Updated on January 21, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Research has shown that marijuana can provide relief from a wide variety of medical conditions. But there’s still plenty to be learned about this plant and its effects on humans. While most research has focused on the therapeutic effects of cannabis, one of the big questions yet to be fully answered is how marijuana affects men versus women.
One reason is that most research is conducted on men only. While limiting the subjects of studies to one sex is a way of minimizing variation between participating individuals, it has resulted in a shortage of information about how marijuana affects women’s bodies and brains compared to men’s.
While the current research is mostly preclinical, several studies have looked at how cannabis affects the sexes differently. Here is an overview of the results.
Why Does Cannabis Affect Men and Women Differently?
Most people understand that height and weight may play a significant role in your initial tolerance to a drug—larger people may need more of a drug to experience the same effects as smaller individuals. It’s a bit more difficult to understand why marijuana should affect men and women differently, especially if they’re similar in size. In fact, 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:
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 thing that affects 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, they have different amounts of receptors, affecting the way they react to marijuana.
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.
While this is an area that is still being 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 inconclusive.
While there may be other factors that we are still unaware of, current research has focused on these three differences between men and women. The majority of research, however, has focused on sex hormones and their interactions with cannabis chemicals. We’ll explain this in more detail as we examine the biological and behavioral differences between men and women.
Cannabis and the Male Body
Most of the available preclinical studies on marijuana focus on the male body because of the research practices mentioned above, but it’s also true that three-quarters of all marijuana users are men. Men don’t just consume more cannabis than women, however: They’re also two to three times more likely to develop dependencies on drugs, including marijuana. In fact, 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 of socioeconomic and cultural factors, there is a chance that there may be 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.
Research indicates that men tend to have more stable reactions to marijuana as well. This may be due to the fact that men have fewer monthly fluctuations in sex hormones than women do. It’s also important to note that men’s use of marijuana has an effect on hormone production. 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
Here’s a general overview of what researchers have learned about the benefits and drawbacks of marijuana for men.
Pain relief: One benefit for men is the greater analgesic effect. In one study, regular cannabis users smoked a marijuana 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 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 lower libido and sexual performance. These effects are not permanent, however, and normal testosterone levels can be achieved by taking a break from cannabis use.
Fertility: THC affects multiple sex hormones associated with male sexual performance and sperm production, which can have an effect on fertility.
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, some studies have analyzed 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. When estrogen levels are at their peak during ovulation, for example, women tend to become more sensitive to THC. During menstruation, when estrogen levels are at their lowest, women’s 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. They also tend to increase their rate of marijuana ingestion more quickly than men and 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 still developed a tolerance 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: After taking low doses of THC, some women 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: Women have been shown to be more sensitive to nearly all the effects of marijuana, the only exception being that men are more susceptible to increases in hunger. This can mean that women feel the psychoactive properties of marijuana much more easily. It also means that women are more likely to experience side effects like heightened nausea and anxiety. This sensitivity increases when estrogen levels are high, as during ovulation.
Withdrawal: When women stop taking cannabis, they tend to experiencemore extreme withdrawal symptoms than men. Anxiety and nausea are common. While some researchers have hypothesized that women’s greater tolerance to marijuana may be related to their heightened withdrawal symptoms, the mechanisms through which these processes occur are still poorly understood.
Disorientation: Women are 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 after consuming marijuana, 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 are the cognitive effects of marijuana on women. While research doesn’t point to a specific conclusion as to how marijuana affects women’s brains, some studies have shown that chronic use negatively affected women’s memory and emotional processing centers.
Experts suggest that women use caution when ingesting marijuana, as their reaction to THC may vary. Typically, doctors recommend that women tailor the type of strain they use to the 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 a treatment option for a variety of disorders and diseases. Here is a partial list of potential therapeutic uses of marijuana.
Anxiety management: Both men and women find that marijuana is helpful for managinganxiety symptoms. It’s important to note that not everyone experiences this benefit. 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. While anorexia tends to be more common among women, both men and women suffering from this eating disorder have found that marijuana not only increases appetite but can also help alleviate some of the causes of anorexia, like depression and anxiety.
Cancer:THC and CBD are widely recognized to have antitumor effects in certain types of cancer, including breast and prostate.
Pain management: Though men tend to have more of a pain-relief response to marijuana than women, both genders have found marijuana to be useful in managing 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 post-traumatic stress disorder. Marijuana has been shown to 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 and patients going through chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting are 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: Some patients with seizure disorders find that marijuana can be a powerful muscle relaxant. Even small doses of CBD can help reduce involuntary muscle spasms.
Insomnia:Thisdisorder plagues more than half of the population—63 percent of women and 54 percent of men report suffering from insomnia. Some of them use marijuana to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Weight management: A study 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.
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 should keep their reproductive and sexual health in mind when using marijuana and be monitor their behavior as a dramatic change 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.