Most cannabis research has been done on males, which is a problem because cannabinoids affect the female body in unique ways. Here, we explore the delicate dance between oestrogen and cannabis, and what that means for the female smokers of the world.
As cannabis grows in popularity, many are turning to established research to get an idea of how the drug will affect their body. However, the research contains a gap: most studies on the effects of cannabis have been conducted on males. This is because scientists have long considered male rats better research subjects than females, as their hormones fluctuate less.
As such, we’re now in a situation where our understanding of how cannabis affects the body is biased towards men. This is not ideal, especially as research shows that cannabis interacts directly with the oestrogen pathways of the female body. With women’s interest in cannabis growing at a far faster rate than men’s, we need better information on how sex differences influence the effects of cannabis. Here, we’ll be exploring the chemical dance between cannabinoids and oestrogen, and what that means for female users.
MECHANISM OF ACTION
Oestrogen and cannabinoids interact with many of the same pathways in the human brain and body. One study showed that males and females have different cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1) densities in different parts of the brain. They isolated oestrogen as a likely causative factor in this difference. Women have a greater CB1 density in the amygdala, which is involved in emotion, and a lower density in the hypothalamus, which is involved in hunger. Receptor difference in the hippocampus—involved in memory—also seems to be influenced, but the interaction is complex.
This altered neural landscape produces a state of affairs where cannabis affects female or oestrogen-treated brains differently than male brains. In many ways, it makes female brains more sensitive to the effects of cannabis.
PAIN RELIEF AND TOLERANCE
A recent study from the University of Washington has shown that oestrogen makes female rats 30% more sensitive to the pain-relieving effects of cannabis, and that they also develop tolerance much more quickly. Female rodents are much more likely to compulsively self-administer THC than males, suggesting a lower threshold for dependence.
What does this mean for us humans? It could be good news for female pain sufferers looking to find relief with cannabis—it’s likely they’ll benefit with significantly less than the standard dose. That being said, female smokers need to keep an eye on their tolerance—they may need to up their dose much more quickly than their male counterparts to maintain the same effects. Researchers warned that this could mean women are more susceptible to the negative effects of cannabis, including anxiety, paranoia, and even addiction.
The same research found that female rats’ sensitivity to THC fluctuates along with their menstrual cycle. The rats were most sensitive around ovulation when the oestrogen level was spiking.