Why are women using CBD products — and do they work?
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil and other products containing CBD are being touted as a natural, organic remedy for a wide range of women’s health concerns. Sellers of these products make many claims: CBD has calming effects on sleep, mood, and anxiety; eases hot flashes and improves bone density by balancing hormonal changes of menopause; and has anti-inflammatory properties that clear skin, cure acne, and calm rosacea. It’s promoted for PMS symptoms like bloating and mood swings. And CBD-infused lubricants claim to boost arousal and enjoyment of sex. So, how much of this is true?
First, what is CBD?
CBD is a major ingredient in cannabis plants (like hemp and marijuana). It comes in different strengths and forms, often as CBD oil, but also in pills and powders. It can be absorbed through the skin, ingested, or inhaled. (Vaping it, however, may not be safe, as this blog post and web page from the CDC explain.)
Unlike marijuana, pure CBD products don’t make you feel high. A different ingredient in marijuana called THC makes people feel high.
Does CBD have proven benefits?
So far, there’s not much evidence on the medical benefits of CBD, partly because laws on marijuana made it difficult to study. Until we learn more, it’s wise to keep in mind that few high-quality studies have been done.
- In 2018 the FDA approved a drug derived from CBD to treat rare forms of childhood epilepsy. This medication was shown in randomized clinical trials to reduce the frequency of seizures (see here and here).
- A few studies have found CBD may improve anxiety, but the studies were small and of poor quality (see here and here).
- Some laboratory research on human cells suggests CBD may have anti-inflammatory effects on oil-secreting glands in the skin. This might have implications for acne and other inflammatory skin disorders, but further research is needed to confirm this. And while CBD in skin products is unlikely to harm you, most dermatologists agree that there are more effective and better-studied medications and treatments for acne and inflammatory skin disorders.
Other potential benefits of CBD aren’t clear. No high-quality research shows that CBD improves sex drive, decreases pain, treats depression or mood disorders, decreases PMS symptoms like bloating and cramps, or relieves symptoms of menopause like hot flashes. This may change as more studies are done, but for now, the jury is out.
Are CBD products safe?
The short answer is this: pure CBD seems to be safe for most people. However, we don’t have rigorous studies and long-term data to prove whether or not a wide range of CBD products are safe for everyone. For example, there is no evidence to suggest that CBD is safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or for people who are immunocompromised.
Because CBD products aren’t regulated by the FDA in the way that drugs are, there is huge variation in quality and, quite possibly, safety. In 2017–2018, counterfeit CBD oil was found that contained synthetic cannabinoids and led to a poisoning outbreak in Utah.
Testing shows purity and dosage can be unreliable in many products. One study found less than a third of the products tested had the amount of CBD shown on the label. Another study of 84 CBD products bought online showed that more than a quarter of the products contained less CBD than stated. In addition, THC (the component that can make you feel high) was found in 18 products.
Does CBD cause side effects?
CBD can cause side effects like dry mouth, diarrhea, reduced appetite, and drowsiness. Additionally, it can interact with certain medicines, such as blood thinners and antiseizure drugs. If you would like to start using CBD products, it’s best to first talk to your doctor.
There are a lot of extravagant product claims out there about the benefits of CBD for women, but little high-quality research supports them. CBD oil and other CBD products aren’t well regulated. It’s possible what you are buying is counterfeit or contaminated. Before using CBD — especially if you plan to vape or ingest it — first talk with your doctor or healthcare provider to learn whether it could be safe and helpful for you.
About the Authors
Rose McKeon Olson, MD , Contributor
Rose McKeon Olson, MD, is a resident physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She has special research interests in gender-based violence, social medicine, and global health equity. See Full Bio
Eve Rittenberg, MD , Contributor
Eve Rittenberg, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a primary care internist at the Fish Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her interests include women’s health, trauma-informed care, … See Full Bio
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I am a 55 year old woman who has suffered with neuropathy since 2004 (amplified by a trauma in 2011); as well as a sciatic nerve issue and other complication since my trauma. One thing I found out (very quickly!), many of the drugs (natural or not) are either recomended for short term relief and used very long term, or the probable cause of added, often more sever, side effects. I don’t believe, for me personally, any medication that has the potential to do more harm than good, especially when it can only treat symptoms and not the cause, would be ideal, unless there is ‘no other option’ or perspective hope. Limited and controlled ecersizes along with diet, seem to have worked best for me personally; but, yes it is very difficult many days. However, I plan to watch my grandchild grow-up, and I plan to do that watching with as clear a mind as possible for today and tomorrow. Side-effects of CBD have been relatively unstudyed or unpublished for lack of verification. That is not promising. All of that being said, I am sure for some people CBD oil could be a God send of relief, most especially for some seizure and cancer patients.
Cannabis Sativa and Hemp are two different plants. Marijuana is not a plant, it’s a slang term used by rhetoric spewing racists seeking to profit from a new prohibition. How can you publish this when you clearly don’t know the basics?
As a woman with a cervical level spinal cord injury, who has experienced many benefits through the use of CBD … this article had absolutely no relevance to its title.
More Women Are Trying Cannabis for Menopausal Symptoms
Research presented at NAMS suggests legalization has upped cannabis use for medical issues.
Cannabis comes in many different forms, including seeds, topical oils and creams, dried leaves, supplements, and tinctures. Inna Dodor/Getty Images; Everyday Health
Recreational cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2018, which led researchers at the University of Alberta to wonder if women are using it more to lessen menopause symptoms such as insomnia, night sweats, and mood swings. Funded by an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), their study abstract was presented at The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, from September 22 to 25, 2021. The research, which looked at rates and patterns of cannabis use and user reported effectiveness, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“Anecdotally, there have been increasing reports that Canadians are using cannabis for medical purposes, and that they are accessing it from nonmedical sources. We also got from these anecdotal reports that the symptoms are overlapping with menopause symptoms.
There is not much published in the scientific literature right now about this; there’s a big gap on cannabis used to manage menopause symptoms specifically. What we wanted to do with our study was provide a snapshot within our population on if women are using cannabis, and how are they using it. Then we can move forward, fill that gap of knowledge and see if this is worth investigating more,” says Katherine Babyn, PharmD, a master’s student on the faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta, and first author of the study abstract.
Researchers Looked at Cannabis Use in Women From Alberta, Canada
The study analyzed responses from around 1,500 women who live in the province of Alberta in Canada — 18 percent were premenopausal, 33 percent perimenopausal, and 35 percent postmenopausal. A small percentage had either undergone a hysterectomy or bilateral oophorectomy. In the overall group, around 33 percent reported using cannabis within the last 30 days, and 65 percent had used it within their lifetime. Current cannabis rates were comparable among all menopause stage groupings.
Women’s Reasons for Cannabis Use Suggest That Medical and Menopausal Symptoms Overlap
Findings hint that women were most interested in improving sleep and easing anxiety. Subjects were asked about use, and were invited to give multiple reasons for use. Of 499 study participants who reported current cannabis use, 75 percent stated it was for medical purposes: sleep issues (65 percent), anxiety (45 percent), muscle or joint achiness (33 percent), irritability (29 percent), and depression (25 percent). Three-quarters stated that they did find improvement with cannabis use but didn’t specify for which particular symptom.
The top three delivery systems were edibles, oils, and smoking. The study did not look at dosage or daily use specific to different delivery systems.
More Research Is Needed to Understand Cannabis Use for Menopausal Symptoms
“This is an interesting opening study, but a lot more research needs to be done. In order to really understand cannabis use in this population, we need to ask more detailed questions. The next step really should be to understand more how they’re using cannabis, when they’re using it, how much they’re using, and start to pick a more specific, refined population,” says Jahan Marcu, PhD, cannnabinoid pharmacologist and founding partner at Marcu and Arora. Dr. Marcu was not involved in this research.
Dr. Babyn agrees, “There is currently a gap in knowledge in the context of cannabis being used for menopause symptoms that needs to be addressed. We established that women are using cannabis for this reason, and from there, future studies can build off of what we are showing. We’re hoping that this kickstarts more research within this area so that we can have the evidence health professionals need to guide patients in using cannabis safely.”
Want to Try Cannabis? Talk to a Medical Professional First
“We found that most women are turning to the internet or their friends and family to get more information on cannabis used for medical purposes. This is an opportunity for healthcare providers to fill in and make sure that women are taking cannabis safely and appropriately,” says Babyn.
Always speak first with a qualified health professional. Not every physician, however, is going to be knowledgeable about cannabis. If so, don’t go to an unlicensed CBD shop. Research published in December 2019 in JAMA showed that many CBD products are mislabeled and contain less CBD than manufacturers claim.
Go, instead, to a state licensed dispensary, which follow basic product safety, regulation, and requirements. “Medical cannabis dispensaries in the United States have pharmacists who can consult with you about drug interactions, side effects, the safety of different delivery systems, and how to implement the advice of ‘stay low and go slow,’ which means you use a low dose and use it as infrequently as possible,” says Marcu.
Are Menopausal Symptoms Undertreated?
High cannabis use rates may be a sign that women need more thorough care around menopause. “We believe the reason they are turning to cannabis is they may not be getting the care that they need. We know there is a stigma towards menopause and fear of use of hormone therapy. Women may be turning to cannabis because they want to control their symptoms, they want to have self-control, but they may not know all of their options to help manage menopause symptoms,” says Nese Yuksel, BScPharm, PharmD, a professor on the faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, who was the primary investigator and study supervisor.
In fact, Yale School of Medicine researchers looked at insurance claims from more than 500,000 women in various stages of menopause. They found that while 60 percent of the women with significant menopausal symptoms sought medical attention, almost three-quarters received no treatment.
“We are not advocating for cannabis as we believe there should be more research to support the use in menopause. We want to get the message that as healthcare professionals, we should be talking to women about their menopause issues. Discuss symptoms, and identify and look at all the options to manage symptoms,” added Dr. Yuksel.