What is PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that occurs after a person has experienced a scary, shocking, or dangerous event. It’s totally normal for someone to feel fear whenever they find themselves in a hazardous situation. That feeling of fear is what triggers a human’s natural fight-or-flight response, or their immediate decision in the face of danger to run away or stay and fight. This reaction is deeply embedded in humans and has been an important part of survival for thousands of years. What triggers concern for PTSD is what occurs after a traumatic event takes place.
Immediately after the event, almost everyone will experience some sort of emotional response, yet most will naturally recover from those feelings on their own over time. The people who are unable to rebound from those devastating feelings, however, may find themselves experiencing long-term emotional problems and ultimately find themselves diagnosed with PTSD. Those who suffer from PTSD often find themselves feeling stressed or frightened over the course of a normal day, when there is no actual danger presenting itself to them. Or they could be easily triggered by things that are seemingly unrelated to the previous trauma, or very closely related. This can obviously have debilitating results on a person’s ability to lead a comfortable life.
Signs and Symptoms
Anyone can suffer from PTSD after a traumatic event and it’s important to look for the signs if PTSD is suspected. It’s also crucial to realize that a person doesn’t have to suffer from a dangerous event to be susceptible to PTSD. Events like the unexpected death of a loved one can also cause someone to experience short-term or long-term PTSD. Some common symptoms of PTSD are:
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
- Staying away from things that are reminders of the traumatic event
- Avoiding thoughts related to the traumatic event
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about the world or oneself
- Distorted feelings of guilt
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Symptoms of PTSD usually begin within a few months of the bad event, but occasionally the symptoms won’t present themselves for years, surprising a person with emotions they didn’t know were sitting dormant. In general, the symptoms must last more than a month and be distracting enough to interfere with daily life for the condition to be considered post-traumatic stress disorder. Most people recover from PTSD within 6 months or so, however some may find themselves suffering for much longer. When that happens, PTSD is considered chronic and extended treatment options should be explored.
Anyone can experience PTSD at any age, including children. It’s found in people who are veterans of war, and those who have been through physical assault, abuse, accidents, or disasters. In fact, about 7-8% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives . It is a condition that can take over a person’s life and cause extended periods of distress and emotional turbulence. Finding relief for this condition is an important endeavour. Recently, scientists have been exploring how the body handles PTSD and what chemical processes might be involved. That has led them to dig deeper into the physiology of the endocannabinoid system.
The Endocannabinoid System
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is an important part of the human body. It’s responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis and managing the processes that go along with that. If some sort of disruption is introduced in the body, the ECS will activate and control the situation to make sure all systems it controls remain at an optimal level. This is an important function of human physiology. All the internal systems need to be in a state of equilibrium to work effectively.
There are three primary elements that make up the endocannabinoid system:
- Endocannabinoids: These are compounds that are naturally produced by the body, but are very similar to the chemical compounds in cannabis, like CBD.
- Cannabinoid Receptors: These receptors are found on the surface of cells throughout the body. The endocannabinoids the body produces, and any cannabinoids ingested will bind to these receptors. The action of binding allows them to communicate with different systems in the body, helping the ECS maintain an equilibrium in each of the specific systems.
- Enzymes: After the endocannabinoids attach themselves to the cannabinoid receptors and the ECS has achieved stabilization in the body, enzymes start breaking down the endocannabinoids to avoid a possible overcorrection. Each type of endocannabinoid has a specific enzyme that works at breaking it down effectively.
One of the endocannabinoids produced naturally by the human body is anandamide. This compound is also known as the “bliss molecule” because of its ability to cause humans to feel euphoric for short periods of time while it’s activated. It is only a short-term molecule, however, because quickly after it has been activated, it is broken down by a fatty enzyme that is released at the same time as the anandamide. However, as scientists have found, if that enzyme isn’t activated, it won’t be able to attach itself to anandamide and would obviously be unable to remove the “bliss molecule” from doing its work. This means humans could potentially be able to feel good for longer periods of time.
The study mentioned above concluded that anandamide plays a role in the human process of fear extinction, which is what helps our brains forget trauma . To support this, researchers decided to investigate what would happen if anandamide was restricted in test subjects. They found a chemical that reduced production of anandamide enough to test what would happen when the naturally-occurring cannabinoid was depleted dramatically. The researchers then tested behavior in mice with normal levels of anandamide and in those with reduced levels. They noticed that mice with restricted levels of anandamide experienced much more stress than the mice with normal levels of the endocannabinoid. The mice with lower anandamide levels also held onto their conditioned fear for much, much longer than the mice with normal levels.
This discovery itself is very specific, but also very important as it is the first study to explore the idea that reducing anandamide levels has a negative effect on emotional behavior. It also provides some insight into how PTSD develops, possibly because people who are susceptible to it do not produce enough anandamide to keep their emotions balanced, especially in regards to trauma. It would also suggest why people with severe PTSD experience such visceral flashbacks; they lack the correct molecular balance to forget those memories.
CBD and PTSD
Since endocannabinoids and cannabinoids from cannabis plants are so similar chemically, it’s possible for cannabinoids like CBD to attach themselves to the receptors in the same way the naturally occurring endocannabinoids do. CBD has the ability to bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Once attached, CBD acts as an antagonist, or blocker, binding to receptors and dampening their signals.
When cannabinoids are introduced to the CB1 and CB2 receptors they prompt the system to produce neurotransmitters that help promote happiness and memory. For example, CBD works to inhibit the FAAH enzyme which specifically breaks down anandamide. Since anandamide produces a calming, or euphoric feeling, keeping the enzyme from destroying this compound produces a naturally therapeutic effect that should be felt immediately and have lasting therapeutic benefits .
Along those same lines is the idea that CBD will increase the amount of time anandamide stays active at increased levels in an attempt to help those suffering from PTSD have some relief from their chronic emotional distress. The theory is if the anandamide levels in a person with PTSD are increased, the likelihood of them experiencing the benefits of that cannabinoid should be enough to help them recover from their PTSD symptoms. Research has found that the cannabinoids help those with PTSD by preventing traumatic memories and nightmares, while also helping boost emotional wellbeing .
Along with most other therapeutic uses for CBD, it is a new area being heavily studied and every day we’re seeing new information released to the public. While the research is still relatively new, the possibilities are exciting and are giving those suffering from PTSD optimism for their future.