Can Weed Help With Period Cramps?
Estimated 7-minute read
Everyone with a uterus can attest to the terribleness of period cramps, which can range from mild annoying twinges, to debilitating pain in some cases. Throughout history, we have tried to find various ways to relieve menstrual pain, and amongst the substances we have experimented with is cannabis.
So, how effective is weed on treating period cramps? Let’s take a look at the data, and figure out what our options are, and what we know of the way period cramps work. As a biologist, I’ll try to break down the scientific jargon you get from academic papers and such, and hopefully this piece will go a little more in depth than what you see in other similar articles about this same topic. This one is for the curious ones and the nerds, y’all.
Let’s start with the basics:
What happens in our bodies when we get period cramps?
There are a lot of misconceptions around what causes dysmenorrhea (the fancy medical term for painful menstruation). During the menstrual period, the uterus contracts to shed the endometrium, the inner lining of the organ, as part of its normal cycle. The expulsion of the uterine lining is triggered by a decrease of the ovarian hormone progesterone, some 14 days after ovulation.
The latest research suggests that the muscle contractions are mediated by a set of inflammatory molecules called prostaglandins. The release of these molecules decreases the blood flow into the uterus by constricting the blood vessels, and it is what triggers the painful spasms. It has been documented that the higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more severe the pain.
What does modern medicine have in its anti-dysmenorrhea arsenal?
AKA What are our options?
The most commonly used painkillers in period cramps are Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (also known as NSAIDs), such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (paracetamol). These types of drugs directly affect the prostaglandin release, which in turn decreases pain, by inhibiting an enzyme called COX. This enzyme is needed for our bodies to synthesize the inflammatory molecules we’ve been talking about.
Another option for the treatment of severe menstrual cramps is oral contraceptives, which basically put the brakes on ovulation. But there are many reasons as to why one might not want to use contraceptives or NSAIDs to treat their period pain, such as an allergy or a propensity for stomach ulcers.
Does cannabis alleviate period cramps?
It has been well documented that marijuana has analgesic properties, which means that it has the ability to reduce the pain we feel. Cannabis achieves this through different mechanisms of action. The first is the engagement of the Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (or CB2) in the membranes of our cells. These receptors can be found in our neurons, several organ tissues, and also in a specific type of white blood cell called macrophages. When a cannabinoid molecule (such as Delta 9 THC found in cannabis, or any of the natural cannabinoids that our body produces) makes contact with these white blood cells, their immune response is reduced.
Another mechanism of analgesia exhibited by cannabinoids include effects more closely related to the nervous system and neurons themselves. You see, the way our neurons work is by talking to each other in a sort of code. At the end of the axon (aka the tip of the neuron, the one that “talks” to her neighbors), our neurons store thousands of tiny little sacs filled with liquid and neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are released when a neuron is activated, and they are either molecules or peptides which are the code that our neurons communicate in.
Cannabinoids can affect the kinds of neuropeptides our neurons use to talk to their neighboring sisters. After binding to cannabinoid receptors in the cell membrane, they activate an intracellular communication pathway. This way, the inhibitory pain pathways begin within the cell, and it also halts some processes within it. For example, cannabinoids can inhibit the release of the neuropeptides, such as substance P that signal pain to the next neuron.
Cannabinoids are not only involved in the neuron that is doing the talking (known as the presynaptic neuron), but also in the ones doing the listening (or postsynaptic neurons). They can modulate the excitability of the postsynaptic neuron (how willing she is to catch what the other neuron’s saying). This direct action that cannabinoids have in pre- and postsynaptic nerve endings makes THC and endocannabinoids good for modulating nerve pain.
When it comes to dysmenorrhea, there is honestly not a lot of research on how weed could help with period cramps or not. What we know so far about weed’s role in pain relief seems to suggest it has little effect on prostaglandins, which is the main cause of the pain during menstruation as we discussed.
There is another way in which it has been hypothesized that weed can help with this pain, though. This is attributed to CBD’s relaxing effect on the muscles of our body. The uterus is mostly made up of muscle, so CBD can help relax the muscles in the pelvic region, and can provide relief for other types of period pain, such as back pain. There are other conditions such as endometriosis which might be benefitted by marijuana use.
However, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about weed helping with menstruation pain, which is not something to be discounted easily and should instead be a motivator of future research. It can be hypothesized that another reason as to why people report pain relief is more related to the dopamine release that cannabis consumption usually triggers. There are lots of people who have benefitted from using cannabis for dysmenorrhea relief. It has been said that even Queen Victoria used it for her own menstrual pain.
Yes, Queen Victoria’s own physician prescribed her a marijuana tincture for her royal period cramps. Doctor J. Russell Reynolds was the vice-president of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, and the physician of the Royal Household since 1878. He was a neurologist, and an accomplished scholar. While he was alive, he used to write for one of the world’s oldest science publications, The Lancet. In fact, in 1890 he published an article titled “On the Therapeutic Uses and Toxic Effects of Cannabis Indica,” in which he called the herb “one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
In my opinion, Dr. Russel Reynolds was right. There is still a lot that we still don't know still about the medicinal potential of marijuana, and it’s something that we should be interested in as it can uncover processes within the human body that we don’t know yet. Marijuana for medicinal use for period cramps is legal in some places, so you should check out your local legislation about it.
If you do decide to consume cannabis and try it out for yourself, there are some strains that have been reported to bring significant period pain and PMS symptom relief by its users. According to Leafly, some of these strains are the following:
- Super Lemon Haze
- Blue Dream
- Sour Diesel (I can personally attest to this one)
- Purple Urkle
- Jet Fuel
- Hawaiian Snow
- Space Queen
- Skywalker OG
- Johnny’s Tonic
- Mr. Nice
- Pink Kush
It has been also documented that the best results for pain relief are by inhaling weed smoke, rather than consuming it through edibles or tinctures. The latter is mostly associated with better results in mood and gastrointestinal issues, so you might have better luck trying this out with a pipe, vaporizer or hemp based joint if your period pain is really bad. Remember to talk to your doctor about this!
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. The information on this article is for informative and entertainment purposes only. Nothing here substitutes advice you can get from a medical doctor. If you have a question about medical marijuana use, you should talk to a licensed physician.
Rosenwaks, Z (1980) Menstrual pain: its origin and pathogenesis - NIH National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7001019/
Stella, Nephi (2001) How might cannabinoids influence sexual behavior? - NIH National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC33368/
Vučković, S (2018) Cannabinoids and Pain: New Insights From Old Molecules - NIH National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6277878/
Magrabi, T. (2002) Can Cannabis Help Relieve Menstrual Cramps? - Leafly . Retrieved from https://leafwell.com/blog/does-weed-help-with-cramps/
Russell Reynolds, J. (1890) ON THE THERAPEUTICAL USES AND TOXIC EFFECTS OF CANNABIS INDICA. - Science Direct. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S014067360218723X