Characterized by a throbbing or aching in the abdomen, period pain (or dysmenorrhea) is relatively common around and during a menstrual cycle—but for some, it can be debilitating. Unfortunately, a busy schedule isn’t always conducive to popular home remedies like heating pads and hot baths. To make matters worse, common anti-inflammatory medications can have negative side-effects like gastrointestinal distress and heart problems.
Recently, cannabis has been getting a lot of recognition as an effective treatment for epilepsy, but new data suggests that it might also be helpful in treating other disorders that stem from inflammation. This could very well include menstrual pain—and the internet is filled with anecdotal evidence from people who have experienced relief—but is there any scientific evidence to support it?
One of the most prevalent medicinal compounds of the cannabis plant is cannabidiol, or CBD. It interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (responsible for regulating homeostasis) by stimulating certain receptors in the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems. When it comes to utilizing it as a treatment, CBD comes in tons of different forms, including tinctures, crystals, waxes, vaping liquids, and even edible gummies.
“CBD may produce strong anti-inflammatory effects,” says Karen Munkacy, MD, president and CEO of Garden Remedies Inc. “The endocannabinoid receptors in our body that bind with CBD are distributed throughout the nervous system. CBD may also protect cells, especially nerve cells, from damage due to inflammation or trauma.”
Since CBD is easy to administer and has limited known side-effects, it’s quickly becoming a go-to for women who experience discomfort during their periods. That being said, it’s always important to know the facts as well as the potential dangers before utilizing any kind of treatment.
Menstrual cramps are caused by contractions of the uterus. Basically, the muscles clench and release in an attempt to more efficiently shed the uterine lining, and this clenching results in the abdominal pain that women often feel during their periods. Cramps can be especially painful if you have endometriosis, non-cancerous growths, or irregular pelvic inflammation, because obstructions and swelling make it much harder for the lining to shed.
As previously discussed, CBD has anti-inflammatory qualities that can help regulate the pain caused by prostaglandins—the hormone-like compounds that prompt uterine contractions in the first place. However, cannabis also has “relaxant and analgesic effects,” meaning that it encourages the muscles in the abdomen to relax and stop contracting so aggressively.
“We frequently hear from many of our female medical marijuana patients that they have experienced relief from symptoms of a variety of women’s health conditions using CBD oil and other cannabis products,” says Dr. Munkacy. “We’ve been told CBD oil specifically helps with menstrual cramps and PMS.”
In addition to the recent data and anecdotal evidence, it’s also helpful to know that cannabis has some historical evidence, too. According to Dr. Munkacy, this type of treatment is nothing new. Cannabis has apparently been a remedy for women’s health issues “since at least Queen Victoria’s time. She used cannabis to treat her menstrual cramps.”
Here’s the long answer: While CBD and THC are both active compounds in the cannabis plant, they have different effects on the body. Mainly, THC is psychoactive, meaning it causes a “high.” It’s the compound responsible for that euphoric, disoriented feeling associated with marijuana-use. This is because THC binds directly to the receptors in your endocannabinoid system, while CBD indirectly stimulates them.
“CBD is non-psychoactive,” Dr. Munkacy says. “It doesn’t produce the ‘high’ of THC, but many patients have reported that it diminishes their anxiety,” much like medical marijuana does. “Despite changes in states’ policies and the increasing pervasiveness of cannabis use, the federal government has not legalized cannabis and continues to enforce restrictive policies.”
The short answer? Even though medical marijuana is now legal in most states, cannabis is still illegal under federal law—but the laws regarding CBD are unclear. It mostly depends upon which state you live in, but very few people have ever been persecuted for buying hemp-derived products online.
According to Dr. Munkacy, “It is challenging for research institutions to obtain permission to do any formal scientific research on cannabis’ effects on any medical condition.” For that reason, there are limited studies surrounding cannabis and its derivatives, and the FDA has not approved marijuana for medical usage. This is likely due to the stigma surrounding cannabis because of its association with recreational drugs, namely marijuana.
Still, several recent studies point to CBD as a promising source of relief for inflammation, pain, and spasms. A 2014 study from the PLoS One journal reports a significant decrease of inflammation and degeneration in those suffering from intervertebral disc disease. Those who wrote the study called CBD “one of the most promising candidates… for clinical use,” since it’s able to block pain and reduce swelling without psychotogenic effects. (In other words, it helps you to feel better without interfering with your cognitive function.) A different study in Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders recognizes CBD’s positive effects on spasticity—specifically for those with multiple sclerosis.
The aforementioned disorders obviously differ from issues within women’s health, but since menstrual cramps are ultimately a symptom of inflammation and muscle spasms, this seems like a promising solution—specifically for people who require a treatment that won’t interfere with their daily routines.
Additionally, it’s possible that the benefits don’t stop at just cramps; CBD might be able to help with other period symptoms too. Another study from 2016 notes the positive effects of CBD on psychiatric conditions (like addiction, anxiety, and depression), and says that ancient civilizations “documented the medicinal use of cannabis, outlining its effectiveness in the treatment of [menstrual cramps and mental well-being].” This is great news not only for people who experience pain, but also for those who experience psychological symptoms during their cycles.
“The brain has a high density of [endocannabinoid] receptors,” Dr. Munkacy says. As a result, cannabis-derived products prompt “a series of sensations that include euphoria, sensory stimulation, positive mood alterations, and even feelings of improved cognition,” which can be beneficial for those who experience other PMS-related symptoms, like mood imbalances, anxiety, and a lack of motivation.
“CBD is a very safe substance,” says Dr. Munkacy, “but any patient using it or THC to treat any medical condition should consult with their physician first.” After all, any substance that interacts with receptors in the body is capable of affecting existing conditions and interfering with medications. It’s important to note that CBD does have some mild reported side-effects, the most common being tiredness, diarrhea, and fluctuations in weight.
CBD has also been known to impact fertility levels, and may interact with estrogen receptors in the body. For that reason, women should take extra precaution if using oral contraception like the pill, as not enough research has been done to determine whether CBD can influence its effectiveness.
PharmD Scientific Advisor, Medical Reviewer, and Clinical Pharmacist
Adjunct Faculty, UMKC School of Pharmacy
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