Good news for the increasing number of people who have wondered whether marijuana can help with women’s health issues: A Harvard professor is conducting the first-ever study to determine whether cannabidiol (CBD, a compound extracted from cannabis plants) can provide relief from menstrual cramps. The researcher—Staci Gruber, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program at McLean Hospital—will follow women over the course of two menstrual cycles to gauge the effect of CBD-infused suppositories on their symptoms.
Scientific evidence backing up the personal experience of people who have tried CBD for reasons ranging from menstrual pain to menopause has been hard to come by. This is because the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, despite the fact that it’s legal for medical use in more than 60% of U.S. states, districts, and territories. But that’s starting to change as the agency loosens restrictions on researchers.
Until additional research takes place, let’s look at what’s known about marijuana’s ability to help with four common women’s health problems.
The vast majority of women—84%, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain Research—experience some type of pain before or during their period, whether abdominal cramping, lower back pain, leg pain, or headaches.
The options for treating the pain are limited. Over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen and acetaminophen help some women but not others. Natural remedies, such as applying a hot pad to the affected area, may ease the pain. But a sizable percentage of women—nearly a third of participants in the journal study—miss time from work, school, or social activities because they can’t find relief.
Some of them are turning to marijuana. Although research hasn’t pinpointed why it works (and the Harvard study mentioned above will shed light), researchers have theorized that CBD suppresses the mechanisms in the body responsible for inflammation and also that it slows down electrical signaling in the muscles and allows them to relax, which reduces cramping.
This could be why New York state added dysmenorrhea (the medical term for severe menstrual pain) to the list of approved uses for medical marijuana in 2017.
For some women, the effects of menstrual pain can be debilitating. This includes women who have endometriosis, a disorder in which endometrial tissue grows abnormally outside the uterus. Pelvic pain can be severe, particularly during the menstrual cycle.
Treatment for endometriosis typically involves hormones or surgery, which may cause side effects or fail to help. There is no cure.
Some doctors and patients are looking at marijuana as another treatment option. One reason is that researchers believe that endometriosis is associated with a deficiency in endocannabinoids, compounds the body produces naturally to regulate pain, mood, memory, and more. Cannabis mimics these molecules and serves as a supplement when the endocannabinoid system goes haywire, as it does with endometriosis.
A lack of sexual desire affects as many as 27% of premenopausal women and 52% of menopausal women. Yet it’s often not taken seriously by doctors or by women themselves—the prevailing wisdom being that it’s something that “just happens” with age.
If low libido doesn’t bother the woman or her partner, there’s no cause for concern. But if it does, it can be complicated to pinpoint the cause and rectify it. The only drug on the market to help, Addyi (flibanserin)—approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015—has been met with mixed results and can cause serious side effects. The requirements for taking it are strict, too: Unlike Viagra, which is taken on an as-needed basis, Addyi must be taken every day. And women who take it must abstain from alcohol.
Among the reasons many people are looking at marijuana as an alternative: research from the Stanford University School of Medicine showing a positive association between frequency of marijuana use and frequency of sexual intercourse. This was true for men and women of all races, ages, education levels, income groups, and religions and whether they were married or single and did or did not have children.
A common concern with marijuana is that it will impair sexual desire or performance. The study showed the opposite.
Hot flashes. Mood swings. Pain. Insomnia. This is a partial list of symptoms experienced by many women going through menopause due to dropping estrogen levels. Menopause can also bring on depression and anxiety in some women. Hormone therapy is often prescribed to treat the symptoms but comes with health risks.
To understand why marijuana may ease some of these symptoms, it helps to know that estrogen is linked to the endocannabinoid system, mentioned above as regulating pain and mood. When estrogen levels increase, so do endocannabinoid levels—and vice versa. So some researchers theorize that cannabis can boost the endocannabinoid system’s functions during menopause, when there’s less estrogen available to power it.
Another common menopause symptom caused by a drop in estrogen is vaginal dryness, which can lead to a cascading set of problems including painful sex and low libido. Dryness can be treated with lubricants, moisturizers, and estrogen pills, patches, gels, or rings. Marijuana douches and topical cannabinoids are another option. No studies have shown that they ease dryness, but some doctors say they may enter the bloodstream and provide relief.
Andrea Barbalich, a journalist who has held top editorial positions at Meredith, Scholastic, and Rodale, writes frequently about health for RD, AARP, Health Monitor Network, and other outlets.