Should You Use Cannabis for Endometriosis?
Considering the number of people (10-15% percent of women of reproductive age) who suffer from it, its potentially debilitating effects, and the paltry research funding it receives, endometriosis is arguably the disease most neglected by scientific study. But why is this? And while we’re forced to wait for improved diagnostic tests and therapies, can women take relief from natural treatments like using cannabis for endometriosis?
There are many misconceptions about endometriosis. First, the excruciating cramps characteristic of the condition is often dismissed as ordinary menstrual pains. Second, many people believe that only older women suffer from it even though you’re more likely to get it in your prime reproductive years. This misconception could be due to the long delay (8-12 years on average) in diagnosis. And, without a reliable non-invasive test to diagnose the condition, especially in the mild and moderate stages, some doctors may tell women that the pain is all in their heads. Finally, some people even link the condition to heightened sexual activity or STDs, perhaps confusing endometriosis with “endometritis”, which results from an infection of the endometrium by sexually transmitted or other types of bacteria. Nevertheless, all these misconceptions are simply incorrect.
What Is Endometriosis?
Though it’s considered a relatively new disease, the first recorded symptoms of endometriosis date back to ancient Egypt. It’s caused by an abnormal growth of the endometrial tissue, which lines the uterus. When the tissue grows outside the uterus and attaches to other organs, the body detects this foreign substance and attacks it, triggering an inflammatory response that leads to scarring, pain, and occasionally infertility.
Endometriosis has four stages, each getting progressively more severe. For example, women with stage three or four endometriosis get an ovarian cyst that grows each month when they have their period. Eventually, this cyst becomes large enough even to impede normal ovarian functioning.
The most obvious consequence of this action is pain. Women can experience pelvic pain, chronic pain, pain in the lower back and legs. Women can also experience pain while urinating, making bowel movements, between periods, and during sexual intercourse. These side effects cause sleep problems, subsequently lowering your pain threshold and creating a cycle of continually worsening symptoms.
Approximately 30 to 50% of women with endometriosis also experience infertility, most often due to structural damage that causes the fallopian tubes to become blocked.
Living With Endometriosis
I was diagnosed with stage four endometriosis when I was 19. Doctors found an eight-centimeter cyst on my right ovary, which they successfully removed through laparoscopic surgery, temporarily granting me a symptom-free life.
However, I needed to take birth control pills to manage my condition. As soon as I stopped, my symptoms returned full force, and now I have a large cyst on my left ovary. Living with a chronic disease that causes regular pain and discomfort can make anyone difficult to be around, and it really puts a strain on personal relationships.
Endometriosis has even hindered my career. My work schedule needs to be incredibly flexible. I’m forced to take roughly one sick day per month, and I’m less productive on days when I feel unwell. The condition takes from every aspect of your life, and it can become discouraging if you don’t know how to manage it well.
There’s still no none-invasive diagnosis for endometriosis, meaning the only way to confirm it is with surgery.
Experienced doctors may be able to differentiate between an endometrioma and other cysts on an ultrasound and infer that you probably have the disease. But this isn’t a failsafe, and won’t work for someone with mild symptoms.
We don’t even have a functional blood test. CA-125 blood tests, usually used to detect cancer, can indicate the potential presence of endometriosis but aren’t 100% accurate. Its respective sensitivity and specificity hover around 61% and 88%. Thus, it is not considered a reliable stand-alone diagnostic tool for endometriosis but may be useful as a complementary tool. However, many doctors are not aware of its potential utility in assisting endometriosis diagnosis.
The stigma attached to women’s reproductive health also hinders the diagnostic process. People are unwilling to talk about endometriosis, and some doctors are reluctant to acknowledge it, but this attitude is changing as endometriosis awareness efforts have started to take off. The month of March has been declared globally as Endometriosis Awareness Month.
Treatments for Endometriosis
When it comes to treating endometriosis, the conventional options are limited to hormone therapy and surgery.
Birth control pills alleviate the symptoms without addressing the cause, interfering with estrogen production to prevent endometrium buildup. Surgery is an option if you have a cyst. And Lupron, an injected pituitary suppressant, induces temporary menopause.
Like birth control pills, Lupron addresses the symptoms but isn’t sustainable. By heavily inhibiting estrogen production, the solutions cause side-effects such as memory loss, bone loss, hot flashes, and insomnia, essentially trading the symptoms of endometriosis for new ones.
Millions of women suffer from endometriosis, yet there’s a glaring lack of adequate treatment options.
Research Into Endometriosis
Despite its cause still being unknown, funding for research into endometriosis has dropped by 40% in the last four years. Historically, women’s health has received inequitable levels of attention, and women are still underrepresented in STEM fields, leading to a general lack of awareness about conditions such as endometriosis. And when a disease receives little funding, it naturally attracts fewer researchers.
However, one thing can provide insight into whether or not you might develop endometriosis and that’s genetics. Endometriosis has a significant genetic component and an estimated inheritability of approximately 50%.
In my case, genes affecting my liver make my body less capable of metabolizing toxins, including estrogen-mimicking dioxins. Genes that influence the body’s inflammatory response have also been linked to endometriosis, as has the estrogen receptor gene ESR1, which mediates estrogen activity in the brain.
The genes most closely linked to endometriosis include:
Cannabis for Endometriosis: A Natural Treatment
For women wanting to mitigate the symptoms of endometriosis without resorting to unsustainable hormone therapies, they can use cannabis for endometriosis. By breaking endometriosis down into its main symptoms, it’s possible to see how specific cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant can help people who are genetically predisposed to developing the condition.
1. Inflammation: CBD
CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties are well-documented. It’s been shown to reduce inflammation along several key pathways in the body, making it an effective treatment against certain inflammatory conditions.
2. Loss of Appetite: THC
Loss of appetite often accompanies the pain caused by endometriosis. THC has been found to help regulate functions such as pain sensitivity and appetite through its interactions with the body’s endocannabinoid system.
3. Pain: CBD and CBN
4. Nausea: CBD and THC
CBD alleviates nausea and vomiting by interacting with serotonin receptors. THC also possesses antiemetic properties and reduces vomiting by binding with CB1 receptors in the brain.
Learn more about CB1 Receptors
5. Difficulty Sleeping: Limonene and Linalool
These terpenes are great natural sleep aids. Linalool has been shown to increase production of the sedating hormone adenosine. And both are believed to reduce the symptoms of insomnia.
The road to relief
While we await adequate research into a disease that affects millions of people, natural treatments could provide essential relief. We cannot expect women to spend their entire lives on hormone therapies. And, in the absence of a cure, improved treatment options are desperately needed. I’ve found great comfort in the medicinal components of cannabis for endometriosis. I hope others can too.