In Women’s Health and Cannabis: Part 1, we looked at all the different ways women have traditionally used cannabis throughout history, from treating pain to enhancing pleasure. One thing that has always stood out to me is that women have used cannabis for myriad health concerns, things that affect only female bodies. I really like to get to the bottom of things, and understand WHY things work the way they do, so I started to ask the question,“Why does cannabis work so well for women?” Why does cannabis, a natural plant, successfully treat such a wide swath of women’s health issues, and with so few complications?
What I discovered, and want to share with you, is that women’s bodies are uniquely suited to work with cannabis for two reasons: 1) our monthly hormonal cycle; and 2) the design of the Endocannabinoid System and its role in the female Reproductive System. Let’s get into it by taking a look at the Endocannabinoid System.
What is the Endocannabinoid System and what is its role in our bodies?
Some systems in our bodies, like the Nervous System or the Circulatory System, are discreet systems that have a focused role, like moving electrical signals between the brain and the nerves, or moving blood through the lungs, heart, and blood vessels to make sure the body gets the oxygen it needs. The Digestive System makes sure we get the nutrients we need from our food to fuel our bodies; the Skeletal System holds us up and gives our Muscular System something to hang on to. They’re well-defined and easy to understand because their role is specific, easily observed, and serves a focused function.
The Endocannabinoid System (we’ll call it the ECS for short) is different. Although it does have very a specific role in your body, it’s not an isolated system that does its own thing. Instead, its role is to help your body maintain homeostasis, or balance, and it does this by regulating all the other systems and functions in your body, including internal temperature, blood sugar levels, your body’s pH, the emission of metabolic waste, and your water and mineral levels.
The ECS regulates these functions by helping your body’s systems communicate with each other and coordinating information exchanges between different kinds of cells. This information is contained in molecules called endocannabinoids that are naturally produced in the body. Endocannabinoids connect with receptors that are found on cells in the brain, the nervous system, and in nearly every tissue of your body.
There are several different kinds of ECS receptors. Different kinds of receptors are concentrated in different kinds of tissues, but their role is always to help the body’s systems stay in balance.
To really understand how these receptors work, it’s helpful to think of them like a padlock. You can think of the endocannabinoids as keys that fit inside the padlock. Once the key is in the padlock, it unlocks the information there and tells the cell what to do to get the body back to homeostasis, back to normal.
As fluctuations in the body occur and a function becomes unbalanced, the ECS responds by making more endocannabinoids. But sometimes the body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids, which makes it difficult for the ECS to function properly. This can lead to imbalances in the body, and eventually to greater health issues. In fact, there are a number of disorders that stem from ECS dis-regulation, including fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
This is where the cannabis plant comes in. You’ve probably already heard of THC and CBD, but the cannabis plant actually contains more than 100 different cannabinoids, called phytocannabinoids. Like our own natural endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids can interact with the body’s receptors, supplementing our own endocannabinoids and helping to make sure the ECS can regulate our body the way it’s supposed to.
What’s special about a woman’s ECS?
Today, we’re able to plan when and if we want to have children, and for many people, having kids is not a priority or a goal. But when it comes to biology, reproduction is one of the most important human systems. If people can’t reproduce and continue the human species, then what’s the point of regulating our systems at all? The ECS maintains homeostasis so that our bodies are kept in the best place to be able to conceive and carry a fetus to term.
So it makes sense that ECS receptors appear in especially dense concentrations throughout the female reproductive organs, including in our ovaries, Fallopian tubes, and the lining of the uterus.
This is why cannabis lubricants and suppositories–from the ones available today, to the Azallú that Mesopotamian women created and used vaginally–are very effective for treating a variety of women’s symptoms, since they’re used internally and can be applied directly to the receptors in those tissues. Women throughout history have used their intuition and innate wisdom to guide them to the very plants that are scientifically optimized to provide maximum healing and relief through natural means. Cannabis is a powerful anti-inflammatory, and these applications also help treat inflammation of the uterus or its lining, and can offer relief from the pain of endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or endometritis. They can also help treat some of the symptoms most women experience before and during their periods, including abdominal cramps and muscle aches.
But understanding our ECS receptors is only half of the story when it comes to women and cannabis. In order to really understand how women are affected by cannabis, we have to take a look at hormones.
How do hormones work with my ECS?
Until they experience menopause, most female-bodied people have hormones that create a monthly cycle. These hormones, which are regulated by the ECS, flow in a predictable pattern that allows females to produce an egg that can be fertilized, implanted, and grown inside her until a baby is born. Before we lived in cities and filled our nights with artificial light, women lived in nature and their monthly cycles were attuned to the moon, ovulating under the light of the Full Moon, and using the New Moon’s darkness as a shelter and place of solitude during menstruation.
In our modern world, we’ve lost sight of the moon and her rhythm, making it more difficult to be intuitively in tune with our own bodies and their cycles. As I researched this topic, I spoke with a number of other women about the things I was learning, and found that most women don’t even understand their own hormonal cycle, let alone how cannabis fits into it, myself included! As I was growing up, I was actively encouraged to be more masculine, to pretend I didn’t have emotions, and to think that PMS was “just an excuse for women to act bad”. I didn’t discover the beauty of my own hormonal cycle until I was much older and in a relationship with a man who helped me understand that A) women are different from men; and B) that’s a good thing.
I am grateful for my own journey, and for the struggles that led me to better understand myself and my own body. Now that I’m able to embrace my hormones and my monthly cycle, it is much easier for me to schedule my work and life along with my hormonal flow. One of my goals in the work I do is to help women become more aware of their own hormonal cycle, and start to understand how they can use it to be their best and affect positive change in their life.
A woman’s hormonal cycle is completely dependent on the ECS, which regulates the timing and flow of hormones that ensure she can become pregnant, and carry babies to term Let’s start by looking at how a menstrual cycle works, and then we can look at the way cannabis fits into it.
Any menstrual cycle–28 days or not–starts with menstruation, or the shedding of the lining of the uterus. If an embryo is not present, then your body releases the old, making space for the new. After the first three days of your period, your estrogen levels begin to rise, peaking in the middle of your cycle–right before ovulation, which occurs when your ovaries release an egg to be fertilized. Estrogen levels then dip before they bump back up a bit, and progesterone levels begin to rise over the next two weeks. If the egg remains unfertilized by a sperm, then your estrogen levels drop, your body sheds its uterine lining, and the cycle starts all over again. (If the egg is fertilized, it then attaches to your uterine lining and begins to grow, a process that is also completely governed by the ECS.)
The ECS is responsible for regulating this hormonal cycle through the production of a molecule called anandamide. This molecule is an endocannabinoid, and its name comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “joy, bliss, or delight”. Anandamide is known as “the bliss molecule”, and it plays a role in helping us feel full and satisfied when we’ve had enough to eat, in helping us feel pleasure, and in helping us stay motivated. In fact, this molecule is responsible for the feeling of “runner’s high” that athletes experience during extended exercise. Anandamide also plays a role in regulating our mood, and in providing anti-anxiety and anti-depressive benefits. One wild story that helps to show this is the case of a 71-year-old Scottish woman who was found to be immune to anxiety, unable to experience fear, and insensitive to pain. Researchers eventually discovered that she had a rare genetic mutation that resulted in her having elevated anadamide levels, leaving her unable to experience anxiety or fear.
The levels of anandamide found in our bodies are regulated by the hormone estrogen. Higher estrogen levels, like those we experience in the middle of our cycles, increase the production of anandamide in the body, as well as lower the production of enzymes that break down anandamide at the same time, leaving us with higher levels of anadamide whenever our estrogen levels are also relatively high. The increase in anadamide is the main reason that women feel less anxious, depressed and moody during the middle of their cycles, when their estrogen is higher, and more anxious, depressed, and moody during PMS, when their estrogen levels are lower.
Because they’re all about maintaining internal balance, Endocannabinoid receptors allow for two-way communication between different body systems, which is different than most other receptors in the body. Not only does anadamide allow our Endocrine System (our hormones) to communicate with our Reproductive System (the ovaries and lining of the uterus), but they allow the Reproductive System to communicate right back. The higher levels of anadamide in the middle of the cycle trigger the release of hormones that result in ovulation, eventually causing menstruation if the egg is not fertilized. However, if the egg is fertilized, endocanabinoids go to work again, communicating this to the endocrine system, so that it can regulate the levels of other hormones, ultimately ensuring that an embryo can be successfully implanted and carried to term.
So what does all this mean for your cannabis experience?
The bottom line is this: your estrogen levels affect your cannabis experience. When your estrogen levels are highest, in the middle of your cycle, your body has more anandamide. Because your ECS receptors are already bumping with the anandamide’s communication, THC from cannabis now has less work to do to achieve homeostasis, leaving you with more excess THC molecules, and making you more sensitive to the effects of THC. Most women find themselves more likely to get high from THC during this time, and require less cannabis to meet their wellness needs than at other times during their cycle. But when estrogen levels dip before and during your period, so do your anadamide levels. The THC you ingest when your estrogen is low goes to work helping to relieve pain, moodiness, and inflammation. As a result, most women are less sensitive to the effects of THC during this time, finding that cannabis becomes quite medicinal, and is less likely to make them feel high.
Everyone’s body, ECS, and hormonal cycle is unique to them. Using a period-tracking app like Clue or Kindara and keeping a journal about your cannabis experiences can help you understand exactly how your body will react to cannabis at different times in the month, and better predict and prepare for your cannabis consumption.
I really believe that having a better understanding of the way her hormones work in her body can enable every woman to be more confident about being her truest self, more in the center of her own power, and more in tune with the natural cycles and rhythms of the Earth and her own body.