Headaches, migraines, bloating, cramps, back pain, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings—the list of PMS symptoms is long, varied and painful. Many women adopt lifestyle changes to mitigate these symptoms like drinking more water, getting enough sleep and physical exercise. Other women rely on over-the-counter pain killers, heating pads, teas and additional products to relieve the pain and feel like their normal selves. But if that’s not enough, many women swear by cannabis, reporting that consuming marijuana helps with period pain where other medications don’t. So, is there anything to this? Does cannabis really help ease period pain?
What Exactly Is PMS & What Role Do Hormones Play?
PMS symptoms occur one to two weeks before a woman’s period starts and sometimes continue through the duration of menses. While we don’t know the exact cause of PMS, hormonal fluctuations appear to play an important role. Changes in hormone levels affect brain chemistry, which could explain PMS. Researchers pinpointed the chemical serotonin as one that could cause many of the PMS symptoms as serotonin peaks and drops during a woman’s cycle.
How Is Period Pain Connected With the Endocannabinoid System?
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors throughout the body. We have naturally occurring compounds or endocannabinoids in our body that interact with the ECS. This affects processes like mood, pain relief and movement. The ECS is also stimulated by cannabinoids—the compounds found in the cannabis plant.
In 2009, Josée Guindon and Andrea G. Hohmann from the University of Georgia published a summary of research on the ECS and pain. Results confirmed that marijuana cannabinoids closely resemble anandamide, one of the body's natural endocannabinoids. Ananadamide turns on nerve receptors affecting movement, nausea and other functions.
This was a starting point for scientists to explore whether cannabis can have similar easing effects on nausea and other functions like ananadamine has. Interestingly, anandamide is also liked to estrogen. So, at the start of a woman’s period, estrogen is low and makes anandamide harder to survive in the body. It makes sense, then, that topping up naturally low levels of anandamide with cannabinoids from marijuana would help ease PMS pain.
The highest concentration of cannabinoid receptors is in the parts of the brain that affect pleasure, sensory perception and movement. It's thought that cannabidiol (CBD), may suppress the headaches and pain of PMS, and its relaxing effect makes it useful for treating insomnia and sleeplessness, also often felt by PMS sufferers.
Though one group of female researchers out of the University of Toronto proclaimed PMS is a myth, the pain, irritability and other symptoms women feel monthly are very real. And since marijuana has been shown to help, it’s no wonder women turn to the plant for relief. If you’re thinking of consuming cannabis to treat PMS symptoms, remember to start low and go slow.
Photo credit: James Palinsad