To date, there are 2.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of whom have served multiple deployments, and return home to face the struggle of re-adjusting to their old lives. Doing the things that were sources of hope during battle, like being with family, going to the grocery store, watching tv, going for a walk, the things they reached for when the fight was hardest, have become a struggle instead.
For some, the scars are physical, but for many combat vets the return home brings with it long-lasting psychological trauma.
It has been estimated that more than half a million veterans struggle with the effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Defined by the American Psychiatric Association as an anxiety disorder triggered by an extremely stressful or traumatic event, sufferers continually re-experience their trauma, even years after it occurred. Vivid memories, auditory hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares disrupt their lives on a daily basis. Twenty-two percent of veterans commit suicide everyday–a frightening statistic, even more so when you learn it is only an estimate. (Cannabis Now; 2015)
Facing an overwhelming sense of fear and alienation, feeling disconnected from their friends and family, combat vets find themselves stuck, unable to relax to life outside the battlefield. Panic attacks, shortness of breath, a fear of being closed in, depression, and, unfortunately, violent outbursts are all too common. An array of treatment options is not. As a condition, the first case of PTSD was not treated until 1980, and because of this the research is limited.
What has been made clear though, is that along with flashbacks, and unwanted memories, nightmares are one of the most common ways sufferers relive their trauma. Waking up feeling stressed and exhausted, returning combat soldiers spend their days agitated and anxious, in a constant state of combat readiness.
There are five stages of sleep. Stages 1 through 4, and a stage called rapid eye movement sleep, or REM. Each stage is progressively deeper and the complete cycle is repeated several times during the night. When awakened during REM sleep, subjects report dreaming. Why we dream during sleep is still unknown, there are many theories, but nothing definitive.
What someone with PTSD needs most is to sleep, a chance to rest, but more often than not, they can’t do so. Dreams bring back harsh memories and often times, Veterans with PTSD are reliving the horrors of battle during the time that should be resting softly. Medication used to help patients sleep offer more sleep, but without the restfulness, and often accompanied by harsh side effects.
But what do know about cannabis and its effects on sleep?
Unfortunately, not much. Most of the research on cannabis and sleep was conducted in the 1970s. But what was found, and has continued to be reported amongst users, is that cannabis, even in low doses, reduced time spent in REM sleep. Cannabinoids, compounds active in cannabis, have been found to mimic chemicals found naturally in the brain. These chemicals and their biological pathways make up the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is, among other things, responsible for regulating sleep.
Cannabis has been found to affect sleep in five distinct ways. To lessen the time it takes to fall asleep, while increasing the time spent asleep, providing deeper sleep while shortening REM sleep cycles, and helping patients to breathe more easily. And while research is restricted based on the legal status of cannabis, veterans have been fighting for their right to access medical marijuana from the very beginning. In February 1978, the first medical cannabis law was enacted thanks to the efforts of two men, a veteran, Lynn Pierson, and the very first medical cannabis patient and its strongest advocate, Robert C. Randall. (Cannabis Now; 2015)
Today returning combat vets struggle with the complicated task of re-adjusting to civilian life. They dream not of the good things they did, or the people they saved but instead are haunted by the things they were unable to prevent, and by the violence they witnessed.
Veterans use cannabis for many of the same reasons as most patients: anxiety, chronic pain, depression, inflammation, insomnia, loss of appetite, muscle spasms, however, with no other condition has cannabis proven to be more helpful than it has with treating PTSD.