Emerging research suggests that CBD could be a safe, effective way to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. It may even help sufferers overcome the traumatic fears and memories that lie at the heart of the condition.
Gleb OleinikUpdated on March 22, 2023
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Evidence Based 20 references
Checked for Accuracy
Ana Luiza Dias, Ph.D.
Strength of Evidence
Early human research confirms the positive findings of animal studies of CBD for PTSD.
CBD may significantly improve PTSD symptoms.
CBD may improve the symptoms of PTSD and help sufferers let go of the underlying fears and memories. However, high-quality studies are needed to confirm CBD’s benefits.
Standard healthcare medications for PTSD are often ineffective and can cause significant side effects. That’s why many sufferers turn to alternative, natural options such as CBD oil.
Early research shows that CBD can improve PTSD symptoms, particularly those related to anxiety, sleeping problems, and depression.
More importantly, growing evidence suggests that CBD can tackle PTSD directly by helping sufferers let go of the conditioned fear responses they’ve developed as a result of trauma.
Here’s a look at the research on CBD for PTSD, the best way to use it, side effects, and more.
PTSD is a mental condition that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a serious accident, sexual assault, or child abuse. While it’s often associated with the military and veterans, anyone can come across PTSD in their lives.
It’s characterized by nightmares, severe anxiety, negative changes in mood and behavior, and unwanted flashbacks and thoughts about the traumatic event.
Although it’s normal to experience these issues and take some time to adjust after a traumatic event, for PTSD patients, the symptoms persist for months or years. Researchers believe this is due to poor adaptation to trauma.
PTSD can happen after a single event or prolonged exposure to trauma, such as in the case of child abuse. It’s estimated to affect about 3% of adults, although as many as 9% may experience PTSD during their lives. ¹
PTSD can produce a wide range of mental symptoms that make it difficult to live your daily life. These symptoms are grouped into four areas:
Intrusions, such as recurrent memories, dreams, and flashbacks related to the event
Avoidance, such as avoiding thinking about the event and activities or situations that remind you of it
Negative changes in thinking/mood, such as negative thoughts and depressive symptoms, memory issues, feeling detached, and inability to feel positive emotions
Changes in reactions, such as irritability, angry outbursts, reckless behavior, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and always feeling on guard for danger
These symptoms typically begin within one month of the traumatic event but can also take a few years to appear.
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Researchers are optimistic about CBD’s potential to treat PTSD and other anxiety and trauma-related disorders.
CBD has several beneficial properties that can help with PTSD, including anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing), antidepressant, and sedative effects. ² This may help alleviate PTSD symptoms related to anxiety, negative mood, and difficulty sleeping.
More importantly, CBD may counteract what’s called learned fear, which develops after being exposed to negative stimuli. This plays a major role in PTSD as fear learned in traumatic situations becomes triggered during seemingly normal and safe settings.
Studies suggest that CBD can reduce learned fear in several ways. ³ First off, it can make it more difficult to acquire the memory of a traumatic event. Second, it can reduce the reconsolidation of traumatic memories.
The most promising mechanism, however, is something called fear extinction — the process of letting go of learned fear.
Fear extinction helps PTSD sufferers reduce and ultimately eliminate the negative fear responses they experience in seemingly safe situations and is already the focus of existing, evidence-based psychotherapies.
Consistent with these findings, multiple animal studies have found that cannabinoids such as CBD can improve PTSD symptoms and may even make it harder to acquire negative memories of a traumatic event when used immediately after it happens. ⁴
The Endocannabinoid System and PTSD
Researchers believe that CBD’s potential PTSD benefits mainly come from its interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).
This system is composed of three parts: endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors (CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors), and enzymes. Its job is to keep your body in an optimal state of balance called homeostasis. ⁵
To do so, the ECS regulates key processes, including those related to PTSD: anxiety, mood, stress, memory, sleep, fear, and others. ⁶
Unsurprisingly, there’s growing evidence for the involvement of the ECS in many mental disorders.
In particular, researchers believe that chronic stress and trauma may have long-lasting negative effects on the ECS, playing a critical role in the development of PTSD and other mental disorders. ⁷
For example, one study found that people who developed PTSD as a result of the World Trade Center attacks had lower levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG than those who didn’t. ⁸
The study also reported that intrusion-type PTSD symptoms were stronger in people with lower concentrations of anandamide, another endocannabinoid.
Another reason the ECS holds so much promise for PTSD treatment is that it may influence how we acquire and retain bad memories. Existing PTSD medications don’t target this process, despite growing evidence for its role in the condition. ⁹
Taken together, these findings may explain why PTSD sufferers are more likely to smoke cannabis, which contains CBD and other cannabinoids. ¹⁰
How CBD Works
Rather than targeting cannabinoid receptors directly — which can produce unwanted side effects — CBD reduces the breakdown of anandamide, one of the two main endocannabinoids produced by the body. ¹¹
CBD also interacts with other molecules outside the endocannabinoid system. Out of these, the most relevant one is the serotonin 5HT1A receptor, whose activation by CBD can improve anxiety, stress, fear conditioning, and other cognitive processes involved in PTSD. ¹²
Research has also shown that CBD affects two specific parts of the brain involved in the condition:
The hippocampus, which processes memories and can shrink in people with PTSD. CBD may promote neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) in the hippocampus. ¹³
The amygdala, which processes fear and other emotions. CBD may reduce amygdala hyperactivity that’s involved in PTSD. ¹⁴
Still, more studies are needed to fully understand how CBD works to help with PTSD.
What Does the Research Say?
Although PTSD is a relatively new area of CBD research, the findings are promising.
One 2019 study looked at the effects of CBD in 11 adults with PTSD. They were given CBD capsules or sprays alongside standard psychiatric treatment for 8 weeks. PTSD symptoms significantly improved (by an average of 28%) in ten (91%) of the patients. ¹⁵
Meanwhile, a 2016 case report discussed a ten-year-old girl with PTSD from child abuse who couldn’t find relief from standard medication. She was given CBD capsules and later CBD oil regularly for 5 months, resulting in decreased anxiety and improved sleep. ¹⁶
Another 2013 randomized controlled trial tested the effects of CBD on the process of fear extinction, which plays an important role in PTSD. A total of 48 people underwent a fear conditioning test and were split into 3 groups: placebo, 32 mg of vaped CBD before fear extinction, and 32 mg after extinction. Fearful responses were reduced in both CBD groups, and the post-treatment group also saw an improvement of fear extinction. ¹⁷
All in all, while more high-quality studies are needed, the current evidence suggests that CBD could be a novel treatment for PTSD. It’s worth mentioning that there have been a number of studies concerning medical marijuana and PTSD with significant evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may also be able to help.
Using CBD for PTSD
CBD can be used in many ways and comes in many product forms.
We recommend using CBD oil because it’s absorbed well by the body, has relatively long-lasting effects, and is more cost-effective than other CBD products. CBD oil should be taken daily for chronic, difficult-to-treat conditions such as PTSD.
CBD can also be vaped, which is ideal when you prefer immediate symptom relief at the cost of shorter-lasting effects. Meanwhile, CBD capsules are the least effective option due to their low absorption, although many people prefer their convenience. ¹⁸
We also recommend opting for CBD products made with full-spectrum hemp extract. This whole-plant extract provides not just CBD but all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other beneficial natural compounds found in hemp.
By working together synergistically, these compounds boost the beneficial effects of CBD, making full-spectrum products more effective than CBD on its own. Researchers call this the cannabis entourage effect. ¹⁹
How Much CBD Should I Take for PTSD?
There’s too little research to suggest a dosage of CBD for PTSD. Besides, everyone’s ideal dosage is different, depending on how much you weigh, your genetics, and the type of CBD product you’re taking.
As such, health experts recommend the “start low and go slow” approach to dosing CBD and other cannabinoids. ²⁰
You should start with a small amount of CBD (10-15 mg) and wait a few hours to see how it affects you. Then, slowly raise the dosage over a few days or weeks until you find the amount that provides you with the desired relief.
Are There Any Side Effects?
Research has shown that CBD is a safe substance with minimal side effects. The most common ones include:
Tiredness and drowsiness
Diarrhea and nausea
Low blood pressure
Changes in appetite or weight
These side effects are usually minor and happen when you take large oral doses of pure CBD.
Most people don’t report them when they take smaller doses, use CBD oil rather than capsules and other oral products, and choose full-spectrum preparations over those made with pure CBD.
Although more rigorous clinical studies are needed, CBD is one of the most promising new treatment options for PTSD.
Animal and early human research suggest that far from only relieving PTSD symptoms, CBD may help target the condition at its core by helping sufferers get over learned fears and negative memories.
Better yet, CBD is a safe, natural substance with few and minor side effects.
You can try CBD for PTSD in many forms – even by growing your own with the help of ILGM or Growers Choice Seeds, but the best overall option is full-spectrum CBD oil. Be sure to start with a small dose and gradually increase it over time to find your optimal dosage.
Gleb Oleinik is a freelance CBD & cannabis writer from Vancouver, Canada. He’s read thousands of studies about cannabinoids and other beneficial natural compounds, helping him translate complex science into plain language. He’s also written third-party lab test reports of CBD products and knows the industry inside and out. When he’s not writing, Gleb likes to spend his time in the gym and out in nature.