- Posted September 27, 2023
More Women Using Cannabis to Help Ease Menopause Symptoms
Women over 50 are turning to weed in droves, and menopause symptoms may be one big reason why, new research suggests
These women may not necessarily be getting the results they're looking for, however. That's according to menopause experts who say it's not clear from limited research whether the drug helps ease symptoms or exacerbates them.
“People are desperate. They want to sleep. They want to feel better. And it's been pretty normalized at this point that cannabis is something that works for those issues. I want to be clear that we don't actually know if it works,” said study author Carolyn Gibson, a health services researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The evidence is really mixed whether it's helping or hurting or maintaining or exacerbating sleep challenges and anxiety,” Gibson noted.
It may be both easing and exacerbating symptoms, Gibson said.
It “also might be keeping folks from engaging in evidence-based treatments that might be more effective," she added.
Gibson had been increasingly seeing cannabis advertising targeted at women dealing with menopause. A psychologist, she had also observed that more patients were self-medicating for issues like pain and anxiety.
To study this, her team included data from more than 5,100 mid-life women. More than 40% said they had ever used cannabis for recreational or therapeutic reasons. About 28% said it was to treat chronic pain. Sleep problems and stress were the reasons why for 22%.
More than 10% of the study participants had used cannabis in the past 30 days. Most of those were smoking the drug, at 56%. About 52% were ingesting edible products, while 39% said they were using more than one form.
Among those who used cannabis in the past 30 days, 31% smoked it on a daily or near-daily basis. About 19% said they used edible cannabis on a daily or near-daily basis.
More than 30 symptoms are recognized as those that can occur during the menopause transition. In addition to sleep issues and anxiety are hot flashes, night sweats, genital urinary symptoms and other mood issues.
It's possible to treat these symptoms with hormone therapy, SSRI antidepressants or a nerve pain medication called gabapentin. It also can be effective to use non-medication based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and other behaviors that support general well-being, including social connection, physical activity, yoga and mindfulness, Gibson said.
The form, potency and frequency of use of weed can all make a big difference when it comes to considering potential health outcomes.
Among the risks of smoking cannabis, for example, is that breathing in smoke of any kind has known health risks. Cannabis products now also have increasingly higher potency, Gibson said, and the addictive potential is a concern.
“We used to think that it was not addictive, and now we understand that it definitely is,” Gibson said.
“I think the takeaway is this is something that people are going to increasingly be doing as legalization and normalization becomes more widespread,” Gibson said. “I would hope that people would talk with their doctors about these issues.”
The findings will be presented Wednesday at the Menopause Society's annual meeting, in Philadelphia. Findings presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Dr. Tara Iyer, an associate physician and menopause specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital's Menopause and Midlife Clinic in Boston, said what the study shows is reflected in what she sees among patients.
Iyer, who was not part of the study, noted that with many patients, becoming aware that they can seek help and get on a waiting list to see an expert, they've been suffering for years.
“So, they really have tried a multitude of different things, whatever they can get their hands on, essentially, to try and alleviate some of the symptoms that they have,” Iyer said. “CBD or marijuana or THC products in general certainly make that list.”
The gold standard in menopause treatment for women who fit particular safety criteria and are under age 60 or within 10 years of their last menstrual period is hormone therapy.
Iyer noted the same alternative treatments as Gibson, pointing to lifestyle changes, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, gabapentin and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“I'd say different individuals would benefit from different therapies, depending on what their unique experience looks like,” Iyer said.
With cannabis in particular, Iyer noted there are some patients who report that they saw some benefit from using cannabis in terms of symptoms such as joint paint and sleep, but it's not clear from limited research whether that's truly the result of cannabis or a placebo effect.
At the same time, there may be some detrimental effects from using cannabis in terms of other symptoms that are also seen in menopause like memory issues, brain fog and trouble concentrating, she added.
“My recommendation would be to see a menopause specialist because if the only reason that they are hoping to use cannabis is to relieve their symptoms, there are more efficacious, well-studied and safe treatments to be able to address those directly and address more than just the couple of issues that potentially cannabis might be helpful for,” Iyer said.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more on menopause.
SOURCES: Carolyn Gibson, PhD, psychologist and health services researcher, University of California, San Francisco; Tara Iyer, MD, associate physician and menopause specialist, Menopause and Midlife Clinic, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; presentation, Menopause Society annual meeting, Sept. 27, 2023, Philadelphia