TIME Marijuana

Six Ways Science Says Marijuana May Hurt Your Health

New Year Celebration
Partygoers smoke marijuana during a New Year's Eve party at a bar in Denver, celebrating the 2014 start of retail pot sales in Colorado. Brennan Linsley—AP

With the increasing push for the legalization of marijuana across the country, science is rolling out research on why pot may not be so harmless.

Boosters of marijuana legalization often speak about the relative harmlessness of the drug, especially when compared to alcohol and tobacco, which kill millions of people a year worldwide. But while the evidence suggests that pot is less damaging than some other legal drugs, the exact effects of marijuana on human health have not been well studied. Existing research is often limited in scope and rarely shows a clear causal connection.

But there have been some worrying findings, especially considering the increasing use of marijuana by American adults. A paper published this year in Forensic Science International, for instance, described two rare deaths of young men that were attributed to heart conditions resulting from marijuana use.

With legalization taking place in Colorado and Washington State, more research will now be possible. For now, here is a tour of what has been documented so far about marijuana’s negative effects.

1. It can interfere with learning

Marijuana interferes with the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, affecting cognitive functions such as movement, memory, and emotional control. A recent small study found that impairment in working memory occurs immediately after marijuana use. Subjects who received a higher dose of THC—marijuana’s main active chemical—took significantly longer to complete immediate recall and mental calculation tasks.

2. It can lead to dangerous driving

Pot impairs functions key to driving, including reaction time, hand-eye coordination and depth perception, a study by the University of Chicago reported. In the first full year after medical marijuana was legalized in Colorado, there was a 12% increase in traffic fatalities, according to data analysis by researchers at Columbia University. However, studies have not been able to provide consistent evidence to prove that the effects of marijuana cause an increased rate of collisions. According to a different study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, the closest comparison to the culpability of accident when under the influence of marijuana is to a driver who has taken penicillin, anti-depressants or an antihistamine, which suggests marijuana’s effects have a nominal impact on accident risk. More research is needed.

3. It may harm the developing brain.

Although a causal connection has yet to be found, studies show regular marijuana use—once a week or more—can change the structure of the teenage brain. Marijuana affects memory and problem solving abilities, both of which can impact academic performance. Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine surveyed a small group between the ages of 18 and 25 and noticed structural abnormalities in the brain, specifically in grey matter, the nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala, after recreational marijuana use.

4. It could make you panic.

Marijuana may alleviate anxiety for some, but for others it can cause it. THC can cause increased heart rate, poor coordination, or lightheadedness, which can be triggers for anxiety attacks. Some research suggests that people who frequently use of marijuana—and who started using it as young adults—were more likely to have anxiety disorders or depression. Whether cannabis use causes anxiety disorders, however, is not known.

5. It can be addictive.

One in 10 users exhibits symptoms of dependence, according to the American Psychological Association. Marijuana’s rate of dependence liability of 9% is comparable to that of anti-anxiety medications and is well under the liability rates of alcohol (15%) and tobacco (32%), according to a study by the Institute of Medicine. However, the reason why some become addicted and others don’t remains unclear. Genetic studies have suggested that the involvement, or lack thereof, of CB1 receptors in response to cannabis can influence the likelihood of addiction. The receptor gene has been found to have a connection to the development of dependence to drugs and alcohol. Studies done on animals suggest that cannabis triggers reward centers in the brain, including neurons that produce dopamine, which could also encourage continued use.

6. It can stress your heart

Marijuana-related deaths are so rare as to be treated as mythological by marijuana boosters, but a paper published this spring in Forensic Science International does describe the deaths of two healthy men, ages 23 and 28, who experienced heart trouble after using marijuana. “To our knowledge, these are the first cases of suspected fatal cannabis intoxications where full postmortem investigations, including autopsy, toxicological, histological, immunohistochemical and genetical examinations, were carried out,” the authors write. The authors surmise that the cardiovascular events were the result of increased heart rate that can happen in some pot smokers, particularly in the first hours after using marijuana. Nonetheless, the authors conclude, that the “absolute risk of cannabis-related cardiovascular effects can be considered to be low, as the baseline risk for most cannabis smokers is low and cannabis-induced changes are transient.”

TIME South Africa

Oscar Pistorius Ordered to Undergo Psych Evaluation

South African courts aim to settle the issue of Pistorius' mental health.

+ READ ARTICLE

The trial of South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp took an unexpected turn this week when a judge ordered him to undergo mental evaluations to determine whether he suffers from generalized anxiety disorder.

Defense witness Dr. Meryl Vorster explained that Pistorius’ anxiety disorder is what forced him to respond to the perceived threat in “fight-mode” versus “flight-mode.” That claim led the prosecutor to request a psychological evaluation, which judge Thokozile Masipa agreed to allow.

It’s unclear whether the evaluation will help or hurt Pistorius’ as he attempts to convince the judge that he killed Steenkamp by accident because he mistook her for an intruder. What is certain is that the tests will delay the trial to allow time for both the evaluation and the report.

Pistorius’ double-murder trial started on March 3.

TIME Smoking

The Weird Link Between E-Cigarettes and Mental Health Disorders

US-HEALTH-TOBACCO-E CIGARETTE
This September 25, 2013 photo illustration taken in Washington, DC, shows a woman smoking a "Blu" e-cigarette (electronical cigarette). PAUL J. RICHARDS—AFP/Getty Images

A new study finds elevated rates of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders among users of e-cigarettes

A new study has found that people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are more than twice as likely to spark up an e-cigarette and three times as likely to “vape” regularly than those without a history of mental issues.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego drew their findings from an extensive survey of American smoking habits. Among 10,041 respondents, 14.8% of individuals suffering from mental health disorders said they had tried an e-cigarette, compared with 6.6% of individuals who had no self-reported history of mental disorders.

The e-smokers’ elevated rates of mental disorders reflected the elevated rates of mental illness among smokers in general. The authors note that by some estimates, people suffering from mental disorders buy upwards of 50 percent of cigarettes sold in the U.S. annually.

Many respondents said they switched to e-cigarettes as a gateway to quitting. The FDA has not yet approved e-cigarettes as a quitting aide.

“People with mental health conditions have largely been forgotten in the war on smoking,” study author Sharon Cummins said in a university press release. “But because they are high consumers of cigarettes, they have the most to gain or lose from the e-cigarette phenomenon.”

The study will run in the May 13 issue of Tobacco Control.

MONEY health

5 Ways to Reduce Your Financial Anxiety

Cutting down on discretionary spending and paying down debt will help reduce your financial anxiety. photo: shutterstock

Tired of feeling anxious about your family’s financial future? To reduce this lingering economic insecurity, try these strategies.

Create a plan. Fueling our anxiety about money is the feeling of being out of control — that economic events you have no hand in will hurt your prospects. Developing a financial plan with specific goals and targets helps you feel as if the control is back in your hands.

Need proof? Gallup reports that 80% of nonretirees and 88% of retirees with such plans said having a plan boosted their confidence that they could achieve their goals. And a Transamerica survey shows that workers with a written plan are 47% more likely to say that they’ll retire with a comfortable lifestyle than those without one.

Break off bite-size chunks. Lofty long-term goals like building a seven-figure retirement nest egg or saving enough to pay for your kid’s BA can feel impossible to achieve. So instead of focusing on big end numbers, set your sights on more manageable interim targets.

Related: What’s your money state of mind?

“Create small steps, each with its own deadline and reward,” says Harvard behavioral economics professor Brigitte Madrian. “The more small things you knock off your list, the less anxious you’ll feel about bigger goals.”

Accentuate the positive. “Our brains tend to focus on the negative, so it’s a struggle to see what’s going right,” says Rick Kahler, president of the Financial Therapy Association.

Help yourself by taking inventory of what’s going well for you moneywise — maybe you’ve upped your 401(k) contributions, your home’s value has jumped, or you’re saving money by brown-bagging it at work. Use the list to buoy your spirits when setbacks occur.

Related: How we feel about our finances

Plump your cushion. The single best move you can make to feel better about your finances: Build up your emergency fund.

A University of Georgia study has found that having adequate reserves is a better predictor of financial satisfaction than other moves, such as paying off credit card debt. “It’s like having extra insurance,” notes Terrance Odean, a finance professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Don’t get too relaxed. The recession made us realize how vulnerable we are, Madrian says. And that awareness led many to cut back on discretionary spending, pay down debt, and save more.

“These habits are good,” says Odean. “If anxiety motivates people to make these changes and can motivate them to save even more, you don’t necessarily want to relieve people of all of it.”

TIME Research

Science Says Stress Is Contagious

A new study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden finds that stress can be super contagious: not only can being around a stressed person physically stress you out, but so can watching certain videos

See someone yawn on the subway, and you know there’s a pretty high probability that you’re going to be yawning. But new research says that there’s another contagion out there that you can catch just through simple observation: Stress.

A study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden found that even being around a stressed person, be it a loved one or a stranger, has the power to make a someone stressed in a physically quantifiable way.

“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” said Veronika Engert, one of the study’s authors.

During the study, test subjects paired with loved ones and strangers of the opposite sex and then divided into two groups. One group was given challenging arithmetic questions and interviewed in order to induce direct stress. The group of 211 observers simply watched the test and interviews through a one-way mirror and via video transmissions.

As expected, 95% of the people placed under direct stress showed signs of, well, stress. But 26% of observers had an increase in cortisol as well as a result of empathic stress. The impact of stress was particularly high when a subject was observing a romantic partner in a stressful situation (40%) but it applied to strangers as well (10%).

When observers watched stressful events through a one-way mirror, 30% experienced a stressful response. Another 24% percent of observers were stressed when they watched the events unfold on video. Lesson learned: be careful when you’re watching Breaking Bad re-runs.

Even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers,” Engert said. “Stress has an enormous contagion potential.”

TIME Social Media

How Facebook Could Sabotage Your Blind Date

Young blonde woman in kitchen preparing food checks laptop
Don Bayley—-Getty Images

Think twice before you cyberstalk—seeing someone online may make face-to-face interactions more stressful

We’ve all been guilty of Facebook stalking – looking up strangers who we might be meeting face-to-face soon – a blind date, a potential employee, or even the friend of a friend. It’s supposed to make us feel a little more comfortable and prepared when the real-life meeting actually takes place.

Or maybe not. Especially if you have mild social anxiety. In a study involving female college students, Shannon Rauch and her colleagues found that surprisingly, a Facebook introduction tended to make some people more nervous during the face-to-face meeting.

MORE: This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Rauch, an assistant professor of psychology at Benedictine University in Arizona, and her colleagues recruited 26 undergraduates and asked them to take a social anxiety test. A week later, the team invited to participants to what they called a facial recognition test – the students were hooked up to a monitor to measure changes in how well the skin in their hands conducted electricity (the more aroused a person is, the better the skin conducts electrical signals) while they looked at either pictures of people or actual people in the testing room. There were four groups: one saw only a person’s Facebook profile page, another saw only a person in the room, another saw a person’s Facebook profile and then saw the person in the room, while the final group saw a person in the room and then perused her Facebook page. For the live encounters, both the participants and the visiting person were told not to interact or talk to one another, which limited the experience to just being in the person’s company.

MORE: The Two Faces of Anxiety

The students who first viewed a person’s Facebook profile and then saw the person in the room showed higher arousal scores than those who simply saw the person, without a prefacing Facebook encounter. That surprised Rauch a bit, since most of the data on digital social interaction suggested the online experience could help to calm the anxiety of meeting someone for the first time in person. “Intuitively we all thought it should help to pave the way a little bit,” she says of her findings, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

MORE: Employers: Facebook Party Pics Don’t Always Reflect Employees’ Bad Judgment

Instead, the Facebook priming made them more aroused. Rauch says the study just measured arousal, and not levels of stress hormones so she can’t say whether the participants were more anxious. It’s possible, for example, that the students were just more excited by the face-to-face encounter, which is a natural response to seeing someone. But Rauch believes that the change was more negative than positive, since it raised arousal, instead of calming it, which is what a more positive effect of the Facebook encounter would have had.

The effect was strongest among those who scored higher on the social anxiety test, which suggests that the real-life encounter was still more arousing than the online one – something that previous studies have shown. Online interactions may feel more safe and comforting to those with social anxiety, since they have more control over the situation.

MORE: How You Deal With Your Emotions Can Influence Your Anxiety

The results go against the idea that online experiences can be a helpful way for some people with social anxiety disorders to gradually get used to real life encounters. “If your goal is to calm yourself for the face-to-face encounter, Facebook is probably not the best strategy,” says Rauch.

Why? The initial online experience could start a process of rumination that leads to expectations and comparisons that the real life encounter may not meet or fulfill. That’s supported by a growing number of studies that show regular Facebook users don’t feel good about themselves, because they are constantly comparing themselves to their peers – on looks, accomplishments and goals.

Rauch hopes the work starts to question conventional wisdom about how social media helps, or even harms, social connections, and plans to study the effect in more detail, by giving participants more choice and control over the real-life interaction, and giving them more opportunity to plan the encounters. “We’d like to start using physiological data to start challenging notions of how social media affects social connections,” she says.

TIME mental health

LSD Therapy Lowers Anxiety, Study Finds

People facing imminent death could benefit from the hallucinogenic

Scientists in Switzerland are testing the anxiety-lowering effects of LSD on people near death, and are reporting promising results.

A new study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease finds that people who are facing imminent death from cancer can experience positive changes in their anxiety levels from talking to a therapist while under the influence. LSD research has been banned in the U.S. since 1966.

The 12 participants–the majority of whom had terminal cancer–met with lead study author Dr. Peter Gasser for weekly therapy sessions for two months. Eight of the patients received full doses of LSD during their sessions, while the other four received a lesser dose. During their “trips,” which could last up to 10 hours, patients talked about their fears of dying and experienced distressing emotions.

A year after their sessions, researchers found that anxiety levels had improved by 20% on standard measures those for those who got a full dose, and that this lower anxiety level appeared to remain even after therapy. For the participants who took a lower dose of LSD, their anxiety worsened.

With only 12 people, the study is too small to make any significant conclusions. However, it’s part of a bigger movement among psychiatrists to use hallucinogens in therapy for disorders like PTSD and severe anxiety, The New York Times reports. Other researchers are also currently testing the effects of similar drugs on patients’ anxieties.

[The New York Times]

TIME Work & Life

Your Life is Terrible Because You Are a Commuter

At least now you know

Heaven help you if you ride the bus for more than half an hour to work because that, according to a new study out Wednesday, is the worst possible commute you can have.

The study, released Wednesday by the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics, finds that “commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters.”

If you don’t ride the bus for more than 30 minutes, don’t be too quick to leap for joy—any commute more than 15 minutes long tends to lower life satisfaction.

And if you’re a health nut don’t be too quick to celebrate you 45-minute, sweat-soaked trail ride into work every day. Though active commuters are in better health, in terms of mental well-being, the results still hold true even for people riding a bike or walking to work if those commutes last longer than 15 minutes.

Then again, the study only included UK residents. Maybe British buses are just that awful.

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