A survey provides insight into midlife women’s cannabis and CBD use.
Hot flashes and sleep or mood swings are well-known, bothersome symptoms that can occur during perimenopause and menopause. Now, a survey suggests that nearly 80% of midlife women use cannabis to relieve certain symptoms, such as mood issues and trouble sleeping.
In recent years, more and more US states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. This wave of acceptance has been accompanied by skepticism in some quarters about FDA-approved treatment options for menopause, including hormone therapy. But a lack of long-term research data on cannabis use has one Harvard expert wondering how safe it might be, while acknowledging its likely effectiveness for certain menopausal symptoms.
“Each year, more and more patients tell me they’ve tried cannabis or CBD (cannabidiol, an active ingredient in cannabis), particularly for insomnia or anxiety,” says Dr. Heather Hirsch, director of the Menopause and Midlife Clinic at Harvard. affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Adding to its appeal is that cannabis is now legal in so many places and has an acute effect for a few hours. You don’t need a doctor’s prescription. It may be easier to justify socially than using a drug. But why is it there? a move toward something that has unknown long-term effects rather than something that has been studied and proven safe? She asks.
Survey reports on who uses cannabis, why and how
The new Harvard-led poll, published in the journal menopause, examined cannabis use patterns in 131 women during perimenopause — the often years-long period before their missed periods — along with 127 postmenopausal women. Participants were recruited through online postings on social media websites and an online recruitment platform. According to income reports, nearly all respondents were white and most were middle class.
The vast majority (86%) were current cannabis users. Participants were divided on whether they used cannabis for medicinal, recreational, or both reasons. Nearly 79% said it would help relieve menopause symptoms. Of these, 67% said cannabis helped with insomnia, while 46% said it improved mood and anxiety.
Perimenopausal women reported worsening menopausal symptoms than their postmenopausal peers, as well as using more cannabis to treat their symptoms. More than 84% of participants reported smoking cannabis, while 78% used edible marijuana products and nearly 53% used vape oils.
A glaring limitation of the analysis is the self-selected group of participants, which lacked diversity and could skew the results. But dr Hirsch was not surprised by the high proportion reporting regular cannabis use. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these numbers reflect the broader population,” she says.
How Could Cannabis Help With Menopause Symptoms?
It makes sense that midlife women reported that cannabis improved anxiety, mood, and sleep, says Dr. Deer. The drug likely helps with all of these symptoms by “darkening the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain.”
For many women, anxiety increases during perimenopause, she notes. Common stressors during this time, like aging parents or an emptying nest, amplify the effects of hormone dips. “It’s that feeling of, ‘I can’t turn off my brain.’ It’s really unsettling because they go to bed and can’t get to sleep, so the next day they’re more tired, moody, and moody,” she explains. Dimming the prefrontal cortex allows people to calm down.
Hot flashes, often cited as the most common symptom of menopause, did not improve as much with cannabis use, according to survey participants. That makes sense, too, says Dr. Hirsch because it is believed that the hypothalamus — the brain region thought to be the body’s thermostat — is not significantly affected by the drug.
No research on long-term effects yet
Given the lack of clinical trials objectively testing the efficacy and safety of cannabis for treating menopausal symptoms, more research is clearly needed.
“If people find relief from cannabis, great. But is it safe? We think so, but we don’t know,” she says. “There are no studies of middle-aged women who have used cannabis for 10 years, which is how long menopause symptoms often last. Will there be long-term effects on memory? On the lung function? We do not know it.”