The Mind-Body Connection: PTSD, Autoimmune Disease and Cannabis

An autoimmune disease is defined as “a disease resulting from a disordered immune reaction in which antibodies are produced against one’s own tissues”. There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, some of the most well-known being lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis. There are a variety of reasons why a person might develop an autoimmune disease, but a study conducted by Joseph A. Boscarino of The New York Academy of Medicine indicates that individuals who suffer from PTSD have an increased risk of doing so. This means that many of our veterans are not only having to deal with PTSD when they return from serving, but are also developing autoimmune diseases that have a huge impact on their day to day lives.

How exactly does a psychological disorder increase someone’s risk of developing a physical disease?

Many of the symptoms of PTSD, while caused by emotional trauma, actually put physical stress on the body. Take for example someone who experiences severe anxiety as part of their PTSD—this individual likely not only feels emotionally anxious, but they may also have an increased heart rate, jitters, trouble sleeping, or lack of appetite.

“…evidence indicates that exposure to severe environmental stressors and subsequent development of PTSD may be related to altered neuroendocrine and immune system functions and the onset of specific immunoendocrine-related diseases. In particular, given the reduced cortisol levels often found among PTSD victims, it has been suggested that a downregulated glucocorticoid system may result in elevations in leukocyte and other immune inflammatory activities. Currently, glucocorticoids are known to influence the trafficking of circulating leukocytes and affect functions of leukocyte and immune accessory cells. Recently, it became evident that the HPA stress axis, and the adrenal gland in particular, is a major site of both the synthesis and the action of numerous cytokines. It has been suggested that in addition to cytokine-mediated activation of adrenal regulation, there are cytokine-independent cell-mediated immune-adrenal interactions and that this immune-endocrine crosstalk is implicated in adrenal dysfunction and disease. Although complex physiologic processes seem to be involved with the stress-disease pathogenic process, one pathway often cited involves long-term alterations in the HPA stress axis together with the sympathetic-adrenomedullary (SAM) stress axis” (Boscarino).

Living on High Alert

Interestingly, there are a great deal of parallels between autoimmune diseases and PTSD. When someone has an autoimmune disease their immune system is hyperactive, literally attacking healthy cells of their body because they wrongly perceive them as a threat. Individuals with PTSD are often hyper vigilant to threat and sometimes neutral events are perceived by them as dangerous. In each case, either the body or the mind is operating at a heightened level of stress. Those who live with an autoimmune disease know that stress is one of the leading causes of flare ups—so wouldn’t it make sense that PTSD, which places the individual in a prolonged, heightened state of stress could actually cause a physical reaction in the immune system? We’re quick to separate our emotional health from our physical health, but this connection between PTSD and autoimmune disease should show us that the two are invariably linked.

Now, where does medical cannabis come into play with all of this?

I won’t say that cannabis is some “magic snake oil” that will solve all these problems, but there are many reasons why it should be considered a viable treatment option for a variety of autoimmune diseases. Two of the main issues with autoimmune disease are immunosuppression and inflammation—cannabis can be helpful with both. To start, THC (one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis) is an agonist of the CB2 receptor. Our CB2 is the receptor in our endocannbinoid system responsible for the cells of our immune system, whereas our CB1 receptor is responsible for our brain and neuron activity. THC being an agonist of the CB2 receptor is extremely beneficial for individuals with overactive immune systems, because it will actually suppress the immune system. (Other cannabinoids that are lesser agonists of the CB2 receptor include CBD, CBN, THCa, and THCV.) Cannabis can also help with systemic inflammation throughout the body in a similar fashion—essentially you’re looking for cannabinoids that are anti-inflammatory and agonists of the CB2 receptor, like THCa and CBD. β Caryophyllene, the only terpene known to interact with the endocannabinoid system (specifically the CB2 receptor), is also found in certain strains of cannabis and is anti-inflammatory. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, β Caryophyllene helps our endocannabinoid system absorb cannabinoids—so taking something high in β Caryophyllene will actually help your body better receive the THC, CBD, CBN, THCa, and THCV that it needs.

Which medical cannabis products can help with the symptoms of autoimmune disease?

Depending on your particular autoimmune disease, there are a variety of ways to get what you need from medical cannabis. If you have IBS or Crohn’s, you might want to try taking it as either an edible or a suppository, since the majority of your inflammation is occurring in your intestines. Patients with lupus or multiple sclerosis might prefer to vaporize their medicine or take a tincture, so as to get the medicine into their bloodstream faster to help with full body symptoms. An excellent option for any condition is Mary’s Medicinals line of transdermal patches—they come in THC (both Indica and Sativa), CBD, THCa, and CBN. The great thing about transdermal patches is that 100% of the medicine goes directly into your bloodstream, since you place the patch on the veinous portion of either your wrist or ankle. When you smoke, vaporize, or take your cannabis orally you lose a small percentage of your medicine to your body processing it before it gets into your bloodstream. Mary’s Medicinals transdermal patches time release over 12 hours, which makes them great for getting consistent relief throughout the day. Depending on your particular needs, you can always combine different patches to get the specific cannabinoids you’re looking for. The time released dosage also means that these patches are non-psychoactive, allowing you to use them as a daytime medicating option.

Just like with any other condition you would use medical cannabis for, there can be a lot of trial and error involved to find the right combination of products for your autoimmune disease. At The Higher Path, we’re here to help guide you through that process. Not sure where to start? Tried a bunch of things and nothing seems to work? Come talk to us. If we don’t have the answer, we’ll work with you to find it.

(1) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Physical Illness: Results from Clinical and Epidemiologic Studies
(2) SC Labs: Learn Cannabinoids
(3) SC Labs: Learn Terpenes
(4) Effects of Cannabinoids on T-cell Function and Resistance to Infection

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