Cannabis Effects on Men vs. Women
Posted by Marijuana Doctors on 10/31/2018 in Medical Marijuana
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Patients and doctors agree — marijuana is an incredible therapeutic substance. From pain relief to muscle spasm treatment, cannabis and its chemical compounds are potent tools in medicine. However, there’s still plenty to be learned about this plant and its effects on humans. While much of the focus has been dedicated to the therapeutic effects of cannabis, one of the big questions yet to be fully answered is how marijuana effects men versus women.
While it may seem like something that should have already been analyzed, identifying the differences between men’s and women’s responses has never been a high priority. Most studies only use men by default, especially studies that are more expensive, like neuroimaging studies. While keeping the subjects of studies limited to one sex was used as a method of minimizing variation between participating individuals, it has resulted in a shortage of information about how marijuana affects women’s bodies and brains as compared to men’s.
With cannabis growing in popularity as a therapeutic drug, understanding the different responses and needs between the sexes is a vital step toward achieving broad recognition and acceptance of medical marijuana. While the current research is still mostly preclinical, there are several studies that have looked at how cannabis affects the sexes differently. Here are just a few results that may explain why you and your opposite-sex friends react the way you do to marijuana.
Why Does Cannabis Affect Men and Women Differently?
Most people understand that your height and weight may play a significant role in your initial tolerance to a drug — larger, taller-built people may need more to experience the same effects as smaller individuals. It’s a little harder to understand why marijuana should affect men and women differently, especially individuals who are similar in size. Many drugs affect men and women differently because our brains are different.
While our overall neuroanatomy may be very similar, there are several key differences between male and female anatomy and physiology that have a significant effect on how individuals react to marijuana. These include:
- Brain Receptors
The chemicals in cannabis work by binding to unique receptors in the brain. The number, density and function of these receptors change from person to person, eliciting different effects for each cannabis user. One of the things that affect the prevalence of these receptors is the presence and quantity of certain sex hormones. Because the amount of each type of sex hormone differs between men and women, men and women will have different amounts of receptors, affecting their high.
- Sex Hormones
Sex hormones don’t just affect the number of brain receptors — certain hormones have a direct effect on the chemicals in cannabis. Estrogen is the most notable of these hormones because it regulates the production of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), a chemical that degrades the endocannabinoid anandamide, which is the human body’s natural version of THC. When estrogen levels are decreased, FAAH is less regulated and can freely degrade anandamide, resulting in greater anxiety and depression and a reduced response to THC.
- Metabolic Differences
While this is an area that is still being heavily researched, preclinical studies have suggested that men and women metabolize marijuana chemicals differently. It is thought that this has to do mostly with sex hormones, but research is still inconclusive.
While there may be other factors that we are still unaware of, current research has focused on these three aspects differentiating men and women. The most research, however, has focused on sex hormones and their interactions with cannabis chemicals. We’ll explain this in more detail as we delve into the unique biological and behavioral differences between men and women.
Cannabis and the Male Body
Most of the available preclinical research on marijuana focuses on the male body due to the research practices we mentioned above, but it’s no coincidence that marijuana is so closely associated with men over women — three-quarters of all weed smokers are men. However, men don’t just consume more cannabis than women — they’re also two to three times more likely to develop dependencies on drugs, including marijuana. In fact, available information shows that men who use marijuana are less likely to be cannabis-only users than women. While the reasons for these behavioral differences are likely a complex mix involving socioeconomic and cultural factors, there is a chance that they may have a biological component. Research has shown that male marijuana users tend to have higher rates of delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol in their bloodstream, though what this means on a biological level is still unclear.
As for the more conclusive research, it’s apparent that men tend to have more stable reactions to marijuana. Much of this has to do with the fact that men have fewer monthly fluctuations than women do in terms of sex hormones. However, men’s usage of marijuana does have an effect on men’s production of hormones. THC essentially blocks the production of gonadotropins in the pituitary gland, which are essential for producing testosterone. THC also depresses the production of certain hormones that affect prostate function and sperm production.
Benefits of Marijuana for Men
All of the previously mentioned biological effects of marijuana have some interesting results in men, both positive and negative. Here’s a general overview of what the research has found in terms of benefits specifically for men:
- Pain relief: The most predominant benefit of marijuana for men is the greater analgesic effect. In one study, regular marijuana users smoked a weed cigarette and then held their hand in cold water to see how much pain they felt and how long they could tolerate it. The study showed that men experienced greater pain relief than women after ingesting cannabis.
- Slow tolerance building: With few exceptions, men have more stable reactions to THC than women and tend to take much longer to build tolerance. While individual men may vary in their psychological reactions and initial sensitivity to marijuana, most men should find that specific strains affect them in relatively consistent ways.
Of course, these benefits come in addition to the already established benefits of marijuana, like its ability to help people fight cancer, alleviate anxiety disorders and regulate seizures.
Effects of Marijuana on Men
While marijuana offers numerous benefits for men, there are specific side effects that either affect men specifically or tend to affect men more than women. These include:
- Munchies: Men tend to be more susceptible to increased hunger pangs after consuming marijuana, falling victim to “the munchies” more often than women. In fact, this is one of the only side effects of THC that affects men more strongly than women. While this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, it is something to keep in mind on your next snack-buying run.
- Testosterone levels: The reduction in testosterone levels as a result of THC ingestion can have significant effects on male sexual health. Most notably, THC use is associated with lowered libido and sexual performance. Fortunately, these effects are not permanent, and normal testosterone levels can be achieved by simply taking a break for a while.
- Fertility: THC affects multiple sex hormones associated with male sexual performance and sperm production, which has a significant effect on fertility. Like testosterone levels, fertility can be restored to normal with a short break from marijuana.
- Cognition: While results remain inconclusive on the effects of marijuana on cognition in general, some studies have suggested that chronic use in men results in slower reaction times and reduced inhibitions. Other studies showed that male rats given large doses of THC over long periods of time exhibited reduced motivation and changes in the brain areas controlling stress and memory. These effects were not seen in all participants, and some studies found no correlation between these behaviors and marijuana use. Even rarer and more contested is the notion that men are more likely to experience psychosis after using marijuana. It is unclear whether genetic factors are involved, but research is underway to understand more about why this occurs.
Cannabis and the Female Body
While most of the available research on marijuana focuses on men, there’s plenty of research out there analyzing the effects of marijuana on the female body. Of particular interest to many is how women’s hormonal cycles affect their reaction to marijuana. Because estrogen regulates the breakdown of endocannabinoids, and because women’s estrogen levels fluctuate throughout the month, women’s reactions to ingesting marijuana vary widely based on their menstrual cycle. For example, when estrogen levels are at their peak during ovulation, women tend to become more sensitive to THC. However, when women are on their period, their estrogen levels are at their lowest, and their bodies break down endocannabinoids more freely and don’t react as strongly to THC.
There are also interesting behavioral differences between men and women when it comes to marijuana ingestion. Women tend to smoke less than men and tend to start smoking later in life. When asked why they smoked, women reported that they were using it as a way to help cope with social and psychological stressors. However, women also tend to increase their rate of marijuana ingestion more quickly than men and tend to have more difficulty quitting, relapsing more often. Part of the reason for this may be the fact that women tend to build a tolerance to THC more quickly than men, especially when taking the drug daily. In fact, in one study by Washington State University, female rats were given 30 percent less THC than their male counterparts, yet they still developed a tolerance to the drug more quickly.
Benefits of Marijuana for Women
All of the biological outcomes explained above have resulted in unique effects in women. While not everyone experiences marijuana the same way, many women can experience the following benefits on top of the normal benefits of marijuana use:
- PMS symptom management: For many women, PMS symptoms can be anywhere from uncomfortable to debilitatingly painful. About 10 percent of women experience dysmenorrhea, where their cramps are so painful that they disrupt their daily life. Fortunately, THC ingestion can help alleviate some of the primary symptoms of PMS, including nausea, bloating and headaches.
- Sexual desire: Estrogen levels in women don’t just affect how strong a woman’s high is, but also how strong her libido is. After taking low doses of THC, women tend to experience heightened sexual desire. The effect does not scale, however, since larger doses of THC have the opposite effect.
Again, it’s important to note that everyone experiences marijuana in a different way depending on their genetic predispositions, body type and health conditions.
Effects of Marijuana on Women
While marijuana is often more beneficial than it is harmful, it’s important to recognize some of the common side effects women experience. A few of the most common side effects for women include:
- Sensitivity: Generally speaking, women are more sensitive to nearly all the effects of pot smoking, with the only exception being that men are more susceptible to increases in hunger. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it often means that women feel the psychoactive properties of marijuana much more easily, requiring lower amounts to reach the same level of high as men. Unfortunately, this sensitivity also means that women are more likely to experience side effects like heightened nausea and anxiety. This sensitivity to marijuana increases when women’s estrogen levels are high, like during ovulation.
- Withdrawal: When women stop taking cannabis, they tend to experience much more extreme withdrawal symptoms compared to men. Anxiety and nausea are particularly common withdrawal symptoms. While some researchers have hypothesized that women’s greater tolerance to marijuana may have something to do with their heightened withdrawal symptoms, the mechanisms through which these processes occur are still poorly understood.
- Disorientation: Women tend to be more likely to experience visuospatial disorientation immediately after using marijuana, resulting in problems maintaining balance, navigating through unfamiliar areas and locating items or places. Many women also report a feeling of dizziness when high, which can further increase disorientation.
While the above effects tend to be more common among women, other side effects are less frequently observed or more widely disputed. Most notable of these are the suggested cognitive effects of marijuana on women. While there isn’t much available evidence to support a specific conclusion as to how marijuana affects women’s brains, some studies showed that chronic use negatively affected women’s memory and emotional processing centers.
In short, women need to be a bit more careful than men when ingesting marijuana, as their reaction to THC varies based on several variables. Typically, doctors recommend that women change the type of strain they use based on their point in their menstrual cycle, using strains with higher levels of THC during ovulation when they are particularly sensitive.
Cannabis Treatment Options for Men and Women
Regardless of gender, marijuana is an excellent treatment option for a variety of disorders and diseases, gender-specific or not. Some potential therapeutic uses of marijuana include:
- Anxiety management: For some people, marijuana is helpful for managing their anxiety symptoms. Both men and women can benefit from cannabis’ ability to reduce feelings of stress and tension. It is important to note that not everyone can benefit from weed this way — some people feel more anxious as a side-effect of THC ingestion, and women tend to experience it more often than men.
- Anorexia: Body dysmorphia and self-esteem issues plague both men and women, stemming from problems with anxiety and depression as well as social stressors. While anorexia tends to be more common among women, both men and women suffering from this eating disorder can supplement their treatment plan with marijuana to help. Marijuana not only increases appetite but can also help alleviate some of the causes of anorexia, like depression and anxiety.
- Cancer: The marijuana plant naturally produces several compounds that are therapeutic in nature. THC and CBD are widely recognized to have antitumor effects in certain types of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer.
- Pain management: Though men tend to have more of a pain-relief response to marijuana as compared to women, both men and women can benefit from the analgesic effects of marijuana. Commonly, marijuana is used to help manage pain from headaches, migraines, fibromyalgia, post-surgical bruising and other conditions.
- Stress disorders: Both men and women suffer from stress disorders like panic attacks and PTSD. Marijuana can help ease tension and relieve some of the psychological stress associated with these disorders while also helping patients achieve more restful sleep.
- Nausea: Common in people with digestive issues or patients going through chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting is also treatable with marijuana. It is important to note, however, that women tend to experience heightened nausea when going through marijuana withdrawal, so proper dose maintenance is key.
- Spasms: Marijuana can be a powerful muscle relaxant for people with seizure disorders. Even small doses of CBD can help reduce involuntary muscle spasms.
- Insomnia: Insomnia is a disorder that plagues over half of the population — 63 percent of women and 54 percent of men report suffering from insomnia. Fortunately, marijuana can help people of both sexes fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Weight management: While almost everyone is aware of the “munchies,” overeating and obesity are actually less common among pot smokers. One publication in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that marijuana users tend to have lower rates of obesity than those who do not use cannabis, with 22 percent of nonsmokers reporting obesity as compared to 14 percent of regular cannabis users in one round of the study. While the reason for this trend has yet to be fully explained, this initial finding suggests that marijuana may be a good aid for those looking to manage their weight.
No matter how you decide to use marijuana or what you use it for, it’s important to recognize how your gender plays a role in your reaction to cannabis. Women may need to take more tolerance breaks to achieve consistent treatment results and may need assistance handling withdrawal symptoms. Men, on the other hand, need to keep their reproductive and sexual health in mind when using marijuana and be aware if their behavior starts to change dramatically as this could be a sign of a mental break.
Find a Doctor at MarijuanaDoctors.com
It’s important to know how cannabis might affect you based on your gender, and it’s equally important to talk to your doctor if you have any questions about your marijuana use and how it might affect you based on your sex. If you don’t have a marijuana doctor already, you can find one here at MarijuanaDoctors.com. You can also use our site to find a dispensary and bud specialist who you can talk to about marijuana dosages and how marijuana may affect your body.