With the legalization of recreational weed, many more women are smoking or consuming cannabis. As noted in The Guardian’s well-researched article, “The Deadly Truth About a World Built for Men,” many standards like drug dosage information, seat heights and other safety mechanisms are designed for male bodies.
The idea that medication and drugs like cannabis affect women differently is nothing new. And, while more research on the general effects and therapeutic applications of cannabis is needed, research on how cannabis specifically affects women is an area that is currently lacking.
A study published in the scientific journal, Frontiers, examined how sex hormones like testosterone, estradiol (estrogen) and progesterone interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is what reacts to the cannabinoids in marijuana.
One of the first takeaways from this study is that men are up to four times more likely to try cannabis and that they tend to use higher doses and with greater frequency. Despite the fact that more men may be smoking than women, the study suggests that women may be more vulnerable to cannabis use disorder or dependency. Studies involving alcohol also show that women are more susceptible to developing alcohol use disorder and to experiencing negative side effects from drinking.
Why do women have an increased risk of cannabis use disorder and the higher likelihood of negative side effects? Researchers postulate that estrogen, the hormone responsible for the development of female characteristics in the body, accounts for the difference in how men and women react to cannabis.
According to a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Dependency, “estrogen is like a magnifying glass for THC.” This means that less cannabis is needed to produce the same effect in women than in men because the female reproductive system has almost as many endcannidional receptors as the brain. Due to the body’s hormonal cycles, the increased effects of cannabis are most notable in the days prior to ovulation.
It almost goes without saying that most doctors advise against using cannabis while pregnant or breastfeeding. Any substance that a pregnant woman ingests will make its way into the baby’s system and there is very little research conducted on how cannabis affects a developing baby or how it passes through breast milk.
On the topic of conception, one study in the Canadian Journal of Medicine suggests that cannabis may delay ovulation but does not seem to have long term effects on fertility. As with most aspects of cannabis research, there needs to be more evidence and more clinical trials before conclusions can be drawn.
Another study suggests that women may also experience more adverse side effects, especially dizziness, than men. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions from just one study, it makes sense that factors such as hormones, metabolism and body composition play a role in how cannabis is absorbed by the body.
As cannabis becomes more mainstream and more funding is directed towards research, hopefully scientists will gather more data on how cannabis affects women and potentially develop some strains that are gender-specific.