Sex-based differences in the effects of therapeutics is a relatively new aspect of modern scientific research. Biological sex accounts for many of the variations in the effects of different therapeutics, including cannabis.
Important info: We’re strictly talking about biological sex in this article, and not the myriad of genders.
Science has confirmed a number of ways in which cannabinoids exert a different effect on both men and women. For example, cannabinoids primarily affect women in terms of anxiety and depression, whereas they affect men in terms of energy production and metabolism. Science is starting to show that gonadal hormones play a crucial role in the sex-based differences in cannabinoid effects.
What we’re noticing in this research is a difference in the way men and women respond to cannabis, including the ways in which they develop addictive tendencies towards cannabis. The understanding of how cannabis affects different biological sexes differently gives the medical community better opportunities for using cannabis therapeutically. And of course, a better understanding of how to get optimal results from men and women.
Men, women, and cannabis addiction.
Interestingly, in some preclinical studies, researchers found that female rats (as compared to male rats) were more sensitive to the rewarding and reinforcing effects of THC. This was later corroborated in a human trial. In another preclinical study, female rats were more likely to engage in cue/stress-induced cannabis use. This naturally leads researchers to believe that cannabis may be more addictive for women than for men, at least biologically speaking. To add to this, women are more likely to experience more frequent and severe withdrawal symptoms, all of which predict relapse in women who are trying to quit cannabis.
With that in mind, men consume a greater volume of cannabis than women do, and are less likely to be only cannabis users. That’s to say, they’re more likely to use other drugs alongside cannabis. How much that affects the addictiveness of cannabis, we don’t really know.
In short — women are much more likely to use cannabis when they’re stressed, whereas men don’t seem to mind using it all of the time. And strangely enough, that puts women at greater risk of developing addictive tendencies towards cannabis.
Endocannabinoid system differences between men and women.
Murine research showed that men express a greater number of CB1 receptors in all brain regions except for the amygdala — where women express more CB1 receptors. On the contrary, despite the fact that men expressed a greater volume of CB1 receptors, females’ receptors displayed heightened activity compared to males.
An interesting pre-clinical study took place in 2016 that investigated the effects of early life stressors on the endocannabinoid system. Early life stress increased CB receptor expression in females, but not in males. This is especially interesting because we know the endocannabinoid system is heavily implicated in stress disorders such as PTSD. Thus, a better understanding of cannabinoid expression in men and women is warranted through further research.
Sex steroids and gonadal hormones are thought to be highly interconnected with the endocannabinoid system, and with the variations in effects between men and women. This all comes as a consequence of earlier cannabis research, where we learned that women have different CBR expressions during different times in their menstrual cycle.
There have been a number of other studies in endocannabinoid system differences between men and women, but their results have been conflicting. While some have reported that men have a greater number of CB1 receptors, others report that this title belongs to women. As the research is still in early days, it’s necessary to acquire bigger sample sizes and more consistency across studies.
Other factors we sometimes forget to consider.
In this article, we focused mainly on the biological differences between men and women, and how those factors interplay with cannabis use. But there are also social factors that contribute to the differences in cannabis effects — including gender.
Gender is a part and parcel of many other social and psychological constructs that we are a part of. Gender along with identity, institution, social roles, and relationships all play a role in how we respond to cannabis, even if we haven’t proven this biologically. For example, a person raised in a nuclear family who attended Christian institutions may have a completely different response to cannabis than a child raised in foster homes who is emancipated from his biological family. And these differences in the response to cannabis aren’t necessarily based on biological differences, but in different social practises, traditions, and understandings.
This is relevant to biological sex too, because we observe men and women playing different roles in society, identifying with different jobs and family roles, and having different relationships. When we study populations, we necessarily must include the social factors that affect these populations. Thus, when studying cannabis’ effects on men and women, we should also consider the different social factors that affect men and women — like identity, gender, and roles.
Even if the research is still lacking in this aspect of cannabis research, it’s a particularly interesting aspect nonetheless. This kind of research is what paves the way for using cannabis to treat disorders that are particular to men and women such as prostate cancer or endometriosis.
We would love to hear your experiences with cannabis for male or female related problems. Let us know in the comments!