The more research is done on cannabis, the more possibilities are discovered for medical uses of the drug. A new research study exploring the interaction of cannabis use and stress has found that chronic cannabis users have a “blunted” response to stress. This research, although not entirely conclusive, may be the first step towards creating a cannabinoid-based anxiety medication.
The study, published this month in Psychopharmacology, measured stress levels by tracking the amounts of cortisol in the study participants' saliva. Cortisol levels are a reliable indicator of stress, and previous research has confirmed that higher cortisol levels correlate with an individual's response to stressful situations.
Researchers assigned 40 daily cannabis users and 42 non-users to randomly complete the Maastricht Acute Stress Test. The test manipulates both physiological stress, by making participants put their hands in ice water, and psychosocial stress, by making them solve difficult math problems while being socially evaluated. The researchers found that both subjective stress ratings and cortisol levels were significantly lower in cannabis users than non-users.
“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,” Carrie Cuttler, lead author of the study, said. “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.”
Previous studies on marijuana have found that cannabinoids can affect levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps control anxiety. Traditional benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety, like Klonopin and Xanax, also work by altering GABA levels. Tolerance to these drugs builds quickly, however, and can lead to dependency. This new study suggests that scientists may be able to create a new, cannabinoid-based anxiety medication that could mitigate stress without the side effects of traditional benzodiazepines.