In Women’s Health and Cannabis: Part 1, we looked at some of 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 began to research with the goal of understanding, “How cannabis works for women, and why it works so well.” 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 is that women’s bodies are uniquely suited to work with cannabis for two reasons. First, our monthly hormonal cycle. Second, 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, are discreet systems that have a focused role. That role could be moving electrical signals between the brain and the nerves. 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. These systems are 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 has 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. It does this by regulating all the other systems and functions in your body. This includes internal temperature, blood sugar levels, your body’s pH, the emission of metabolic waste, and mineral levels.
How the ECS works
The ECS regulates these functions by helping your body’s systems communicate with each other. It coordinates 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 in brain cells, the nervous system, and 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 no matter where they’re found, their role is 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. This tells the cell what to do to get the body back to homeostasis, back to normal.
The body produces its own endocannabinoids to act as regulators
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. These include 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 did you know 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. They supplement our own endocannabinoids and help the ECS regulate our body.
What’s special about a woman’s ECS?
Today, we’re able to plan when and if we want to have children. 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 most 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. They can be found in high concentrations 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. Because they’re used internally, they 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, like cannabis, that are scientifically optimized to provide maximum healing and relief through natural means. Cannabis is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It can help treat inflammation of the uterus or its lining. It can also offer relief from the pain of endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or endometritis. Cannabis topicals 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. This pattern allows females to produce an egg that can be fertilized, implanted, and grown until a baby is born. Before we lived in cities and filled our nights with artificial light, women lived in nature. Their monthly cycles were attuned to the moon, ovulating under the light of the Full Moon, and using the New Moon’s darkness as place of solitude during menstruation.
A feminine journey
In our modern world, we’ve lost sight of the moon and her rhythm. This makes it more difficult to be intuitively in tune with our own bodies and their cycles. In fact, most women don’t even understand their own hormonal cycle, let alone how cannabis fits into it. Many women have been socialized to think that PMS is “just an excuse for women to act bad”. But in fact, there are very good reasons that a woman’s mood changes throughout her cycle. And understanding the endocannabinoid system empowers a woman to take charge of her own cycle.
By embracing her hormonal cycle, a woman can schedule her work and life in the best way for her. Becoming more aware of her hormonal cycle lets her find her best self and affect positive change in her life.
The ECS regulates a woman’s hormones and menstrual cycle
A woman’s hormonal cycle is completely dependent on the ECS. It regulates the timing and flow of hormones to ensure she can become pregnant and carry a baby to term. Let’s start by looking at how a menstrual cycle works. Then we’ll 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. They peak in the middle of your cycle–right before ovulation. Ovulation occurs when your ovaries release an egg to be fertilized. Estrogen levels then dip before they bump back up a bit. Progesterone levels begin to rise over the next two weeks.
If the egg remains unfertilized by a sperm, then your estrogen levels drop. This causes your body to shed its uterine lining, and you have a period. Then the cycle starts all over again. (If the egg is fertilized, it then attaches to your uterine lining and begins to grow. This process, called pregnancy, is also completely governed by the ECS.)
Anadamide and 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”. Because of this, Anandamide is also known as “the bliss molecule”. 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. She 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. These high levels left her unable to experience anxiety or fear.
Estrogen regulates anandamide levels
The anandamide level in our bodies are regulated by the hormone estrogen. Higher estrogen levels, like those we experience in the middle of our cycles, increase the body’s production of anandamide. High estrogen also lowers the production of enzymes that break down anandamide at the same time. Together, this leaves us with higher levels of anadamide whenever our estrogen levels are also relatively high.
This increase in anadamide is the main reason that women feel less anxious, depressed and moody during the middle of their cycles. High estrogen levels cause higher anadamide levels. This also explains why they feel 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. This is different from most other receptors in the body, which offer one-way communication only.
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 talk right back. The higher levels of anadamide in the middle of the cycle trigger the release of hormones that result in ovulation. If the egg is not fertilized, menstruation will occur. However, if the egg is fertilized, endocanabinoids go to work again. This time, they tell the endocrine system to regulate the levels of other hormones. This ultimately ensures 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 anandamide, THC from cannabis now has less to do to achieve homeostasis. This makes you more sensitive to the effects of THC. Most women find themselves more likely to get high from THC during this time. Therefore, they 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 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. Instead of causing a high, cannabis becomes quite medicinal, creating non-psychoactive effects in the body.
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. This understanding will help you better predict your cannabis consumption outcomes.
Having a better understanding of hormones empowers women to be more confident about being their truest selves, more in the center of their own power, and more in tune with the natural cycles and rhythms of the Earth and their own bodies.