Chronic cannabis users appear to have a dampened physiological response to stress, according to new research.
And while that might not seem all that surprising, it’s believed that this is the the first study of its kind to provide these results.
Researchers found that levels of cortisol, the hormone related to stress, were much lower in study participants who self-identified as daily or near daily cannabis users following a simulated stress experiment than in those who didn’t use the plant.
“While we are not at a point where we are comfortable saying whether this muted stress response is a good thing or a bad thing, our work is an important first step in investigating potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis at a time when its use is spreading faster than ever before,” Washington State University’s Carrie Cuttler said.
The team found that immediately after being placed in the same simulated stressful situation, cortisol levels among those who don’t consume cannabis were much higher than those who did – while there was virtually no difference in cortisol levels for two groups of heavy cannabis users made to partake in stressful and non-stressful situations.
The team used the Maastricht Acute Stress Test (MAST) on 40 daily cannabis users and 42 non-users (people who’d consumed cannabis 10 times or fewer during their life, and not at all in the past year), all of whom were required not to get high on the day of testing.
Participants provided a saliva sample upon arrival and were asked to rate their current level of stress – two things which were repeated immediately following the experiment.
The group were assigned to experience either the high-stress or no-stress versions of MAST, with the no-stress participants having to place one hand in lukewarm water for 45-90 seconds and count to 25.
The high-stress group had their hand in ice cold water for the same amount of time and were asked to count backwards from 2,043 by 17, and were given negative verbal feedback when they went wrong. They were also monitored by a camera and the video was displayed on a screen directly in front of them.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the effects of acute stress on salivary cortisol levels in chronic cannabis users compared to non-users,” Cuttler said.
The work suggests cannabis may help the body resist stress, although the researchers emphasised that cortisol typically allows individuals to mobilise energy stores and respond to threats in the environment.
“An inability to mount a proper hormonal response to stress could also have detrimental effects that could potentially be harmful to the individual,” Cuttler said.
More research needs to be done and will include investigating the presence of residual THC, which it’s suggested may cause the muted stress response in chronic cannabis users.
The research was published in the journal Psychopharmacology.