A new study has found chronic cannabis users have a dampened physiological response to stress.
Researchers from Washington State University have found evidence that chronic cannabis users experience reduced stress levels compared to non-users. The study, recently published in the journal Psychopharmacology, compared stress hormone levels between regular cannabis users and non-users before and after they performed stressful and non-stressful tests.
Along with her colleagues in the WSU Department of Psychology, lead study author Carrie Cuttler found that heavy regular cannabis users had no difference in salivary cortisol levels, regardless if they were confronted with a psychologically and physiologically stressful situation or a non-stressful one.
In non-users, however, cortisol levels were much greater when faced with a simulated stressful situation than in a non-stressful scenario.
“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,” said Cuttler, also assistant psychology clinical professor at WSU. “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.”
The study’s findings are the latest in a growing body of evidence suggesting cannabis may have benefits in improving resilience to stress. Previous studies indicate that cannabis could potentially be effective for reducing stress-induced anxiety and treating other anxiety disorders.
Cuttler’s study could be the first to examine cannabis’s effects on levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, both during stressful and non-stressful situations. All participants were required to abstain from consuming cannabis on testing day.
“This study is actually quite novel and new and different from those that have been previously conducted,” said Cuttler. “There have been studies before that looked at whether people were high or not high,” she said, “but nobody’s looked at sober cannabis users.”
The study involved 40 daily cannabis users and 42 non-users. Both users and non-users were split into groups and were assigned to either experience the high-stress or no-stress version of the Maastricht Acute Stress Test. Participants had their saliva cortisol levels measured and were asked to rate their current level of stress before and after each test.
High cortisol levels have been linked to hypertension, weight gain, and lower immune function. Dampening stress response could potentially help protect from these cortisol-related health conditions. However, Cuttler notes that the hormone does play an instrumental role in the ability to respond appropriately to threats.
“Thus, 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. “Research on cannabis is really just now ramping up because of legalization and our work going forward will play an important role in investigating both the short-term benefits and potential long-term consequences of chronic cannabis use.”
The entire study, “Blunted stress reactivity in chronic cannabis users,” is accessible through SpringerLink.