THC is a Double-Edged Sword for Stress
Researchers report that low doses of THC do reduce stress, but slightly higher doses - enough to produce a mild "high" - actually increased anxiety.
Marijuana users often state they use the drug to reduce stress. Yet few studies verify these claims. Recent research conducted at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly abbreviated as THC, decreases stress. THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana. Though low doses of THC reduced stress such as pubic speaking jitters, slightly higher doses increased anxiety.
Cannabis is a category 1 substance that is highly regulated. It is fairly difficult to obtain a permit to study the drug. Though it is widely known that plenty of people use cannabis for stress relief, there aren't many published studies that indicate whether THC really does actually reduce stress. Furthermore, there is a significant lack of published studies that explain how varying levels of THC affect stress levels.
About the study
Associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Emma Childs, served as a corresponding author on the study. The study was made possible by grant DA02812 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The results were published in the popular medical journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Childs and her fellow researchers recruited 42 healthy individuals between 18 and 40 years of age. Each of these study participants used cannabis in the past but were not habitual users.
Study participants were randomly split up into three groups. Those in the low-dose group were provided with a capsule filled with 7.5 milligrams of THC. Those in the moderate-dose group were provided with a capsule filled with 12.5 milligrams of THC. The third group was a placebo group that consumed a capsule with no THC. Childs and her colleagues had no foreknowledge as to which participants were in each of these groups. Nor did the participants know which group they were in.
The participants took their capsule and relaxed for a couple hours. One of the sessions involved spending 10 minutes prepping for a fake job interview. They engaged in a five-minute interview with the research team. Participants were asked to count backward from a large number by subtracting 13 each time. They were also asked to speak with the lab team about their favorite movie or book and play solitaire. Participants rated their level of stress before and after each activity. Heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol were measured at various points.
The doses used in this study generated effects similar to taking a few drags on a marijuana cigarette. The research team did not make use of a larger dose as they did not want the adverse effects of high THC doses to affect the participants. Childs states that low doses of THC decreased stress. She also reports high doses of THC increased stress. This means the dose of THC is of the utmost importance. It is interesting to note that there were no major differences in study participants' cortisol levels, heart rate or blood pressure before, during or after consuming THC and engaging in the tasks.
Interpreting the Results
The study results somewhat support the claim that marijuana reduces stress, decreases tension and minimizes anxiety. However, those in the high THC group endured higher anxiety and a bad mood when engaged with the tests. This supports the notion that THC also has the potential to produce the opposite effect.