Health & Wellness
What Is the Endocannabinoid System?
How it works, why it matters, and how it could be driving more remedies in the future.
Despite the fact that it’s a natural biological process, the symptoms of menopause can wreak havoc on your entire body. Menopause differs for every person, but for some, the changes are debilitating, and can affect everything from sleep patterns and body temperature to emotional wellness and bone health.
Since the changes are due to natural fluctuations of hormones as we age, there’s no medical treatment for menopause—Instead, relief comes in the form of preventative screening and lessening the effects of symptoms. Unfortunately, the most popular temporary solutions (namely hormone therapy) come with substantial risks, like breast cancer, stroke, and heart attack.
On the bright side, there are more natural alternatives, and CBD could be one of the most promising low-risk treatments to date. Many women are already experiencing relief from other hormone-related symptoms like menstrual pain and PMS, but could this cannabis-derivative also help in the later stages of women’s health issues? Scientific studies and experts say it’s very possible, but before utilizing CBD for menopause, it’s important to know the facts.
Most people know that menopause is caused by a decline of fertility hormones in your 40s or 50s, but especially when looking for symptom-relief, it helps to know the specific kinds of hormones, as well as how they impact your body.
According to Callie Exas, licensed dietitian and co-founder of The Wellthy Plate, “When women stop ovulating, this also affects hormonal production of estrogen and progesterone. Most people think estrogen and progesterone only affect fertility. However, we have receptors throughout our entire body systems, [specifically] the central and peripheral nervous systems (including our brains).” These receptors are also present in our “immune and inflammatory pathways.”
As a result, when these hormones fluctuate due to menopause, the effects are “felt throughout the entire body at multiple levels,” says Exas. “So, while menopause is normal, it’s also kind of a rollercoaster because the body stops making estrogen and our estrogen receptors located throughout our bodies need to adapt to that. It’s a slow breakup and not always amicable.”
Cannabidiol (or CBD) is one of the most prevalent compounds of the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, it’s non-psychoactive, but it still interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECD), which is responsible for regulating homeostasis in the body. According to Exas, “This neuro pathway runs with both the central and peripheral nervous systems and it’s a team player when it comes to regulating a bunch of important functions like fertility, appetite, pain, mood, memory, and stimulation of exercise endorphins after working out.”
“Our bodies naturally produce cannabinoids that regulate the ECD neuro-receptors,” says Exas, but if the system is out of balance, it can cause a lot of inflammation in the body. “CBD has the ability to directly act upon and regulate the activity of ECD neurons… It has the ability to calm the neurons down and shut down the inflammatory response mechanisms if the ECD’s activity becomes irregular.” Consequently, CBD can help balance “inflammation, immune response, mood, anxiety, metabolism, gut health, pain, etc.”
Thanks to recent scientific studies in rat models, CBD oil has been getting a lot of recognition as a potential low-risk solution for neuropsychiatric disorders like epilepsy and inflammation-based pain. As a result, it’s skyrocketing into popularity as a natural health alternative, and can be administered in multiple forms. The most common are tinctures, vaping fluids, edibles, topical balms, and capsules.
While they’re probably the most common, hot flashes and mood swings aren’t the effects of hormonal changes, Exas says. Menopause can also “present sleep disruptions, inflammation, lower pain tolerances, hair loss, metabolic changes (estrogen is a known protector against middle adiposity), anxiety, depression, or lower sex drive.”
The good news? According to Exas, “The ECD system plays a role in the regulation of all of these pathways in the body. While this area of research is extremely new and we are still gathering reliable data, in the case of menopause, CBD may help regulate the activity of the endocannabinoid system in the absence of its ‘partner in crime’—estrogen.”
In other words, “it’s possible that CBD can help modulate the storm by pacifying the cannabinoid receptors,” therefore counteracting some if not most of the aforementioned symptoms.
Like Exas says, scientific studies surrounding menopause and CBD are limited—in fact, cannabis-derived products are lacking research across the board due to their unclear status as a controlled substance. Still, the studies that have been done show a positive impact on anxiety and mood, sleep disorders, SCI-related bone-loss, and weight gain. One study in the journal of American Association for Cancer Research even stated that CBD can prompt apoptosis (meaning the timely death) of breast cancer cells; since the risk of cancer increases as you age, this is potentially amazing news for women experiencing menopause.
Needless to say, the results seem promising. “I have seen positive outcomes for women using CBD for the purpose of alleviating PMS symptoms, which acts on the same pathways,” says Exas, so menopause-induced symptoms may very well react similarly.
Since CBD is also found in hemp and marijuana, there are common misconceptions surrounding its effect on the body and mind. “CBD, unlike THC, does not have psychoactive effects, [and] therefore will not get you high,” says Exas. It also does not heavily affect your cognitive ability, so you don’t have to worry as much about memory issues or brain impairment, either.
Instead, you’re more likely to notice what isn’t happening. The effects of CBD usually manifest in a lack of anxiety, pain, or discomfort, as well as a subtle, general feeling of well-being. In other words, you’ll probably feel very normal—just without the symptoms that typically plague your day-to-day routine.
Currently, the laws surrounding CBD are blurred, and that’s because the country is divided on its views pertaining to the legalization of hemp. That being said, given many states’ individual approval of cannabis, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be penalized for the online purchase of CBD—especially if all the THC has been removed. Furthermore, the FDA has just approved its first cannabis-based drug to treat rare forms of epilepsy, so it’s likely that the use of cannabis as a medical treatment will increase from here.
Like any other medicinal substance, CBD interacts with your brain and body in a way that may impact your current medication or existing conditions. For that reason, it’s important to start a dialogue with your doctor and ask the right questions—namely “What are the risks?” and “Can CBD interfere with or counteract my current treatment regimen?”
“To date, studies have shown that CBD is well tolerated in most human adults and can treat a wide range of disorders,” Exas says. “However, studies have also shown that people taking epilepsy medication may need to be cognizant of their dosage when taking CBD, as it may increase the absorption of the drug into their blood system. Further, some studies have shown that CBD could increase liver enzymes, which may be harmful to liver function.”
“Bottom line is that it’s a really new form of therapy and people should talk to their health care provider about what to look for in a CBD product,” Exas says. “It’s [also] important to get a high quality formula that is approved by an independent third-party. [The sale of CBD is] not regulated, so consumers should be mindful when purchasing a CBD product.”
How it works, why it matters, and how it could be driving more remedies in the future.
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