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Cannabis and Women's Health


Women and cannabis have a couple of things in common: they carry the weight of disparaging stereotypes, and they are awesome.  Women control 51% of private wealth and over 60% of personal wealth in the United States, demonstrate emotional resilience that extends their longevity, and have the anatomical capacity to reproduce humanity.  Cannabis is a non-toxic, organic medicine with the potential to treat almost any ailment you can think of—from cancer to depression, cannabis has the capacity to mitigate the symptoms and even lead to remission.

Women are underrepresented in corporate leadership positions and disproportionately victimized by sexual crimes and domestic violence. Also, the sandwich jokes persist. The depths of sexism’s roots in this world are so profound, they can seem inescapable and inevitable. It’s why the Handmaid’s Tale is keeping so many women up at night.

The wave of state legalization of cannabis for medical or personal use demonstrates that the movement has gained some political momentum, but cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, or a federally illegal substance deemed extremely dangerous and medically useless.

This paradox—that women and cannabis are powerful but systematically oppressed—is depressing.  It also makes one wonder if their shared burden gives them unique compatibility.  The answers to that consideration are under construction. There is a paucity of research on the effects of cannabis on women, but here’s what we know so far.

Mental Health

The National Institutes of Health states that women and men experience mental disorders differently.  In fact, certain mental health conditions are unique to women.  For example, anxiety and depression are more common in women.  Women are also more likely than men to experience elevated levels of stress.  

Conditions like perinatal depression or postpartum depression (depression during pregnancy and depression after birth) result from an experience made possible by a woman’s ability to endogenously sustain life. 

Even when mental disorders seem to affect men and women at comparable rates, new research suggests that the way these conditions manifest themselves may be gender dependent.    
In 2015, the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions released a study indicating that cannabis may have efficacy in the treatment of depression.  The research found that chronic stress—a mental state that women are more susceptible to—can inhibit the body’s production of endocannabinoids, chemical compounds that interact with our endocannabinoid systems to sustain homeostasis within our bodies.  This endocannabinoid deficiency can lead to a host of problems including depression. When the neuroscientists administered cannabis to the rats used in the study, the endocannabinoid levels were restored in their brains, easing their symptoms and stabilizing their moods.  The reason this works is because cannabis contains approximately 80 cannabinoids, or chemical compounds that interact in synergistic ways with our endocannabinoid systems. 
Given a woman’s likelihood of experiencing depression, anxiety, or some mood disorder at some point in her life, it is important for women to be aware of and given access to cannabis as a potential therapy.
Although cannabis is an excellent, non-synthetic choice for mental health treatment in women, it is not without risk.  A 2011 study found that women are quicker than men to become habitual cannabis users.  This may be because, according to a 2014 study from Washington State University, women develop tolerance to THC more quickly than men do, and that can lead to addiction, paranoia, and anxiety.  And the paradoxes continue to emerge; because cannabis can help women, it can also hurt them.      

Physical Health

The human body functions through the interworking of complex systems in our bodies. This is true for both men and women.  Here are the ways that cannabis interacts with these systems.  
Endocannabinoid System—This is the big one that hasn’t found its way into our middle school biology textbooks yet.  The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is comprised of endocannabinoids, cannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes.  The endocannabinoids are chemical compounds produced by our brains meant to interact with cannabinoid receptors.  Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that do the same thing as endocannabinoids, except they come from external substances like cannabis. Cannabinoids receptors are channels through which these chemical compounds trigger their effects. Finally, our body uses enzymes to break down these compounds.

Perhaps the most important system in our bodies, the ECS is responsible for regulating day to day functions that keep us balanced including appetite, metabolism, mood, sleep, and immunity.  It’s a system that enhances the functionality of the rest of our body.  The reason that cannabis is so medically useful is because of the cannabinoids it releases. Those cannabinoids were made for us—they bind to our cannabinoid receptors to make us feel better.  
Cardiovascular System—This system is responsible for blood circulation and heart and lung function. The CDC reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women; it is responsible for 1 in 4 female deaths.
Heart disease is caused by risk factors including high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, tobacco smoking, alcoholism, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, and a poor diet.
Cannabis’ effect on cardiovascular health is a controversial and conflicting subject. The American College of Cardiology states that cannabis use can cause tachycardia (an abnormally rapid heart rate) and increase the risk of acute coronary syndrome (the dysfunction or death of part of the heart muscle).
However, a 2013 study found that CBD, one of the cannabinoids found in cannabis, can decrease blood pressure, protect against vascular damage caused by type 2 diabetes, and overall benefit cardiovascular health.
Digestive System—Responsible for the processes that break down and distribute nutrients we ingest as well as excrete waste, the digestive system plays an enormous role in our well-being.
As reported by the American College of Gastroenterology, women are more likely than men to experience chronic constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. Colon cancer is the 3rd most common cancer in women. Finally, many pregnant women experience morning sickness. This symptom can range from being an annoying inconvenience to a life-threatening debility.
Because of its interaction with cannabinoid receptors located in the digestive system, cannabis has been found to be an excellent anti-inflammatory, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract. This makes it powerful medicine for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
When it comes to treating morning sickness, cannabis use is controversial.  But so are all treatments for debilitating morning sickness. In serious cases, doctors can prescribe drugs like Zofran. A 2013 study found that Zofran poses no risk to developing fetuses, but the FDA has stated that there may be a possible link between Serotonin Syndrome and the drug.  Because information is limited and expecting mothers are generally wary of taking anything synthetic during pregnancy, some have considered and/or resorted to cannabis use to assuage their symptoms.  Cannabis is an effective antiemetic, but there is scarce research demonstrating the plant’s safety during pregnancy.
Endocrine System—This system is responsible for hormone regulation.  A well-functioning endocrine system is crucial for our bodies to function since hormones act as messengers to get our various parts to do what’s necessary.  One of these functions is that of reproduction. The endocrine system is essential to fertility.
The research on cannabis’ impact on the endocrine system is unclear and extremely scarce.  However, one study suggests that cannabis use can decrease fertility in women because it can inhibit the secretion of LH hormone so much that ovulation stops. However, ovulation returned to normal within a few months of cannabis consumption as tolerance to the plant increased.     
Integumentary/Exocrine System—This system includes the skin, sweat, nails, hair, and exocrine glands. It’s no secret that the integumentary system takes up an enormous amount of marketing space directed toward women.  Advertisements promoting skin and hair health overwhelmingly target women, and women seem to be more preoccupied with exocrine upkeep.
A 2009 study found that the ECS is present in the skin, and that cannabinoids that interact with receptors found in the exocrine system can promote its health; in turn, the absence of endocannabinoids can result in an array of skin disorders including acne, allergic dermatitis, seborrhea, psoriasis, itchiness, hair growth disorders, systemic sclerosis, and cancer.  The implication of this study is that cannabis can be used to prevent or treat such skin conditions.   
Lymphatic/Immune System—This system is responsible for combating diseases and keeping us healthy. A major dysfunction of the immune system is an autoimmune disease, or a condition in which the immune system attacks healthy cells.  Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, and multiple sclerosis.  Each of these diseases is more common in women.
Multiple sclerosis patients have used cannabis to assuage their symptoms with great success, and research published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry shows that THC, one of the cannabinoids present in cannabis, can suppress overactive immune systems.  Chronic inflammation plays an important role in the onset of autoimmune disorders. THC can alter molecules in a way that suppresses this inflammation.   
Musculoskeletal System—This system gives our bodies structure and mobility through bone and muscle health.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 80% of the ten million Americans with osteoporosis are women.  Women are more susceptible to this bone weakening disease than men for two reasons: women have more fragile bones than men, and the onset of menopause results in a sharp decrease of estrogen secretion.  This decline can cause bone loss.  
A 2009 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that ECS health played a role in the development of osteoporosis.  The CB1 receptor of the ECS is responsible for regulating the process of bone formation and fat accumulation in the bone marrow. The implication of the study is that targeting the CB1 receptor with cannabinoids can stop or reverse the escalation of osteoporosis.

Nervous System—This system is what makes everything else possible. Without our brains and nerves, we would be sacs of organs. Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the most frightening diseases are the ones that occur when our nervous systems go haywire.

Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis comprise some of the conditions that give us nightmares. The combination of cannabis’ neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and calming properties make it an effective treatment for nervous system disorders including Tourette syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, MS, migraines, lupus, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, dystonia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

This is exciting news for women who are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s, MS, and fibromyalgia.

Reproductive System—This is the wonderful system that everyone paid attention to in school.  The reproductive system is all about sex and baby making.  A fascinatingly complex system, human reproduction involves puberty, pleasure, relationships, hormones, fetal development, birth, and breastfeeding. 
Menarche is the term for the first occurrence of menstruation, a stigmatized process that ensures a woman’s ability to reproduce.  And again, it’s awesomeness is often overshadowed by a stigma it doesn’t deserve.  So for all y’all men who freak out at the thought of buying tampons or gag at the word menstruation, just know that you wouldn’t be here without the thing you despise.  Period.
Despite its awesomeness, menstruation can cause some discomforts such as cramping, headaches, bloating, and malaise.  And you guessed it!  Cannabis can help with that. For this reason, Whoopi Goldberg and Maya Elisabeth developed a cannabis label—Whoopi and Maya—targeting women who seek relief from menstruation related discomforts.  Cannabis can relieve cramping, excessive menstrual bleeding, and poor mood, making it a wonderful alternative to Midol.  A 2008 publication by Dr. Ethan Russo outlines cannabis’ established history as a treatment  for women for thousands of years because of its potential to alleviate symptoms of dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), dysuria (painful urination), hyperemesis gravidarum (severe vomiting resulting from pregnancy), and menopause. 
The reproductive system is also what enables humans to have sex, and cannabis can help here as well. Cannabis has been used as an aphrodisiac for centuries.  It relaxes the muscles, enhances blood flow, and improves mood.  All of these things are important for sex.
When it comes to cannabis and pregnancy, there is too little research on the topic to make any conclusions.  The best way to determine the effects of cannabis on fetuses is to conduct a longitudinal study, or a study that analyzes the results of cannabis on children from their time in utero to several years post-partum. However, it is unethical to administer a substance to a pregnant woman that could potentially harm the fetus. The research that currently exists has conflicting results since it is difficult for the researchers to obtain complete transparency from the mothers, and since many of the mothers used substances such as tobacco or alcohol in addition to cannabis.
Research of cannabis’ impact on breastfeeding is also inconclusive because of a lack of longitudinal studies, but current evidence suggests that trace amounts of THC can be passed to the baby through breast milk and potentially impact brain development and result in lethargy that decreases a growing baby’s appetite. Because long term effects are unknown, it may be safer for women to avoid cannabis consumption while nursing.  
Cannabis has also shown great potential to be a treatment for breast cancer, a type of cancer that affects women far more than men. Multiple studies have found that CBD has the ability to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells making it a potential alternative to or supplement for the highly toxic and painful chemotherapy.     

A Final Word

Modern research shows that the manifestation of disease is sex dependent. This is also true when it comes to the effects of cannabis. Men and women are different, and the way they experience symptoms and therapy are different, too.  Marijuana can affect men and women differently.  While that’s easy to say and believe, scientists have a long way to go in their analysis of what that really means.  But there’s one thing that we know right now.

Women, you are in charge of your body. No matter what legislators, scientists, or opinionated relatives say, you know your body better than anyone else in the world. The information here is limited, and the nascence of research into gender specific interactions with cannabis makes it interesting at most, but certainly not gospel. Listen to what your body tells you as you experiment with cannabis.  Then, trust what it says.  
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