Centuries ago, women used to rely on cannabis to combat everything from cramps to swollen breasts—but can these remedies be applied today?
As more states move to legalize marijuana, more people are beginning to think creatively about how pot can improve our everyday lives. And while the drug's potential to spice up women's sex lives has been well-documented, medical professionals are only starting to look at how cannabis could benefit women in other intimate ways.
Some "green doctors" have already begun to recommend cannabis for period-related issues—in California, for example, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), an extreme form of PMS, is listed as a qualifying condition for a medical marijuana card.
Of course, many old-fashioned medical cures were not safe or effective—but if the apparent successes of history offer a guide, women may someday swap their synthetic painkillers for the "natural remedy" to treat a host of issues. Here's a preview of what's possible.
Forget the cliche of women binging on Ben & Jerry's to get through the pain and discomfort of their period—women's "time of the month" may become associated with lighting up.
Back in the 19th Century, one of Queen Victoria's royal physicians famously prescribed a marijuana concoction to relieve menstrual pain, and American women from the era turned to Dysmenine, a medicinal syrup that contained cannabis.
This tradition is slowly returning in this country. If you go to a "green doctor" (a licensed medical professional who prescribes marijuana) in California and complain of severe menstrual symptoms, he or she may recommend using cannabis. In Colorado, Omm Alternative Medicine, which offers medicinal marijuana evaluations, tells Fusion that they, too, recommend cannabis for PMDD, "but usually in only the most severe cases."
How do physicians think the treatment works? Marijuana has been shown to generally relieve pain, and tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC), one of the active ingredients in cannabis, can decrease anxiety and nausea—all of which may temper the cramps, headaches, depression, and anxiety associated PMS and PMDD.
The medical marijuana researchers we spoke with said they weren't surprised that some physicians were recommending the drug. "I’ve heard many anecdotal reports from women that marijuana helps with cramps and menstrual pain," said Mike Aldrich, a historian who has been studying cannabis since the 1960s. (Fun fact: Aldrich's PhD dissertation, "Marijuana Myths and Folklore," was the first on cannabis in the U.S.)
So why aren't more women in states where pot is legal securing a stash? For one, not much research has been conducted on pot and periods, which prevents physicians from prescribing it, said Amanda Reiman, who oversees marijuana laws and policy reform at the Drug Policy Alliance. Reiman chalks up this dearth of data to a "lack of attention to the health needs of women."
Practically speaking, until very recently, conducting any research on the effects of cannabis on the body has been tricky. "It is very difficult to conduct a valid scientific study of marijuana's effect on menstrual cycle symptoms … because it is not legal [on a federal level], and therefore relying on self-report of use is often not valid," said Nanette Santoro, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Colorado School of Medicine.
And other physicians caution women against relying on cannabis, arguing that too much THC can lead to paranoia, as well as overeating (the munchies), fatigue, and confusion—exacerbating period-related symptoms.
"It's true, if someone had PMS and they used too much [cannabis], they could get anxious or worsen their symptoms," said Ethan Russo, a neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher who has written numerous papers on the effects of cannabis. "People make a mistake by using psychoactivity as a basis for dose."
But that's the wrong approach, he told Fusion. "The right dose is the lowest dose that's going to control the symptoms," he said, explaining that when used properly—with the right dose and right strain—it's possible to treat pain and take control of the symptoms without experiencing psychoactivity. (You can read more about dosage and strain here.)
Shortly before their period and during pregnancy, many women experience pain from tender or swollen breasts. Back in the 11th century, women in Europe used cannabis to treat the pain—mixing it with lamb's fat and smearing it all over their bosom. Medical texts from the era indicate the ointment was believed to "disperse the swelling."
Today, there is a growing market for topical cannabis pain relievers. The brand Foria even makes a cannabis-infused vaginal lube for women that promises to make sex more pleasurable. So could cannabis topicals help women who suffer from tender breasts?
Not shockingly, no official studies have been conducted—yet—on cannabis breast rubs, so the experts we spoke with couldn't comment on its effectiveness. That said, as Russo pointed out, cannabis has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce swelling. (Near a woman's period, her breast tissue sometimes swells up to a cup size bigger.) And the risk of psychoactive side effects is low.
"Generally, when you use topicals, it’s not giving you a head high," said Russo, explaining that a transdermal (i.e. through the skin) delivery doesn't put enough THC in the bloodstream to make you buzzed. "However, a lot of people report benefit on joint pain or muscle pain." In other words, cannabis can provide localized relief without the complications of being "high."
Pushing a baby out of one's vagina can be pretty painful, and you know what helps relieve pain? Pot. This explains why women in ancient Egypt used a cannabis concoction during labor, and in the 19th century, cannabis was listed in the Dispensatory of the United States to aid in contractions.
But, of course, consuming any foreign substance while pregnant can come with risks—and today, cannabis use during pregnancy is a hotly debated topic. Most physicians believe smoking pot while pregnant is flat-out bad—because of the smoke, however, not the pot. The jury is still out on what other potential effects the drug could have.
"I wish I could give you some science-based information on how marijuana affects neonatal outcomes, but there is insufficient scientific study of these areas to make any helpful commentary," said University of Colorado's Santoro.
Indeed, some studies have shown that regularly using marijuana during pregnancy is correlated with lower birth weights. However, as experts point out, studies showing this correlation did not control for other factors such as alcohol use, other drug use, or smoking cigarettes. And no studies have been conducted on using pot during labor.
"Women who report regularly smoking cannabis during pregnancy may be more likely to use other drugs," said Russo. "Scientifically speaking, you would want to control for these variables."
A study that did control for those factors, known colloquially among researchers as "The Jamaica Study," found that women in Jamaica who used cannabis during pregnancy—and did not smoke or drink—gave birth to normal, healthy babies. During a five year followup of the Jamaica Study, researchers found no difference between the children born to mothers who used marijuana and those who did not.
The study was small, however, involving only 24 newborns exposed to marijuana prenatally and 20 nonexposed newborns. And as many OBGYNs told Fusion, there's simply not enough research yet to determine whether it's safe for women to use marijuana during pregnancy or labor.
One area of pot and pregnancy that researchers are beginning to examine is the effects of using cannabis to treat morning sickness—specifically, the debilitating condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum (made famous by Kate Middleton), which leads to prolonged vomiting and dehydration and has no cure.
Physicians in previous centuries tried it out. "We know cannabis has been used successfully to treat hyperemesis gravidarum since 1862, when [doctor] T.L Wright wrote about it," Russo told Fusion.
Russo is referring to an archival letter in which Wright stated: “In a patient of mine, who was suffering to an extent that threatened death, with vomiting, I found the vomiting completely arrested by cannabis indica, given in repeated doses of three grains every four hours, until several doses were taken.”
More recently, a study conducted in Canada found that 92 percent of women who self-reported using cannabis for morning sickness found it "extremely effective" in relieving their symptoms.
Russo believes that cannabis can be helpful for women who suffer from morning sickness, but it's all about weighing the pros and cons. "No drug is perfect in pregnancy," he said, but when it comes to serious conditions like hyperemesis gravidarum—which can be deadly, and for which doctors don't yet have a remedy—it's worth looking to cannabis.
"Given that we don't have an explanation for this very bad disease and we don't have drugs to treat it properly, then something clearly needs to be done differently," he said. Not to mention, he told Fusion, for what it's worth, women who use marijuana to treat morning sickness would be treating temporary symptoms, not chronic pain.
While the potential for pot in managing women's health is intriguing, very little research has been conducted in the area—thanks, in part, to the fact that cannabis has been illegal in this country for the past eight decades.
And because marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the Federal Government (although bills have been proposed this year hoping to change that), procuring federal funding for research from places like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute of Health (NIH) is extremely difficult.
But forward-thinking researchers are hoping interest in pot and women's health will gain momentum as more states legalize cannabis for recreational and medicinal use. "Hopefully, now that marijuana is legal in Colorado, we will be able to conduct the kinds of clinical studies that will give us this badly needed information," University of Colorado's Santoro told Fusion.
For his part, Russo wants the research to ramp up sooner rather than later. "It is wise for people to be cautious," he said, "but cannabis is a potential therapeutic agent and needs to be a part of medicine so we can treat some of the conditions that have not responded to other therapies."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.