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How the endocannabinoid system and menopause symptoms are connected

How the endocannabinoid system and menopause symptoms are connected

Menopause is a normal part of every woman’s life, but it can also be a very difficult time. With symptoms like mood swings, lower sex drive, hot flashes, sweating, racing heart, headaches, vaginal dryness and soreness, painful sex and difficulty sleeping, it can be a painful time- and the symptoms may last for years. This natural stage of life comes to all women who live long enough to meet it. As our bodies age, they stop producing the same amount of estrogen and progesterone, which brings about these big changes. But being natural doesn’t make it any less challenging or painful. 

Thankfully, cannabis may be able to help those suffering from menopause symptoms. Many women report that it makes their menopause symptoms more bearable, and while research on using cannabis for menopause is still in very early phases, some suggests that cannabis may be helpful for managing menopauses’ many symptoms.

Curious about using cannabis for your own menopause? Read on to learn the science of how cannabis might help.

How Cannabis Affects Menopause

While the research on cannabis and menopause is still fairly minimal, researchers have noticed some connections between menopause and the functioning of the endocannabinoid system. This natural system in the human body is what cannabis interacts with to create it’s different effects. Normally this system is tasked with maintaining balance or homeostasis in our body for many different functions including pain, sleep, mood, memory, temperature, inflammation and appetite. It is made up of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body (called CB1 and CB2), naturally produced chemicals called endocannabinoids (which trigger and activate the receptors), and enzymes which clear the endocannabinoids from the system when they are no longer needed. But the cannabinoids in cannabis, like the endocannabinoids in our body, are also able to activate these receptors to impact these many different functions.

Interestingly, researchers have also found a tie between the endocannabinoid system and menopause. Estrogen, a hormone which declines during menopause, actually has a job in the endocannabinoid system. It regulates an enzyme called FAAH, which breaks down endocannabinoids as part of the endocannabinoid system.  

This means that as estrogen levels change during menopause, endocannabinoid levels shift as well. So researchers hypothesize that lowered endocannabinoid functioning may be partly responsible for the unpleasant symptoms women experience during this shift. While some look to estrogen hormone replacement therapy to help with these issues, this route is usually only effective for a short window of time. Still, some researchers believe that modulating the endocannabinoid system, perhaps with cannabis, could help increase the viable window for this kind of treatment.  

Others point to cannabis as a treatment on it’s own, not for menopause itself, but for the many symptoms related to this time of life. With the ability to impact factors like sleep, pain, mood and temperature, cannabis has the potential to treat a wide variety of menopause symptoms.  

The Research On Using Cannabis For Menopause  

While there are strong theoretical reasons to believe that cannabis could help with menopause symptoms, it’s important to look at the clinical research on humans to determine whether it will actually be an effective treatment. Unfortunately, the research on cannabis and menopause specifically has been minimal and of fairly low quality. Still, cannabis has been used for the relief of menopause pain as far back as 1924, and we do have a fair bit of research on using cannabis for specific symptoms that arise during menopause, such as insomnia, pain, anxiety, depression, and hot flashes.  

Hot Flashes  

One symptom that cannabis could be helpful for is hot flashes. These sudden bursts of heat can be really uncomfortable, but some research suggests that the cannabinoid THC might be able to lower body temperature. This research points out that high doses of THC can create a cooling sensation. Still, be forewarned, low doses sometimes have the opposite effect - actually raising body temperature. Finding the right dose for you would be crucial in working with this particular symptom.  

Pain  

Cannabis is also known for its ability to ease pain, another symptom which is common in menopause. It makes sense, because pain is another process that the endocannabinoid system helps to regulate. While studies have not investigated menopause pain specifically, multiple reviews on the cannabis literature in 2017 and 2019 have found substantial evidence that cannabis can lead to general pain relief.  

While most of this literature applies to high THC cannabis, CBD has also been found helpful for pain. Studies show CBD can help with pain on its own, but cannabis’ strongest pain relief tends to come from mixing THC and CBD together 

 Mood  

Menopause can also have a big effect on mood, but cannabis may be able to help with this as well. Our mood is strongly influenced by our estrogen levels, and the endocannabinoid system regulates this as well. Thus, when estrogen levels drop it can lead to some serious anxiety and depression. But boosting the endocannabinoid system with cannabis has been shown to help with anxiety and depression in other contexts, and could help in menopause as well.  

Part of this is because stimulating the endocannabinoid system with cannabinoids like THC and CBD can actually increase levels of serotonin. This natural chemical in the brain is associated with positive moods and many antidepressants work because of their ability to stimulate serotonin production.  

Human research supports this theory, as reviews of the cannabis literature have found that cannabis can lead to improvements in depression symptoms. It can also lower anxiety, with some studies even showing lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol for those using cannabis during stressful situations.   

Still, for some cannabis also has the potential to worsen symptoms of anxiety or depression, so care should be taken to find out what works for each person's individual case. While some say cannabis drastically improves their mood, it can be problematic for others. Like many medications, it may not be a one-size-fits-all treatment. But for those who benefit, it may make all the difference.  

CBD, which also shows promise for treating anxiety and depression, is less likely to cause these kinds of mood disturbances, and may be a better choice for those who have a negative response to THC.    

Insomnia 

Another frustrating impact of menopause can be difficulty sleeping. But cannabis may help with this as well. Many have found benefit from using cannabis for sleep. In fact, it has been used as a sleep aid since ancient times. Modern research also suggests that cannabis can help people fall asleep more quicklywake up less often, and get higher quality sleep 

While the research on cannabis and menopause is minimal, the research on cannabis for these symptoms that come up in menopause is still fairly strong. If you are interested in exploring cannabis for your own menopause symptoms, talk to your doctor and find out if it is a safe option for you. If it is, give it a try. Many women report big improvements when using cannabis for their menopause symptoms. It isn’t always right for everyone, but it might be right for you.  

Did you know?

Cannabis can help with menopause symptoms like hot flashes and insomnia.  

Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD
Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD is a writer and educator focused on bringing cannabis education and content to the public. Emily is a prolific writer in the cannabis space, writing regularly about cannabis science and culture for publications like Forbes, Leafly, Cannabis Now Magazine, SF Chronicle’s GreenState, The Cannigma and HelloMD.