It’s never really been a secret that marijuana lovers have a certain serenity about them. Well, now there’s scientific proof to back that up. A recent study from Washington State University has found that pot significantly relieves stress in frequent users – even after the high is gone.
Researchers from the university’s Department of Psychology tested groups of chronic cannabis users and non-users, measuring cortisol levels in their bloodstream as well as documenting the participants’ subjective stress levels. This test was quite different from those performed in the past. Previously, studies had only relied on self-reported data and focused exclusively on the effects of marijuana within the bounds of the “high.” This study was the first to examine the lasting effects frequent pot use when the subject is sober.
“There have been studies before that looked at whether people were high or not high, but nobody’s looked at sober cannabis users,” explained Carrie Cuttler, lead author of the study.
How the Research was Set-up
Chronic users were defined as those who had used marijuana daily for at least a year. Non-users were those who had consumed pot less than 10 times in their lives and not at all in the previous year. The 40 chronic users involved in the study were permitted to use marijuana the night before the experiment, but not the day of.
Each group was subjected first to the Maastricht Acute Stress Test (MAST), a common experiment used to measure behavior in stressful conditions. Each participant had to dunk their hand in freezing water for at least 45 seconds and count backwards from 2043 in intervals of 17. The lab attendant would verbally criticize the participant and additionally, the subject would also have to see a live projection of themselves on a monitor.
Afterwards, the subjects completed a much easier task – they only had to place their hand in warm water and count from 1 to 15 without the verbal harassment or live monitor.
After the tests were completed, researchers asked each group about their stress levels and also took saliva samples to measure cortisol levels.
Results of the Study
For cannabis users, the cortisol levels were the same after both the stressful and non-stressful tests. However, in non-users, cortisol levels were significantly higher after the MAST test. Likewise, on a subjective level, chronic users reported feeling much less stress during the stress test than non-users.
From the study:
Chronic cannabis use is associated with blunted stress reactivity. Future research is needed to determine whether this helps to confer resiliency or vulnerability to stress-related psychopathology as well as the mechanisms underlying this effect.
Some of the researchers conducting this study were mildly surprised by the results. Cuttler expected stress levels to be higher in cannabis users during the MAST test due to missing their primary coping tool for stress. Their inability to turn to their habitual would ultimately cause more stress – or so Cuttler thought.
The results proved her wrong, but she considers the health implications of the study to still be in the air. “Cortisol helps to release energy stores and, more generally, just helps us to respond appropriately to threats in our environment,” she explained. Despite the numerous health benefits of regular cannabis consumption, using it to constantly eliminate stress could prove detrimental if not moderated.
This will remain top of mind as she and other researchers continue to explore effects of cannabis use moving forward.