prevent behavioral and emotional response associated with traumatic stress.

While no one can predict when a trauma will occur, this finding may be helpful to those who already have PTSD. For example, you’re probably aware that certain situations increase your likelihood of experiencing a flashback or other type of negative stress response.

If you know ahead of time that you will be put into a stressful situation, it’s possible that consuming medical marijuana prior to the event may help prevent an unwanted reaction. Of course, clinical research in humans is sorely needed to determine whether this would be effective. 

Pretty incredible, right?

When it comes to post-traumatic stress, it’s difficult to make a convincing case against medical marijuana. Though, regardless of the laundry-list of potent medical benefits, use of the plant remains highly debated. In some people, excess THC may increase agitation or trigger an anxiety response.

If you notice that you feel worse after consuming the herb, it may not be the best option for you. As always, consult a medical professional before making changes to your treatment.

Has medical marijuana helped you cope with a traumatic past event? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below.

May 3, 2016