What is PTSD?
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects around 12 million American men and women. It is a condition of persistent anxiety and flashbacks resulting from a traumatic or life-threatening situation. Although the term PTSD wasn’t coined until the ‘70s or added to the official DSM until 1980, its symptoms have been described for centuries. Originally known as ‘shell shock’ during the world wars, the symptoms occur after some time has passed since the initial fear-producing trauma; weeks for some, years for others.
PTSD symptoms, by their nature, can be triggered by environmental stimuli such as the sound of a car crash or of a firing gun. This hypersensitivity to certain alarming events is a notable diagnostic feature of PTSD.
With modern medical imaging, doctors and researchers are able to scan the brains of individuals with PTSD and compare their resting brain to both their brain undergoing a normal level of fear and their brain during a PTSD flashback triggered by something related to the initial trauma. What this reveals is a different chemical response to the two different stimuli; the entire chemical tone of the brain is thrown out of whack, and it leads to the inordinate excitation of the amygdala, which is the fear center of our brain that decides within milliseconds whether a stimulus is life-threatening.
During repeated high-stress situations, such as war or sexual assault, we develop a pseudo-tolerance to the fear response produced by the amygdala. This allows us to deal with our fearful stimulus in the moment without being paralyzed by anxiety. However, this redesigns how the brain responds to fear. When we are thrown back into “ordinary” life, the tolerance wears off and we’re left with a hyperactive amygdala that struggles to differentiate between past and present, and between threatening and nonthreatening.
How is the endocannabinoid system involved?
Due to the connection between PTSD and long-term memory, the endocannabinoid system and the retrograde signalling that it facilitates are closely involved in the ramping-up of the initial fear response that trains the amygdala to become hyperactive. Trauma and high-stress situations cause a rapid boost in adrenaline. While this neurotransmitter produces motivation and drive after a normal release, it gets released in massive quantities during a period of shock or trauma.
This has an excitatory effect on much of the brain, including the motor cortex and the hippocampus, which stores long-term memories. It induces the fight-or-flight response, which is when our brain quickly chooses to either stand ground and fight a threat or to run and hide, based on perceived severity. When this response is repeatedly produced over a short period of time, the high adrenaline levels have the effect of suppressing the function of cortisol, which is the hormone that “levels you out” after a severe shock scenario.
People with PTSD share the common trait of chronically low baseline cortisol levels, even years after their trauma. This allows resting stress and anxiety to become elevated as the role of cortisol is to keep them suppressed.
Furthermore, serotonin levels are tightly modulated by the tone of the rest of the hormones in the brain; cortisol works by causing the production of serotonin in the amygdala and thalamus, suppressing fear and anxiety. With lowered base cortisol levels, serotonin levels fall as well, another defining characteristic of clinical depression and anxiety.
How can CBD help?
Thousands of men and women who suffer from PTSD have found relief and clarity with CBD products. CBD’s ability to naturally increase the rate of serotonin production and simultaneously bind with serotonin receptors overrides the decreased presence of cortisol. Of all of the disorders of the brain that produce anxiety- and depression-related conditions, the majority have the end result of reduced serotonin activity; CBD is able to relieve many of these conditions with near-pharmaceutical efficacy.
CBD also modulates the endocannabinoid system, to a lesser degree. Via retrograde signalling, or signalling in reverse, the endocannabinoid system completes the positive and negative feedback loops in many of our body’s systems, including the brain. Over stimulation of adrenaline has the effect of increasing the endocannabinoid production in those neurons, which then allows the positive increase in adrenaline production that causes hypersensitivity to adrenaline.
CBD is able to block presynaptic endocannabinoid receptors from receiving the endocannabinoid signal telling the cell to ramp up adrenaline production, which reduces the presence of adrenaline in the brain. In this way, it can naturally correct the imbalance caused by the initial trauma; after all, it’s just chemicals in our brain.