Women often rely on heating pads, painkillers, and their go-to chocolate bar to deal with PMS each month. And then there's Midol. Since the 1930s, the over-the-counter acetaminophen-based drug has been marketed to women for their "periodic pain." Beyond that, there haven't been many new mainstream medical options available to alleviate stubborn menstrual discomfort. Searching for remedies, women have turned to various holistic and alternative medicine treatments like chasteberry, Mayan abdominal massage, or acupuncture.
Perhaps we just need to look back to ancient times for another viable remedy: cannabis. Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and Washington DC, and cannabis is on the rise as an innovative solution for managing PMS. That's good news for women dealing with cramps, headaches, or irritability.
Relief For Common Symptoms
While marijuana has been a medicinal remedy for millennia, there is a lack of modern research on it. That's because it is difficult to acquire research grants from the National Institute of Health while pot is still illegal at the federal level. But a few promising studies do exist, and reviews of existing literature have concluded that cannabis effectively treats otherwise treatment-resistant conditions, including pain management. Despite the lack of research, many "green doctors" consider PMS a qualifying condition for a marijuana prescription to provide relief from common PMS symptoms.
"Cannabis definitely plays a role in pain reduction," says Dr. Jennifer Berman, a cohost on The Doctors who specializes in women's sexual health. She notes that cannabis has been effective for people with chronic pain and those with inflammatory autoimmune conditions; in light of this, it should also work for menstrual cramps. Whether eaten, smoked, or inserted vaginally, Dr. Berman says cannabis may "help modulate and minimize muscle spasm and pain" by relaxing the muscles in the uterus and increasing blood flow.
"If you don't get relief from Ibuprofen, [marijuana] would be something I would recommend you try."
The standard of care for severe menstrual cramps is Ibuprofen, according to Dr. Berman. If that doesn't work, mainstream medicine will prescribe narcotic pain medication. Both options come with downsides. "Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, like Motrin or Advil, can have side effects if taken consistently over the course of 24 hours," she explains. "It could be hard on your stomach. They may interact with other medications. They can cause bleeding." In addition, narcotics use can become habit. While she notes there isn't hard data to back it up, her patients have found success in using cannabis products to relieve PMS. "If you don't get relief from Ibuprofen, this would be something I would recommend you try."
Alle Weil is one of many women who have felt the positive impact of cannabis. Weil is a certified holistic health counselor who has seen results both professionally and personally. Weil often works with women to solve menstrual-related issues when mainstream medicine doesn't work. "Based on various accounts, positive feedback, research, and my own personal experience, cannabis is a growing resolution for a number of inflammatory issues associated with a woman's cycle," Weil said.
What to Look For
If you're going to explore the world of medical marijuana for PMS, you'll have to learn a few things. First, you'll want to understand your state laws and get a medical marijuana prescription. Before visiting a dispensary, you'll also need to know the difference between cannabinoids THC and CBD, the chemical compounds found in cannabis. Dispensaries very often categorize their products by the amount of THC and CBD they contain. Here's a crash course on the two:
- THC: Stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. It simulates your CB1 receptor, the part of your central nervous system that processes appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory. THC has psychoactive properties. You tend to feel more relaxed, and it also helps with pain. Negative side effects of THC include anxiety (that oft-described paranoid feeling) and sedation.
- CBD: Stands for cannabidiol. It reduces THC's ability to stimulate the CB1 receptors, reducing some side effects of THC, including anxiety, increased appetite, and the feeling of being "high." It also has anti-inflammatory properties of its own.
Studies suggest there is a benefit from combining THC and CBD, because it allows you get more results with fewer side effects. Depending on what your symptoms are and what side effects you're comfortable with, the levels of CBD are often the determining factor. Put simply, choose more CBD if you don't want to feel high. In addition, there are other strains of marijuana, like THCV. Both THCV and CBD have been shown to reduce appetite. These "skinny cannabinoids" might be ideal for PMS, since "the munchies" often increase feelings of bloatedness.
The Various Products and Methods
When it comes to actual treatment, there is no shortage of specific period products. Foria Relief recently gained notoriety as the "weed tampon." A vaginal suppository you can use along with a tampon, it releases pain-decreasing cannabis in your uterus, helping to relieve cramps. The suppository can also be inserted rectally to relieve pain in the back and hip areas. Foria Relief contains both THC and CBD and does not cause psychoactive effects in most women, in part because it is inserted vaginally. While Foria is developing a study to further understand the benefits of vaginal delivery, the current understanding is that the suppository prevents the liver from processing THC, allowing the medicine to be absorbed locally without getting you high. In addition to reducing the effects of being high, CBD relaxes muscles and acts as an antianxiety and anti-inflammatory agent, according to the company.
Mathew Gerson founded Foria, which started off making a line of cannabis-infused female pleasure products. Gerson told us why it's important that women don't get high from the Foria cannabis suppository: "The number of women who could benefit from what it [cannabis] has to offer with respect to menstrual cramps is a much larger number if they didn't have to deal with being stoned." He says the suppository delivery method still allows for a high cannabis potency, but since it won't get you high, you can go about your day — going to work, taking care of your family, or enjoying time with friends. Currently, Foria is available only online to California residents with a valid physician's recommendation letter or at dispensaries in Colorado and California.
Since it doesn't get you high or put you into a more relaxed state, Dr. Berman says Foria might not be able to treat other symptoms of PMS, like irritability, but sees little downside to the product. "The only limitations are the regulatory restrictions state to state, that it takes 20 minutes to work, and you have to lay down." She also says the potential for abuse is always a concern when you're dealing with any drug.
Whoopi Goldberg has also launched a new line of cannabis products designed to give you relief from menstrual pain. Goldberg teamed up with Maya Elisabeth, the founder of Om Edibles, to create Whoopi & Maya. Elisabeth says they are currently in about 270 dispensaries in California and experiencing a positive response to their products.
Currently, the line has four cannabis-infused products: Soak, Savor, Rub, and Relax. Soak is an epsom bath salt meant to decrease aches and pains. Elisabeth says the bath salts are among their most popular products, as they also help with anxiety, depression, and sleep. "Cannabis is wonderful for PMS support because it can be a mood elevator," Elizabeth explains. "It can really take the edge off when someone's feeling irritable and can be very supportive for emotional ups and downs." As for the rest of their line, Savor is a raw cacao spread that will improve your mood and help with inflammation and cramping. Rub is a body balm meant to relax cramping and relieve back pain. And Relax is a tincture that promises to reduce cramping and improve your mood. Before the US criminalized cannabis in 1937, tinctures were among the most popular ways to ingest the drug. Today, they remain an effective, inexpensive, and smoke-free way to use marijuana.
"The benefit of inhalation is that you'll have a more instant effect."
But what about old-school smoking? It still comes into play for many women. For eight years, Danielle Geen has worked at Harborside, a leading medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, CA. Geen has used cannabis to treat PMS, ovarian cysts, and endometriosis. She has found relief using a mix of tinctures, topicals, and suppositories, as well as inhalation and edibles. "The benefit of inhalation is that you'll have a more instant effect," Geen explains. She's also found that while products with CBD will reduce inflammation and provide comfort similar to a heating pad, THC will more directly combat acute pain. As for edibles, she likes that the effects can last for six to eight hours, depending on your metabolism.
Weil has also turned to inhalation for her stubborn symptoms. "Topicals are great for aches and pains, but unfortunately do nothing for my severe cramps," she explains. She has tried the Foria suppositories, but found that her cramps were too severe. Because she's a holistic nutritionist, Weil is wary of the carcinogens produced by smoking. "I am always looking for the healthiest ways to incorporate natural solutions," she admits. She recommends using a vaporizer with high purity standards for "the fastest and easiest way to ease cramping." In addition, for severe pain, Weil suggests seeking out strains that have been developed especially for cancer patients.
Why You Should Consider Cannabis for PMS
The media frenzy that dubbed Foria Relief a "weed tampon" was inaccurate. It's not a tampon, and it won't get you high like the weed you may be used to. But overall, Gerson believes the exposure was positive. "It piqued interest," he says, which is the first step to acceptance of marijuana as a medicine. "It's not that cannabis is going to take the place of other drugs, but let's accept it and do more research on the many benefits that it has and put it out there as a viable alternative."
Geen has also found luck with the suppositories and has this advice for any women considering cannabis as solution for PMS: "Start with the tinctures. It has high CBD so it's nonpsychoactive." If you feel comfortable with the tinctures, topicals, or the suppositories but need stronger or longer-lasting effects, she recommends adding in inhalation or edibles.
While some critics worry about dependence, Dr. Berman says that's true of any drug we take. She believes cannabis is "probably safer for people who have severe disabling cramps and have to take narcotic pain medication." She would tell those patients to consider products like Foria for their cramps in lieu of stronger mainstream medications. "Taking those products orally puts you at risk. They're habit forming, while this is not." If you are considering trying cannabis for PMS, be sure to obtain it from a regulated medical dispensary. "If you get it any old place, you're not sure from batch to batch how it's handled," Dr. Berman cautions. Check to make sure your dispensary has a permit.
Cannabis really could be the miracle drug women need once a month. "It has helped to reduce overall inflammation, fatigue, midmonth pain associated with ovulation, and endometriosis, as well as period cramping," Weil shares. "It has also provided focus to varying energy associated with monthly ups and downs." What more could you ask for?