Stress is a part of daily life. It’s an evolutionary tool that has kept us alive. But modern stress is different. Stress today has become a chronic health issue.
As cannabis becomes increasingly legalized and accessible, researchers want to find out what the long-term consequences of chronic cannabis use may have on the ability to have a healthy stress response.
Cannabis users are notoriously chill and researchers want to know why and also if they are they are too chill for their own health. Furthermore, what compounds in cannabis are responsible for its sedative and anxiolytic properties? Washington State University researchers may have the answers.
Carrie Cutler, clinical assistant professor of psychology at WSU, along with colleagues from the Department of Psychology, stress tested participants in a study. They compared the levels of cortisol hormone and other stress-response related biochemicals.
The study compared 40 chronic cannabis users with 42 non-users.
Participants reported their regular cannabis use, but urine samples were also used to corroborate self-reported use with bodily THC levels. Saliva levels of participants were taken before the stress tests to assess baseline stress levels of users and non-users.
Participants underwent two tests, one not stressful and another designed to induce stress. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol were again measured with saliva samples post stress test.
The no-stress test involved putting a hand in the lukewarm water for about a minute and counting from 1 to 25. However, the stress-inducing test was a little trickier.
In order to effectively see if there was a difference in chronic cannabis user’s stress-response, they had to make sure participants were experiencing stress. Participants had to leave a hand in ice-cold water for about a minute while counting backward by 17 from 2043.
To ensure that participants were stressed they were given negative verbal feedback when they made mistakes in counting. They were also filmed and a live video feed was displayed on a screen directly in front of the participants as they completed the test.
The results of the study validated previous research findings that indicate chronic cannabis use is associated with dulled adrenal and emotional activity.
The chronic cannabis users showed consistently lower levels of cortisol in their saliva post stress test, while non-users were found to have much greater levels of the stress hormone in their saliva post stress test.
These results give credence to the notion that cannabis can lower stress-response, therefore, reducing anxiety levels. But according to Cuttler,
“The release of cortisol typically serves an adaptive purpose, allowing an individual to mobilize energy stores and respond appropriately to threats in the environment. Thus, an inability to mount a proper hormonal response to stress could also have detrimental effects that could potentially be harmful to the individual.”
So long-term cannabis users may have difficulty mounting an adequate stress-response when it may be needed. In short-term cannabis’ effect might be experienced as anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety, but long-term use may actually impair a healthy stress response.
Normally, emotional or environmental stress cues a physiological response that enables us to act accordingly, like if we have to fight for our lives or perceive some mortal danger to our self.
This study suggests that chronic cannabis users may not experience the same physiological cue. However, the kind of cannabis consumed may play a vital role in human’s adaptive stress response.
Cannabis comes in many types of varieties that can differ dramatically in chemical composition, potency, and THC: CBD ratio. Do different types of cannabis have different effects on stress levels, anxiety, or depression? WSU researchers sought out to find the answer to the question.
In a first-of-kind-study, scientists from WSU examined how participant’s self-reported levels of stress, anxiety, and depression were affected by smoking different strains and dosages of cannabis in their homes.
"Existing research on the effects of cannabis on depression, anxiety and stress are very rare and have almost exclusively been done with orally administered THC pills in a laboratory," said Cuttler.
"What is unique about our study is that we looked at actual inhaled cannabis by medical marijuana patients who were using it in the comfort of their own homes as opposed to a laboratory."
An application called Strainprint provided participants in the study a means of tracking how different doses and types of cannabis affect a wide variety of symptoms of wellbeing.
Strainprint users rate the symptoms they are experiencing before using cannabis on a scale of 1-10 and then input information about the type of cannabis they are using. Twenty minutes after smoking, they are prompted to report how many puffs they took and to rerate the severity of their symptoms.
Cuttler’s team at WSU used multilevel modeling to analyze about 12,000 participant entries in the Strainprint database. The study continues currently, but early evidence suggests that CBD, along with someTHC, is vitally important in reducing stress.
It's important to remember that cannabis will affect each individual uniquely according to a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Also remember that just because two batches of cannabis have the same name or THC: CBD ratio does not necessarily indicate that the effects will be the same.
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