Cannabis and the various products derived from it are slowly becoming legal for recreational and medicinal uses in many places around the world. The painkilling and relaxing properties of cannabis make it an enticing option for the treatment of menstrual pain and PMS-related symptoms. Interestingly, many women report noticing differences in the effect produced by cannabis products depending on where they are in the menstrual cycle. While research on the effects of cannabinoids—the active substances in the cannabis plant—is still ongoing, it is clear that the menstrual cycle has an effect on how a woman’s body reacts to outside influences, especially in the case of potentially addictive and psychoactive substances.
It can be useful to learn more about how your body responds to THC and CBD according to where you are in your menstrual cycle if you do use cannabis products.
Cannabis is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 180 million people worldwide aged 15–64 use marihuana recreationally. It is also increasingly used for medicating and self-medicating, especially in the economically well-developed regions of the world. The largest number of “newcomers” to recreational marihuana use in recent years is among people aged 18–29.
Cannabinoids are structurally similar to endocannabinoids, molecules created naturally within the human body. There is a large network of cannabinoid receptors (named for the plant that led to this discovery) throughout the body. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is responsible for regulating important functions such as sleep, memory, pain perception, control, and eating. The same receptors are activated when using marihuana.
Although there are many reasons people choose to use mind-altering substances, research on the links between addictive behaviours and specific phases of the menstrual cycle is revealing some interesting correlations.
Let’s look at how these substances work and how the menstrual cycle can influence their effects.
The annual herbaceous flowering plant of the genus Cannabis is widely thought (although there is some debate about this classification) to have at least three species: Cannabis sativa—a tall, narrow-leaved variety that thrives in hot, dry climates and takes longer to mature, Cannabis indica—a shorter, more conical, broader-leaved variety that grows well in slightly cooler climates and matures more quickly, and Cannabis ruderalis—a smaller, more fibrous, low-THC (below 3%) variety native to Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Cannabis is also known commonly as hemp, although in Europe and the US hemp is now legally defined as cannabis that contains between 0,2 and 0,3% THC depending on the country. Hemp is possibly one of the earliest plants to have been cultivated. There is evidence dating back to the pre-Neolithic period of the use of hemp seeds, oil, and fibre. Hemp fibre is used much like linen to make rope and cloth. Today hemp is used to make paper, bioplastics, insulation, and biofuel.
The Cannabis plant also famously contains bio- and psychoactive substances. Both C. sativa and C. indica contain significant amounts of these substances in varying proportions; many hybrid varieties are grown for differing effects.
In Sanskrit cannabis is called ganja. Another common name for it is marihuana; this word originates in Mexican Spanish (perhaps by way of the Bantu word mariamba imported along with enslaved people from Central Africa) and is actually a slang term for the dried leaves and buds of mature unpollinated female plants that are prized for their psychoactive effects. Hashish (an Arabic word), or cannabis resin, and hash oil, obtained through solvent extraction, are two other substances derived from the cannabis plant; both are much more potent than marihuana.
Cannabis plants have over 500 chemical ingredients, more than 60 of which are considered active cannabinoid compounds. The two most widely known active substances naturally found in cannabis are CBD and THC.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the active ingredients found in cannabis plants. CBD does not have mind-altering properties. Clinical trials have shown that it can be effective in treating some forms of epilepsy and other medical conditions. CBD is commonly sold in capsule form or dissolved in an oil solution for use in treating chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, and addiction-related problems. This is the substance most often included in food supplements, snacks, and other products that are legally sold under the hemp sign. CBD can also be produced synthetically in lab conditions, but it is not currently profitable to do so.
While its possible negative side effects include irritability and nausea, CBD is generally believed to be safe for human use. It has not been shown to cause addiction or dependency.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the more controversial compound. THC is the substance that makes people feel “high”. It is commonly absorbed through smoking; the smoke is inhaled and held for a few seconds for maximum effect. The THC enters the bloodstream and stimulates the brain to release higher than usual levels of dopamine, creating a desirably euphoric effect. These effects peak after about 15–30 minutes and decrease after 2–3 hours.
Additional immediate side-effects of THC include reduced levels of activity, feeling cold, short-term memory impairment, short-term disruptions in spatial and verbal perception and, famously, increased appetite. The euphoric high distorts our perception of time and pain.
THC can also be consumed in the form of edibles—usually in cookies, gummies, or some other treat. When absorbed through the digestive system, the effects don’t kick in for at least 30–60 minutes and can last several hours longer than when inhaled.
THC can be used to treat pain, insomnia, anxiety, reduced appetite, and other conditions, but has not been shown to reduce seizures and migraines as CBD has.
People have been using drugs derived from cannabis for thousands of years in unrelated parts of the world. Evidence has been found that hemp plants were smoked recreationally in Central Asia at least 8000 years ago. This region is considered the birthplace of the plant.
In recent decades, growers have learned how to select for plants that contain the highest levels of THC. Plants grown commercially today are three to four times more potent than they were 20 years ago, much stronger than the weed used by ancient peoples. The THC to CBD ratio in these plants has also changed; as the amount of THC rises, CDB falls.
If you are an adult you can choose for yourself what substances you choose to use and when; however, marihuana is NOT recommended if:
Marihuana is still a relatively new topic in scientific research, especially where women’s health is concerned. Until recently female reproductive health was rarely taken into account when designing studies, in large part due to the fact that the menstrual cycle makes results less predictable and more complex to analyse. Therefore, the results of many scientific studies have not yielded information that is accurate for women.
Several studies conducted in the 1980s investigated the impacts of marihuana use on female reproductive health both in humans and other animals. The findings are still considered substantive today and corresponded with the modern understanding that self-medication increases during the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases of the cycle; this is explained by the pain and discomfort—cramps, mood swings, brain-fog, and other symptoms—many women experience during these phases.
Some practitioners of alternative medicine encourage marihuana use in small doses for treating PMS and menstrual disorders. While there is ample anecdotal evidence that marihuana helps relieve menstrual cramps, there is no hard scientific evidence that marihuana has this effect. It is more likely that the euphoric effects of THC override the pain caused by menstrual cramps, making them easier to bare in the short term.
Oestrogen is one of the most important hormones for developing and maintaining the female reproductive system; it also contributes to cognitive health, bone health, and the functioning of the cardiovascular system. Oestrogen also influences the way the body processes THC.
Women and other people who menstruate naturally produce higher levels of oestrogen at two points in the menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase (from the start of your period to ovulation) the active egg sac, or follicle, produces slowly increasing amounts of estradiol (a form of oestrogen). Estradiol production peaks just before ovulation and then drops; this triggers the production of LH and FSH, which in turn trigger ovulation. When the egg is released, the follicle ruptures and transforms into the corpus luteum, which now produces lots of progesterone and some estradiol, but not as much, peaking and dropping midway through the luteal phase of the cycle.
When oestrogen levels are naturally high, the female body is better prepared for pain management and generally is more effective at managing anxiety, insomnia, and many other conditions. Oestrogen increases sensitivity to THC, so when levels are high a small amount of TCH is more potent. Ironically, when you naturally feel down (the “Luteal Blues”) it takes more THC to alleviate these symptoms.
Remember, if you use hormonal contraception your hormone levels will be relatively stable throughout the month, so the effect of TCH will also remain stable.
Some people react negatively to marihuana. This usually presents as short-term anxiety, negative thoughts, or feelings of paranoia. THC-dominant products can worsen anxiety and mood swings during menstruation, but CBD products can be used safely for treating period pain.
If marihuana is used regularly, it can affect the length of the menstrual cycle and, potentially, fertility. A 2021 study on the impacts of THC on the female reproductive cycle in female non-human primates showed that even after a short period of regular marihuana use the menstrual cycles of the test subjects became irregular.
Regular marihuana use has been shown to lengthen the menstrual cycle and potentially reduce fertility. Researchers believe this to be dose-dependent, meaning the more THC a woman absorbs, the more likely she is to experience menstrual irregularities. Some studies have shown that women are more susceptible to cannabis dependency than men and build tolerance more quickly.
The effects of the many compounds contained in cannabis are still a largely under-researched. Be cautious when using either CBD or THC; adjust the dosage to suit both your unique body and the phase of the cycle you are in.
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: