In one of those happy confluences of fact and fiction, science has now confirmed one of the classics of movie and TV stereotyping: the chilled-out stoner, as new research shows that even when not high, frequent marijuana users are more relaxed than the rest of us.
In a study aptly titled “Blunted stress reactivity in chronic cannabis users,” researchers from Washington State University tested the stress responses of 40 cannabis users and 42 non-users and found that the pot users produced less of the primary stress hormone, cortisol, in response to laboratory-induced stressful situations, than did the non-pot users.
The researchers also concluded that weed’s chill effect seems to persist even when the high is gone, as the participants for the study were sober during testing.
“Cannabis users demonstrated blunted stress reactivity,” say the study’s authors, whose findings are published in the journal Psychopharmacology. “Specifically, they showed no increase in cortisol and a significantly smaller increase in subjective stress ratings.”
Past research has shown that one of the most often given reasons why people use marijuana is to cope with stress. One recent study found, however, that while taking cannabis with low levels of THC, the main active ingredient in the drug, can indeed be relaxing, higher doses of THC can actually be anxiety-creating.
The participants in the new study were divided into two groups, with half of them subjected to the physiologically and psychologically stressful activity of placing one hand in ice-cold water while counting backwards from 2,043 by 17, while the other half were given a more non-stressful exercise (counting from one to 25 with one hand placed in warm water). The stress group were further unnerved by being shown a live video feed of themselves as they tried to count backward.
After testing, researchers measured cortisol levels in the participants’ saliva and found that regardless of whether they were in the ice-water stress group or the warm-water non-stress group, the frequent cannabis users had virtually the same levels of cortisol, showing that they reacted with equanimity to the two situations, unlike the non-users who showed higher cortisol levels in the stress situation.
“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,” says Carrie Cuttler of the Department of Psychology at WSU, in a press release.
Cuttler points out that while being stressed out can be unhealthy, having persistently lowered cortisol levels may not always be beneficial, as our stress response actually helps motivate us to react to environmental 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.
Along with the increased risk of addiction, Health Canada states that some of the long-term health effects of cannabis consumption include negative neurological impacts on memory, concentration, intelligence and the ability to make decisions.