Nearly a century of anti-cannabis legislation has made people forget that this ancient plant has been a source of medicine for millennia, in societies all across the globe. Today, with increased visibility and research into the healing potential of cannabis when it comes to such conditions as epilepsy and chronic pain, this is beginning to change. But one still very underexplored area in modern research of cannabis’s capabilities is its use in matters of women’s health. Considering that women’s pain and health issues have been historically downplayed, even up until the present, it’s unsurprising that we know so little about cannabis’s potential to help women lead more pain-free lives. In reality, however, women’s use of cannabis for various issues has been documented for thousands of years.
The ancient history of cannabis in women’s health
As we’ve explored before, humans’ first interaction with cannabis has been dated to the Holocene era, nearly 12,000 years ago, while humans have been cultivating cannabis for at least 6000 years. When it comes to women’s health, one of the first explicitly documented instances comes from 1534 BCE in the ancient Egyptian medical document, Ebers Papyrus, which describes the use of cannabis as an aid in childbirth to help induce contractions. This seems to have been a common use for cannabis, as traces of the plant were found in the burial tomb of a girl who died in childbirth in Israel around 350 BCE, suggesting that it had been administered to assist in the birthing process.
While many of the first documented uses of cannabis for women are surrounding childbirth, it seems to have also played a role in reproductive health at large. In Persia, 9th-century physician Sabur ibn Sahl noted the use of a juice made from cannabis seeds and other herbs to calm uterine pains and prevent miscarriage. The 12th-century German Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen wrote in Physica, her text on health and healing, that cannabis could be used to heal headaches and stomachaches, as well as sores and wounds when used as a compress. The 13th-century Italian Codex Vindobonensis 93 describes the use of cannabis as an ointment applied to the breasts to reduce pain and swelling. And in China, according to the Pen T’sao Kang Mu, a 1596 compilation of ancient traditional medicines, cannabis flowers were recommended for menstrual disorders and hemp seed kernels for healing postpartum hemorrhages.
Women and cannabis in the modern era
Even into the 19th century, cannabis was known for many of these same healing capabilities. In 1849, for example, English obstetrician Fleetwood Churchill reported the efficacy of cannabis in treating uterine hemorrhage. Cannabis was also well known by doctors for its effectiveness in treating dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps, and patented medicines containing cannabis were very common during this time. One preparation, named “Dysmenine,” contained cannabis with a variety of other herbal tinctures, “Indicated for Dysmenorrhea, Menstrual Colic, and Cramps.” A similar tincture was prescribed to Queen Victoria by her physician Sir John Russell Reynolds, who wrote in the scientific journal The Lancet in 1890, “When pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
The use of cannabis for treating women’s pain was defended by doctors throughout the first half of the 20th century, even as it was beginning to face legal challenges. As of 1934, The British Pharmaceutical Codex still recommended cannabis in the treatment of menstrual cramps, and in 1942 the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Morris Fishbein, continued to recommend cannabis for treating migraines brought on by menstruation.
Though the nearly global illegalization of cannabis in the mid-1900s discouraged further research for some time, dozens of studies and surveys conducted later in the century have only reiterated the positive findings of the past thousands of years. Lester Grinspoon’s and James Bakalar’s 1997 book Marihuana, the forbidden medicine, to name one example, contains case studies on cannabis used for premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, and labor pains and concludes that it is effective at providing pain relief, even at low doses, without cognitive impairment.
The healing properties of cannabis
When it comes to knowing exactly why cannabis is so helpful in various types of pain management, many studies suggest that cannabis, particularly the non-psychoactive compound cannabidiol (CBD), has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. This is because the body contains cannabinoid receptors that are distributed throughout the nervous system and are responsible for, among other processes, slowing down inflammation and pain. When CBD is ingested, it helps to activate these natural receptors.
The anti-inflammatory capabilities of CBD are also what make it so effective as a skincare ingredient. Inflammation can cause a variety of skin conditions, from acne, to eczema, to psoriasis, but CBD can provide relief for sensitive skin. A potent natural antioxidant, CBD also helps repair and protect the skin barrier. Additionally, more than 60% of all women experience skin flare-ups as a symptom of PMS, when fluctuating hormone levels can cause overproduction of pore-clogging sebum. CBD, which is known to inhibit sebum production, can help counteract this aspect of the menstrual cycle.
As for women’s menstrual cramps, scientific research is ongoing. Women with premenstrual syndrome have been found to lack a certain fatty acid (gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA), but their PMS-related symptoms were reported to improve significantly when a daily dose of 150-200 milligrams of this acid was administered over a 12-week period. This amount of GLA can be found in just 5 ml of hemp seed oil.
Lack of studies and inequality in women’s healthcare
Although women have effectively treated their pains with cannabis for centuries, not much clinical data exists on the matter beyond anecdotal surveys and a few of the studies mentioned above. Considering the longstanding disparity between genders when it comes to treating pain and illness, this is unfortunately not too surprising. Women have historically faced the problem of having their medical concerns and pains dismissed by doctors. They face longer waits in emergency rooms, are treated with less urgency for pain, and are more likely to be told that their pain is psychosomatic, or caused by mental or emotional distress.
There’s an even more specific reason that clinical studies on women’s health issues are lacking. For decades, and as recently as 30 years ago, scientific studies were only conducted on men for the excuse that women’s hormones and menstrual cycles made it too difficult to include them in clinical research. Only in 2018 did women for the first time account for half the people studied in clinical trials for new drugs.
Combined with the increasing equality for women in the healthcare space, the growing body of clinical research being conducted on cannabis, and particularly on CBD, could prove extremely beneficial for women going forward. The list of known benefits provided by CBD continues to lengthen, and high-quality CBD skincare is more available than ever before. Whether for skin issues, chronic pain, or any number of other health issues, women should feel empowered to seek relief, and knowing the long, well-documented history of cannabis’s healing capabilities may be the first step.
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