Sex, drugs and estradiol: Why cannabis affects women differently
Cannabis use is riding high on a decade-long wave of decriminalization, legalization and unregulated synthetic substitutes. As society examines the impact, an interesting disparity has become apparent: the risks are different in females than in males.
A new review of animal studies says that sex differences in response to cannabis are not just socio-cultural, but biological too. Published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, it examines the influence of sex hormones like testosterone, estradiol (estrogen) and progesterone on the endocannabinoid system: networks of brain cells which communicate using the same family of chemicals found in cannabis, called ‘cannabinoids’.
“It has been pretty hard to get laboratory animals to self-administer cannabinoids like human cannabis users,” says study co-author Dr Liana Fattore, Senior Researcher at the National Research Council of Italy and President of the Mediterranean Society of Neuroscience. “However, animal studies on the effects of sex hormones and anabolic steroids on cannabinoid self-administration behavior have contributed a lot to our current understanding of sex differences in response to cannabis.”
So how does cannabis affect men and women differently? Besides genetic background and hormonal fluctuations, the paper highlights a number of important sex differences.
Men are up to four times more likely to try cannabis — and use higher doses, more frequently.
“Male sex steroids increase risk-taking behavior and suppress the brain’s reward system, which could explain why males are more likely to try drugs, including cannabis” explains Fattore. “This is true for both natural male sex steroids like testosterone and synthetic steroids like nandrolone.”
But despite lower average cannabis use, women go from first hit to habit faster than men. In fact, men and women differ not only in the prevalence and frequency of cannabis use, pattern and reasons of use, but also in the vulnerability to develop cannabis use disorder.
“Females seem to be more vulnerable, at a neurochemical level, in developing addiction to cannabis,” explains Fattore.
“Studies in rats show that the female hormone estradiol affects control of movement, social behavior and filtering of sensory input to the brain — all targets of drug taking — via modulation of the endocannabinoid system, whose feedback in turn influences estradiol production.
“Specifically, female rats have different levels of endocannabinoids and more sensitive receptors than males in key brain areas related to these functions, with significant changes along the menstrual cycle.
“As a result, the interactions between the endocannabinoid system and the brain level of dopamine — the neurotransmitter of “pleasure” and “reward” — are sex-dependent.”
The inconsistency of conditions in these studies greatly complicates interpretation of an already complex role of sex hormones in the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoid sensitivity.
“The effects varied according the specific cannabinoid studied, as well as the strain of animals tested and duration of hormone exposure,” admits Fattore. However, the human data so far are consistent with the idea that estradiol regulates the female response to cannabinoids. As in animals, human males and females are diverse in their genetic and hormonally driven behaviour and they process information differently, perceive emotions in different ways and are differently vulnerable to develop drug addiction.
“Blood levels of enzymes which break down cannabinoids fluctuate across the human menstrual cycle, and imaging studies show that brain levels of cannabinoid receptors increase with aging in females — mirroring in each case changes in estradiol levels.”
Fattore believes that deepening our understanding of the interactions between cannabinoids and sex steroids is crucial in assessing the impact of increasing cannabis use, and tackling the fallout.
“Gender-tailored detoxification treatments and relapse prevention strategies for patients with cannabis addiction are increasingly requested. Optimizing personalized evidence-based prevention and treatment protocols demands further research on the source of sex disparities in cannabis response.”
Sex differences in cannabis use are beginning to be explained with the aid of brain studies in animals and humans.
Vulva/Vaginal health related information from scientific research mixed with real life experience
How Estrogen affects THC
With the legislation of medicinal and recreational marijuana in a growing number of places I thought it would be wise to provide some general info on how estrogen and cannabinoids interact with each other and how cannabinoids effect a few other key parts of the human body in an attempt to help people make a more informed decision about whether cannabinoids can be beneficial to them or not, or maybe learn why when they do use THC they may experience negative effects such as feeling anxious, paranoia, decreased sexual interest, and others.
There are a lot of conflicting headlines about the benefits of THC. Some say they are good for you: “Reducing anxiety”, “a treatment for seizures”, “enhancing sexual pleasure and orgasms”. Some articles claim it is bad for you and can cause fertility/sexual problems, could have an effect on medications you currently take, or that it’s just plain snake oil.
So how do we know what to believe?
Both sides are right actually!
Let me show you how THC & CBD positively AND negatively affects your sexual and reproductive systems…..
First a quick and dirty background on the Endocannabinoid system:
Ev ery human has what’s called an Endocannabinoid System (ECS). It was properly discovered in the late 80’s and named so because of it’s ability to process cannabis. We’ve had the system in us since we formed as a fetus, however until recently we weren’t able to determine the system and structures making the cannabis high possible and since cannabis was already named, the scientists who named the system felt it fitting to include it in the name-hence the Endocannabinoid System.
There are 3 parts to the ECS:
- Cannabinoids (which are the chemical molecules e.g. Anandamide & 2-Ag, THC, CBD and a bunch of others)
- Receptors (CB1, CB2, and CB3-not shown below)
- Enzymes (FAAH, MAGL) which break down the cannabinoids
- The body produces its own cannabinoids called endocannabinoids, endo meaning internal/within. Cannabinoids are basically chemical “keys” that act like switches telling a cell what, and what not, to do. Our most researched endocannabinoids are called Anandamide and 2-AG.
- We have receptors for these chemicals through our entire body, literally everywhere, and there is mounting data showing that the ECS is what maintains the body’s homeostasis or “Goldie Locks zone”.
- Lastly there are the enzymes that break down the cannabinoid switches so things don’t stay on or off longer than needed. There are 2 main enzymes: FAAH and MAGL-these are acronyms but the full names aren’t important here.
Now that the quick and dirty tutorial on the ESC is done, on to how estrogen and THC, CBD, and endocannabinoids interact with each other so that you have a clear understanding of what really happens to hopefully dispel any myths or confusion you may have.
Most of the articles on the internet often give you a one sided view of the information usually to suit a belief system and viewpoint. I strive to provide unbiased info from both sides of this topic empowering you to make the best decision for YOU and your life and hopefully be less confused by the conflicting information being passed around and regurgitated by “click bait” articles that either leave you feeling as though you haven’t actually learned anything by reading it or worse that you’ve been provided with incomplete and inaccurate info to suit someone else’s agenda that makes you believe you are now an expert on the topic.
Let’s look at what we know and not the click bait headlines……
Estrogen and the ECS are on something called a negative feedback loop with each other which means, very simplistically, that when something is recognized as too high/low something else gets turned up/down in order to bring us back to middle ground but not in an immediate reaction kind of way.
Let me give some examples……
“A fracture in the toe would result in cell death (which is normal). The resulting lymphatic response would increase blood flow and the migration of white blood cells to the surrounding areas. The ECS would then recognize the excess lymphatic signals, and after deciding that there is no longer a need for the increase of inflammation, the cannabinoid receptors in the surrounding immune cells and tissues will begin to bind with cannabinoids and start to slowly reduce these inflammatory responses (halting cell death)” –https://www.jyi.org/2018-june/2018/6/1/the-endocannabinoid-system-our-universal-regulator
Basically, an injury occurs–>your body responds by raising inflammation to trigger the repair mechanism–>ECS senses high inflammation and comes to the rescue to keep things in control bringing the area back to normal once the injury has been resolved.
Another example is lets say you have a nerve that is over stimulated and being loud and obnoxious and trying to get the attention of the next nerve in the sequence to keep a pain response going. The next nerve in the sequence calls upon the ECS to make anandamide (the cannabinoid chemical) which then gets “negatively” fed (or sent backwards) back to the obnoxious nerve and tells it to calm down!
Here’s how estrogen and the ECS are on a negative feedback loop:
When estrogen levels climb it does 2 things:
1. Creates more cannabinoid receptors
2. Suppresses the FAAH enzyme that breaks down cannabinoids
These actions makes you feel the effects of cannabinoids stronger and longer. Next time you are close to ovulation pay attention and see if you are more easily affected by marijuana or alcohol!! Note: this will really only be noticeable if you are not using a hormonal birth control or hormone suppressors.
Here’s the caveat of the negative feedback loop: due to the actions mentioned above, estrogen creates an environment where your body and brain sense higher levels of cannabinoids via the increased receptors and has a built in mechanism to regulate this. When the ECS reaches a certain level of stimulation, the brain is able to tamp down what is causing the rise thus keeping you in the ‘Goldie Locks Zone’. Unfortunately when we use THC our body thinks that it is our estrogen causing the rise in cannabinoid stimulation.
As mentioned earlier, estrogen causes an increase in receptors and lowers enzyme activity. When increased ESC stimulation occurs, in order to keep you in the Goldie Locks Zone , the brain limits the level of estrogen by limiting the output signal of something called Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus.
GnRH –> stimulates the pituitary to release lutenizing hormong (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) –> which then stimulates estrogen production from the ovaries.
Lots of terms, but stay with me!
This is an issue because suppression of GnRH ultimately leads to a suppression of estrogen and ovarian function as described above, for example: egg maturation, ovulation, normal menstruation, etc. .
It’s a chain reaction.
Normally this negative feedback loop isn’t a problem because it’s part of your body’s natural regulatory cycle: estrogen rises at ovulation but to keep that in check and maintain appropriate estrogen levels, the brain tamps down the mechanism that stimulates the estrogen via the HPO axis (hypothalamus/pituitary/ovary), but when someone smokes or ingests a THC product that person is supplying their receptors with WAY more of the cannabinoid on/off switch chemical than the body intended, or needs, to have. This causes the negative feedback loop to engage tamping down the output from the hypothalamus, decreasing the pituitary output of LH & FSH, and decreasing the ovary’s production of sexual and reproductive hormones, and it doesn’t care at what point you are in your cycle. You might need those hormones produced such as at ovulation or pregnancy or just anytime in general because estrogen is actually being circulated at varying levels at all times.
As a side note: this same thing happens to males. Males produce LH and FSH which stimulate the testes and the male sex hormones and are regulated by the HPO axis and ECS. LH creates testosterone and FSH is needed for proper sperm maturation.
Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom though, I get to some positives later!
This is where the infertility reports come from, however. Since we are all unique individuals, no one is affected by cannabis use or overuse the same as another. One female may be able to use cannabis chronically and have no reproductive issues whether with her menstrual cycle, periods, or ability to have children while another person can ingest the same amount and frequency and have their whole reproductive cycle and ability completely diminished-they may not ovulate, may have missed periods, may not be able to have a successful pregnancy, etc. .
Chronic weed smokers who seek fertility treatments have poorer quality eggs (or sperm) compared to non-users, most likely due to the reduction in FSH and estrogen.
Another reason you don’t want to consistently depress your Hypothalamus/Pituitary/Ovary (HPO axis) is the reduced estrogen levels can give many people “cotton vagina“!!
Vaginal membranes are the same as your mouths membranes and temporarily dry out the same as well.
Frequently ingest high levels of THC and you probably won’t cause a permanent issue but you can deprive your vulvo/vaginal tissues of much needed estrogen which in turn causes vaginal dryness, thinning of the tissues, discomfort, itching, bladder symptoms, and painful intercourse. So make sure you are using plenty of lube and keep an eye out for any of these symptoms.
As mentioned, cannabinoids aren’t all bad as proven by many who use them for various health issues such as seizures, anxiety, pain relief, and sexual enjoyment (even for those who may have their menstrual cycle affected). We all need cannabinoids for our reproductive cycle to work properly, it’s a matter of how much ECS stimulation is required for each bodily function. Remember that we make our own cannabinoids just in very small amounts and we also produce enzymes that know how to quickly break them down keeping everything in that Goldie Locks Zone.
The graphic below shows where endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes are located in the female reproductive tract.
Estrogen sharply increases with the maturation of the primary follicle on the ovary which houses the egg to be released each menstrual cycle. It’s been shown that cannabinoids rise in the ovary just before ovulation which strongly suggests that it is necessary for egg production and release, however provide too much stimulation and egg production in the ovary and/or transportation of the egg through the fallopian tubes can be disrupted. Then there’s the fact we need hindered cannabinoid levels in the uterus for proper implantation!
The ECS is so incredibly sophisticated. It can raise and lower levels where we need them without disturbing other areas of our body!
Now remember back to the quick and dirty explanation where I said we have ECS enzymes- those enzymes that break down our internally produced cannabinoids don’t really know how to do that job very well with THC, our enzymes don’t readily recognize the THC molecule so it takes longer to decode and break them down. This is a perfect example of more does not equal better, we prefer a pretty narrow field of homeostasis for proper functioning.
The majority of female marijuana smokers report that there is an increase in sexual enjoyment, stimulation, and ease of orgasm with use. There are many articles even promoting this factor, and while I know these effects to be true and a positive thing for the women experiencing this, the fact is that we just don’t know WHY this is happening yet. With such enormous limitations on clinical testing of Delta-9 THC, the data of why biological females experience heightened sexual satisfaction is undetermined. There are hypothesis of course, and many of them good such as reduced anxiety, and the heightened sense of physical awareness and touch.
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com
One of the endocannabinoids our bodies internally produce is called Anandamide. The root of this word means bliss, so you could call Anandamide our bliss molecule, however we don’t all run around in constant states of bliss because, simply put, our body produces it as needed and breaks it down very quickly. The receptor that Anandamide fits into is the CB1 receptor-same for THC. Besides the psychoactive properties marijuana might provide someone, the THC from marijuana is also over stimulating the ECS by filling up the CB1 receptors with what seems like our bliss chemical but then our enzymes can’t break it down quickly because of the confusion in recognizability-thus the ‘feel good’ feelings of smoking pot and the feelings of relaxation. Both THC and CBD quiet down the part of your brain that regulates anxiety (a side note to this, however, is that THC is known to produce anti-anxiety AND anxiety depending on how much is ingested and from person to person-I get into some of that in further detail later).
Reports from THC users say smoking weed does result in a heightened sensitivity to touch and an increased intensity of feelings. So you can see why some of the female population report heightened sexual experience when they smoke a little pot before a sexual encounter and say they have less anxiety, increased pleasure from physical touch, and orgasms are easier and stronger. The why of this is still unknown however. By using a PET scan it was shown that CB1 receptor availability is higher in healthy human females due to estrogen increasing the amount of receptors, but it was also reported that Anandamide (the bliss cannabinoid chemical) levels are lower, so you can see there is still very much to be learned.
The flip side of that are those females reporting that using a THC product beforehand interfered with their sexual experience, many say by an increase in anxiety or making them sleepy and less focused.
Remember that we all react at different levels and what is fine for one person can be way too much ECS stimulation for another person, add higher estrogen levels like around ovulation to the mix (when you have even more receptors and less enzymes to break things down) and you will feel even higher which may end up not being a pleasant experience for some!
There is a non-sexual point I wanted to include, as I thought it was pretty important: CBD and THC can have medication interactions as well. We all, female and male, produce a neurotransmitter called serotonin which helps regulate mood, social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. Low levels have been linked to anxiety and depression.
Many people report that cannabis products, whether it is THC or CBD, or a combo of both such as a well balanced marijuana strain, has helped improve their mood and lessen their depression and anxiety. This happens due to the THC and CBD increasing the body’s serotonin availability. They both also reduce activity in the amygdala which is the part of the brain that controls your fight or flight mechanism…..reduce fight or flight activation and you reduce your anxiety levels.
CBD alone can help with anxiety because it prevents the FAAH enzyme from doing its job very well in breaking down Anandamide thus keeping it around longer providing us with the blissful feeling anandamide gives us.
But before you go out and try this remedy, a very important condition you should be aware of is serotonin syndrome which is too high levels of serotonin in your body. Signs and symptoms include: agitation/restlessness, confusion, rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, dilated pupils, loss of muscle coordination/twitching muscles, muscle rigidity, heavy sweating, diarrhea, headache, shivering, goose bumps. Severe symptoms which can be life threatening include: high fever, seizures, irregular heartbeat, unconsciousness.
So, if you are taking a medication that is already boosting your serotonin availability, such as an SSRI or another anti-depressant/anti-anxiety, you may want to reconsider using a THC or CBD product for depression or anxiety so you don’t experience any serotonin syndrome side effects. There is no way to determine how likely or susceptible you are to this issue so please just keep this in mind if you choose to use a THC or CBD product and go very slow in your consumption and be aware that the endocannabinoid system is EVERYWHERE inside of you and has effects on us that we are only just starting to discover and an over stimulation of the ECS can affect you in ways you may not ultimately like.
For those who say smoking weed makes them anxious and/or paranoid, here’s why: THC binds to the CB1 receptor as I mentioned, releasing (i.e increasing) a specific neurotransmitter called GABA (which is a chemical messenger that stops neurons from firing, much like a suppressant).
Increased GABA and serotonin inhibit something called Norepinephrine, (another chemical messenger between nerves that is involved in alertness and anxiety). The GABA and serotonin suppressive action calms most people down but for those who report higher anxiety when using a THC product it is because the reduced norepinephrine has a rebound effect actually stimulating activities in the brain stem areas that are involved in arousal and excitation. This activity in turn sends the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, leading to a rise in heart rate and a release of cortisol which we then perceive as anxiety.
How this ties back to the main theme of this article is that even though we all have an endocannibinoid system, we each have a unique experience and are affected differently. Whether positive or negative, estrogen increases the effect that THC has on the female body-your experience just depends on how sensitive you are to those effects.
I just laid a lot of heavy knowledge on you and maybe some new terms so if you’ve made it this far–thank you for sticking it out!
I hope you are able to see now how cannabis produces both good and bad effects to female sexual health. Everything we eat, drink, use, do, or even deny ourselves has many effects on our brains and bodies. Nothing is so narrowly focused to one area that it isn’t noticed by your brain or the rest of your body, it’s all connected.
Even though we have a built-in system to process THC and other cannabinoids that doesn’t mean our bodies like for the system to be over stimulated and can cause other bodily systems to be negatively impacted. However, there are those who have an ECS that could use a bit of external stimulation such as those with un-managed anxiety, appetite stimulation, or seizure control. I have only provided a very narrow amount of info we have on the positives and negatives of cannabinoids, there is SO much more–much of it being positive health benefits. My hope was to help you understand that nothing acts alone inside your body so even though you experience a health benefit in one area there may be effects somewhere else you weren’t aware of and didn’t intend to produce. I have only provided in this article a small sampling of a chain reaction that can be your personal experience.
Going forward please keep these things in mind so you can make decisions that are best for you and not based on how someone else reacts. With our bodies being so inter-connected we really need to start listening to what it is telling us.
If you ingest a THC product and you don’t like how you feel, feel anxious, you get cotton vagina, etc., maybe it’s not for you or maybe just not use it as often. If after you ingest a THC product and you like how it feels and don’t notice any of the negative effects I mentioned-AWESOME! Just remember these effects happen behind the scenes over a period of time and may not be noticeable immediately so pay attention to how your body reacts past the high you may be feeling, the ‘high’ may or may not be worth it to you in the bigger picture.
The difference between smoking some weed/eating an edible being a pleasant experience many times comes down to how much you consume. Have someone rub a muscle knot in your back just the way you prefer and it feels great! Have them rub too hard and it is no longer a pleasurable experience. Over stimulation of the ECS is very similar so-
Be good to yourself and consume responsibly!
With the legislation of medicinal and recreational marijuana in a growing number of places I thought it would be wise to provide some general info on how estrogen and cannabinoids interact with each other and how cannabinoids effect a few other key parts of the human body in an attempt to help people make a…