AUNT FLO, MEET MARY JANE
The effects of cannabis on women
By Corinne Salt
Illustration by Lauren Drinkwater
Many of us are aware of the effects of cannabis: relaxation, pain relief, hunger. Some of us many even be aware of the more negative side effects such as anxiety and paranoia. But how many of us are aware of how our hormones play a role in altering these effects?
Cannabis is the most popular illicit drug in the UK. With increased the legalisation and loosening of cannabis laws, the number of users worldwide is steadily increasing. And in the UK, over 1/3 are female. A previously male dominated industry now has a fierce female following. There are a multitude of health benefits that cannabis has been shown provide, from relieving menstrual cramps to controlling epilepsy. Yet, it has been found that women progress more rapidly to dependence and suffer more extreme withdrawal symptoms than men. It is therefore becoming increasingly crucial to understand how cannabis affects women, and the interactions between cannabis and our hormones.
CANNABIS AND HORMONES
Cannabinoids describe the family of chemicals that act on the endocannabinoid receptors in our body. They are responsible for the desired - or in some cases, undesired - effects of cannabis. Animal studies strongly suggest a link between cannabis and sex hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, with the endocannabinoid system - the biological system of receptors in the brain that bind to cannabinoids. This interaction has the potential to influence how a biologically female body may react to cannabis.
BETTER SEX, MORE OFTEN
From periods to sexual desire, hormones are key in female function. The interaction with cannabinoids are increasingly showing benefits for women. Recent studies have found a relationship between cannabis use and an enhanced sexual experience. One study found users had 20% more sex than non-users. Another study of cannabis users reported “an increase in sex drive and more pleasurable orgasm.” Whilst this evidence does not determine a causal effect, it does suggest a relationship between the factors and was found across differing genders, races and ages. The biological mechanisms are not entirely clear, however with more research and understanding we may be able to harness these benefits for women.
Illustration by Lauren Drinkwater
PARANOID, ANXIOUS AND ADDICTED?
Despite these benefits, women have been found to progress more quickly to cannabis dependence than men, potentially leading to undesired responses such as anxiety, paranoia and addiction. A number of social factors may contribute to this, but biology also appears to play a role.
Oestrogen (a female sex hormone) has been found to control the number of receptors for cannabinoids to bind to. A different number of receptors means a different response. Women may become more or less sensitive to cannabis based on their sex hormones. As a result, this may have an impact a user’s tolerance (the amount of drug required to produce the same effect) and dependency (a reliance or addiction to a substance). It may lead to a rapid increase in dose over a shorter period of time in order to maintain the same effects as male counter parts and therefore women may become more susceptible to a quicker progression of undesired effects. Whilst this research is currently largely based on animal studies, it may provide an answer to these differences. It is important to understand the mechanism that leads to this, so that we can greater understand how to utilise the benefits without them being undermined by the negative effects.
If sensitivity and tolerance to cannabis is dependent on hormones, then what happens to women when hormones fluctuate monthly with the menstrual cycle? A study from Washington State University showed a spike in cannabis sensitivity during ovulation in mice. With a cycle of changing hormone levels in women, oestrogen peaking just before ovulation, sensitivity to cannabis has the potential to fluctuate. At each point in the menstrual cycle, women may experience different effects (and this doesn’t even begin to cover the effects of birth control).
Fluctuating sensitivity may also play a role in detoxification treatments. Evidence has shown that withdrawal from other substances, such as nicotine, does fluctuate with the menstrual cycle due to hormones. With differing effects seen in women, including more extreme withdrawal symptoms, as well as a rise in female cannabis users seeking treatment, it is necessary to understand the impact modulating hormone levels have.
Cannabis use in women is on the rise. Claims of the benefits of cannabis for women is on the rise. Yet as more people become aware of cannabis for medical and recreational use, the lack of research into the effects of cannabis on women becomes increasingly apparent. Whilst research has suggested links to hormones in cannabis sensitivity, many conclusions are based on animal studies and historically based on men. The repercussions for women are therefore not fully understood. With potential unknown outcomes of cannabis on women and women’s health, and ever expanding evidence of its benefits, it is necessary to educate ourselves and push for more research into the effects of drugs on women.
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