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IMAGE: “Daydream,” Andrew Wyeth
Women have long kept their health lore confined to their close female communities. Until the late 19th century, birthing was the domain of women and they carried this, as well as other women’s health knowledge, forward. Natural birth control (often herbs) had to keep secret. There is lore that women once segregated themselves at the time of menses, and there in seclusion they found comfort from and companionship with other women.
Before scopolamine and epidurals, ibuprofen and anti-depressants, women likely used Cannabis and many other botanical medicines for pain in labor as well as for a host of other female issues.
There are written records dating back to 2737 BCE indicating the use of Cannabis for treating female health issues such as migraine, nausea and vomiting of pregnancy, augmenting labor, hemorrhage, heavy menses, uterine pain and contractions, “sore breasts,” to enhance milk flow, gonorrhea, urinary tract infections, easing painful menstrual cramps, assisting in long labors and for “melancholia” (what we know as depression or premenstrual dysphoric disorder).
Many of these therapeutic uses of Cannabis were included in the Dispensatory of the United States (Wood and Bache 1854) where it was referred to as “Indian hemp.” All parts of the plant were used: orally, inhaled, intra-nasally, juiced, topically, vaginally, and rectally.
These historical uses have been some what explained by contemporary science elucidating the endocannabinoid system (eCS). This system functions in the reproductive tissues (as well as most other tissue in the human body), where it plays a role in ovulation, implantation, development of the embryonic nervous system, in the contractile fibers of the uterus, endometrial tissue, and in the bladder and lower urinary tract. The endocannabinoid anandamide (AEA) is present in breast milk; levels of AEA fluctuate across the female cycle, and have been shown to elevate during ovulation and labor.
Flashing forward to 2013, Cannabis is reported to be the most widely used “illicit” drug by women in pregnancy. However, the majority of contemporary studies are framed as studies of drugs of abuse. There is often difficultly in teasing out the precise effects of Cannabis alone, as often the participants report the concomitant use of alcohol and/or tobacco when reporting Cannabis use.
Due to the contemporary demonization of Cannabis, no prospective trials have been performed to evaluate the therapeutic value in women’s health. Of course, the regulatory status of Cannabis has prevented such trials from happening, and yet, a massive “uncontrolled’ clinical trial continues, conducted by the people, where the individual results are largely un-described. This is particularly true for women’s health issues, and I have little doubt (based on patient interviews and anecdotes) that contemporary women continue to use Cannabis for a range of their physical and mental health disturbances.
The best place to start in contemporary research is to study the “natural history” of widespread Cannabis use as a therapy. Ethnomedicine is defined as “studying a local healing system of beliefs and practices among a specific group”. My collaborators and I have adapted this definition to describe a “plant-centric” healing system rather than a place-centric approach.
One way to learn from such a specific group is to ask them questions! We have developed an International Ethnomedical Survey tool to gather factual information regarding Cannabis use from the users: How often and how much? In what form? Effects? What does it help? How does it hinder? Who are the people who use Cannabis and what is quality of life among users?
On first analysis of 1158 responders to our online survey from 27 countries, we found that women are quite under-represented (35% of responders). Given the secrecy, shame, and misconceptions about Cannabis therapy and women, this is not surprising. However, for my interest in women and women’s health, it is a wake-up call.
Today, women are losing custody of their children for cultivating or using Cannabis. The recent media attention given to the “poisoning” of a young mother in Great Britain is unfortunate, as the coroner’s “explanation” is not supported by scientific reasoning or epidemiological data. For these types of travesties, women would benefit from speaking up about their human-Cannabis relationships!!
Today women (and children) are being drugged with chemicals that may or may not improve their symptoms or quality of life, and may actually harm natural function. The over-prescription of pain medications, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, hormones (synthetic and bio-identical) antibiotics, etc. . . do not have the historical safety profile of Cannabis. The poverty and paucity of information on the relatively safe use of Cannabis as a valuable women’s herb speaks for itself.
There is much to be said about the safety of Cannabis use in pregnancy and lactation, (which is not covered here). Across the lifespan, excluding pregnancy, there is ample opportunity for women to benefit from the balancing effects of this botanical medicine. This, and more will be reviewed in the upcoming American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Therapeutic Compendium (release date is estimated Summer 2014).
Cannabis, like most other botanical medicines, is not the sole solution for any illness or health problem. However, when used wisely, in cannabinoid ratios and doses that make sense for specific symptoms sets or diagnoses, in formulation with companion herbs, and concomitantly with other therapies, there is a clear role for Cannabis in women’s health. This is my personal perspective and comes from working as an herbalist and former midwife, Naturopathic Doctor, and biomedical researcher.
Modern life has necessitated an adaptation of the “typical” female stress response known as “tend and defend” to the “fight or flight” response. This shift of the sympathetic nervous system is moderated in part by the eCS. Bringing such a system back to balance, rather than just treating symptoms of the imbalance makes a lot of sense.
Given the alternatives women have in the stress-ridden, disconnected societies in which we find ourselves, promoting and exploring the female:Cannabis relationship may be a good idea. And just as the female Cannabis plant has been “exploited” in recent history to supply ever increasing amounts of THC, maybe we can consider exploiting the female:Cannabis relationship! We can do this by restoring “altruistic function” in our own lives, amidst an evolutionary societal model gone awry. Cannabis can help!
How can Cannabis help? From an evolutionary theory, Cannabis is likely working as an “adaptogen” upon the stress response. An adaptogen (attributed to Dr. Nikolai Lazarev (1947) is defined as “an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to “adapt” to the stressful circumstances”.
When women move to re-align each of their biological systems extending out into their social lives by modulating their stress response, I think there is the potential for personal as well as societal empowerment. Exploit that!
To learn more about Dr. Sexton’s survey, or to participate: http://www.bastyr.edu/research/studies/survey-cannabis-use