Can veterans benefit from cannabis?

Remembrance Day is upon us. This is a time of year to recognize the extraordinary service of our country’s veterans and active members of the military, and to thank them for the sacrifices they make. 

It’s also an opportunity to recognize how often veterans struggle after they return to civilian life. Statistics vary, but it’s estimated that between 10-20% of veterans develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while serving[*,*], and a significant number of veterans come home facing pain, anxiety, depression, and other conditions as a result of military service. 

If you’re a veteran reading this and you’re struggling with your mental health, you can talk to a professional now through Veteran Affairs Canada, at no cost. 

Since legalization, many veterans are also turning to cannabis for a variety of symptoms, ranging from pain to anxiety to PTSD[*], and a rapidly growing number of veterans seem to be trading opiate painkillers and tranquilizers for medical cannabis prescriptions[*]. 

All this begs the question: can veterans benefit from medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis for PTSD

Many people with PTSD have much lower activity in their endocannabinoid system — the system in your brain that cannabis activates[*]. 

Specifically, PTSD lowers anandamide, the “bliss and joy cannabinoid” that your body makes on its own. Anandamide improves mood and reduces fear[*], and it lights up many of the same pathways in your brain that THC does. People with PTSD have significantly lower levels of anandamide, and decreased cannabinoid activity overall [*].

Basically, it seems that PTSD can partially turn off your brain’s cannabinoid system. Researchers suspect that by activating those cannabinoid pathways with cannabis, patients may find relief from their PTSD symptoms. 

And while there’s still a lot of research to do, the first few human studies on cannabis for PTSD are hopeful.

  • In one study, patients showed a 75% reduction in PTSD symptoms when using cannabis, compared to when they didn’t use cannabis[*]. Severity of symptoms was scored using a clinician-administered inventory for PTSD. 
  • CBD helped people get rid of conditioned fear responses — one of the main symptoms of PTSD — and the authors concluded that CBD is a promising treatment for anxiety and trauma-related disorders[*]. 
  • Nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid available with a prescription, may be good for PTSD-related nightmares. In one study, soldiers with PTSD who had recurring nightmares took nabilone daily. The majority of them had a significant decrease in nightmare frequency and intensity[*]. 
  • Several case studies have found that people with PTSD experienced anxiety relief and better sleep when they took CBD[*,*]. 

CBD in particular shows promise when it comes to PTSD and anxiety[*]. THC is also promising, but in some people it can worsen anxiety and paranoia, two symptoms of PTSD. 

That said, taking THC and CBD together may give you the best of both worlds. CBD can block some of the negative side effects of THC thanks to the Entourage Effect — cannabinoids seem to interact with each other, working together to enhance benefits and avoid downsides. 

If you’re a veteran (or a non-veteran) grappling with PTSD, you may want to talk to a healthcare professional about medical cannabis. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment when it comes to PTSD, but for many veterans, medical cannabis may help to provide relief [*].

Cannabis for pain, sleep, and anxiety

Many veterans don’t have PTSD but still struggle with other mental and physical health issues [*]. Chronic pain (often from combat injuries), insomnia, and general anxiety are all common among veterans[*]. 

In these cases, cannabis may help too. Cannabis can be good for:

  • Pain relief. Research shows that both THC and CBD are good options for managing pain, and that they lack the serious side effects of opiate painkillers[*,*]. Since the legalization of cannabis, opiate prescriptions have declined rapidly and cannabis prescriptions have increased in near-equal measure, suggesting that switching to cannabis may help to manage pain[*]. 
  • Better sleep. Medical cannabis may also help with sleep. THC helps with falling asleep faster, although some studies suggest that it may decrease sleep quality if you use it regularly long-term[*].  CBD, however, increases both sleep duration and quality without obvious side effects, and can also relieve daytime sleepiness[*,*].
  • Relaxation. Cannabis promotes relaxation, which may support veterans dealing with anxiety. Several studies have found that CBD provides relief to people with both general anxiety and chronic stress[*]. THC and whole-plant cannabis may be helpful as well — in one study, patients with anxiety were given cannabis, then asked to rate how much it reduced their anxiety on a scale of 1 (not effective) to 10 (extremely effective). On average, they rated it an 8.03[*]. 

Can cannabis help veterans?

If you’re a veteran dealing with PTSD or another chronic health issue, talk to a doctor about your symptoms. Help is available, including up to 20 hours of free counseling with a professional through the Veteran Affairs Committee. 

You may also want to consider talking to a health professional about medical cannabis. You can book an online cannabis consultation from the comfort of your home, and can also have medical cannabis delivered to your door if you get a valid prescription. 

And to all of Canada’s veterans and active military members: thank you for your service, and for everything that you do (and have done) to keep our country safe.

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