Understanding the Link Between Cannabis, Pleasure and Relief

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An Ancient Herbal Remedy

Cannabis was criminalized in the early 20th century, and ever since, women have been “re-discovering” the herb’s therapeutic benefits, stumbling onto its healing powers while consuming it recreationally.

But once upon a time, cannabis-derived remedies were commonly prescribed by doctors—particularly for relief from gynaecological conditions. Even further back in history, cannabis was one of the most widespread remedies in the toolkit of village herbalists, medicine women, and tribal healers. Rarely was cannabis smoked: Most recipes were for oral, vaginal, intranasal, anal, and topical application.

Nowadays, despite glowing reviews from friends, many women have practical reasons for not incorporating cannabis into their self-care routines. Not everyone enjoys the psychoactive effects, and prohibition has made it hard to access cannabis—let alone to find a reliable source of pure, high-quality topicals.

Fortunately, increasing legalization of cannabis and hemp products is allowing anyone with a vagina to reclaim the long-lost tradition of cannabinoid remedies—via extracts and topical preparations that are pure enough to be used gynaecologically. And for those who’ve never enjoyed smoking weed, topical or gynaecological cannabis comes with a major benefit—it provides localized relief without the psychoactive buzz.

But how do these cannabis preparations work, and why do they have different effects than eating or smoking cannabis? Let’s start with a look at medical history.

Traditional Uses in Gynaecology

The earliest written records of the gynaecological uses of cannabis date back around 4,000 years to Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. These manuscripts describe different preparations used for difficult childbirths and other unspecified female ailments. Later texts from Asia and Africa detail numerous recipes containing cannabis seeds, flowers, stems and/or extracts used in gynaecology. Perhaps because of cannabis’ effectiveness, its gynaecological use spread throughout Asia and Africa, finding its way to Europe in the Middle Ages and later to the Americas.

Before its widespread prohibition in this last century, physicians across the globe prescribed cannabis, often in combination with other herbs, for a broad range of gynaecological conditions. Archival medical texts from the 1800’s describe different cannabis formulations effective for: Aphrodisiac uses, painful menstrual cramps, heavy bleeding, painful urination, PMS, pain during sex, nausea during pregnancy, menopause, gonorrhea, post-partum hemorrhage, difficult childbirth.

When cannabis was stripped from the medical community in the early 20th century, it was to the great disappointment of medical practitioners. Although not all of these traditional remedies would meet today’s medical standards, recent scientific findings suggest that the active compounds in cannabis could match the efficacy of many modern prescription drugs—possibly with fewer side-effects and a much lower price tag.

Endocannabinoids in the Reproductive Tract

The endocannabinoid system is the body's way of balancing (and imbalancing) and how cannabinoids like CBD and THC can help a lot. We know they work because our bodies are chock full of receptors for cannabinoids—but are they everywhere in the body? Even “down there?"

Within the reproductive tract, endocannabinoid receptors are widespread. They are most dense in the uterus, but are also found in the fallopian tubes, ovaries, vagina, and vulva. On a microscopic level, endocannabinoid receptors are located where they can exert control. They are associated with: Nerves where they mediate sensations, immune cells where they control inflammation, glands where they influence hormone secretion, and muscles where they facilitate energy usage.

Overall, the endocannabinoid system is fully integrated into the reproductive tract and has a vital role in pregnancy and childbirth. Beyond its role in reproduction, this system also influences the pleasures—and the pains—that the reproductive tract provides on a day-to-day basis.

How Cannabinoids Can Turn You On

Plenty of people who enjoy cannabis claim that it helps put them “in the mood,” but this aphrodisiac quality is not just a side-effect of the relaxation and mental “high.” A growing number are applying cannabinoids directly to their vulvas to increase sexual pleasure—typically without any noticeable mental effects.

Normally, when you experience sexual arousal, blood rushes to the clitoris and vagina, creating opening, elongating and lubrication. Similarly, when you apply phytocannabinoids to the vulva, they also increase blood flow there. This effect—vasodilation—is the reason people’s eyes can redden when they get high (and also why cannabis is an effective treatment for glaucoma).

Curious what’s going on at the microscopic level? According to research on vasodilation in the eyes, THC stimulates the release of other neurotransmitters, particularly nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide causes the smooth muscle of blood vessels to relax and–voila!–the blood vessels dilate and swell with blood. (This same process is also how erectile dysfunction drugs work: by releasing nitric oxide.)

What about those of us who can’t access THC? Could CBD from hemp have similar effects on the genitals? Although CBD doesn’t stimulate cannabinoid receptors, its effect on other receptors in the genitals could produce a similar effect, although this hasn’t been a major focus of clinical research yet.

How Cannabinoids Target Female Pain

Pain-reduction is one of the most common therapeutic uses for cannabinoids. Since the reproductive tract can be a major source of pain—particularly during menstruation—using cannabinoids vaginally could be a much more direct route of relief.

The first time they try cannabinoid suppositories, many people are shocked at how effective they are. Cannabinoids address pain in two ways—not only do they desensitize pain-perceiving nerves, they also limit inflammation (which is often a major contributor to pain). This powerful combination probably led to cannabis’ widespread use by our ancestors for treating pelvic pain.

How exactly do they work? CBD targets the same enzyme that Ibuprofin does—decreasing your body’s production of inflammatory prostaglandins that stimulate painful cramps—and THC and CBD reduce both the intensity of the cramps and your ability to feel their pain signals.

Your Endocannabinoid System

Women’s bodies are designed to handle constant change, and our endocannabinoid system is intimately involved.

Fluctuations in the endocannabinoid system are natural—and are closely linked to estrogen levels. Circulating endocannabinoid levels start increasing at day one of the menstrual cycle and peak at ovulation, then decrease until the period starts again.

It’s often been noted that estrogen decreases anxiety and depression in women. Recently, experiments suggest that estrogen’s emotionally stabilizing properties stem from its influence on the endocannabinoid system. This could also explain the emotional stress experienced during PMS, when endocannabinoid levels are lowest—and the ability of phytocannabinoids to help balance PMS symptoms.

When people pass through menopause, they have a simultaneous decrease in estrogen and a slight increase in 2-AG (one of the two main endocannabinoids). Unfortunately, reduced estrogen levels cause postmenopausal people to develop higher nerve densities in the vagina, which is linked to an increase in pain and a decrease in vaginal secretions. Thankfully, phytocannabinoids can be used to counterbalance this increased sensitivity.

Cannabinoid Roles in Reproduction

It turns out that endocannabinoids are also intertwined with reproduction and play vital roles in fertilization, implantation and early pregnancy.

We already know that endocannabinoid levels decrease after ovulation, and scientists have recently discovered that low levels of endocannabinoids correlate with successful pregnancies. Similarly, a number of recent studies suggest that habitual cannabis users have lower fertility, probably because high circulating levels of THC could overpower the body’s attempt to lower cannabinoid levels after ovulation.

During pregnancy, levels of endocannabinoids stay low until labor, at which point levels of anandamide—the “bliss” endocannabinoid—quadruple. This evidence suggests that endocannabinoids are important for uterine contractions. Indeed, another study found that higher levels of anandamide during labor are linked to shorter delivery times. Perhaps this is why historical medical records indicate that cannabis helped ease deliveries and reduce labor time.

Despite all of this suggestive research, if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, we urge you to consult with a trusted medical professional before incorporating phytocannabinoids into your self-care routine. It is not yet known how CBD influences fertility, if at all—but CBD does mitigate the effects of THC by preventing it from activating or over-activating CB1 receptors. We eagerly await new research in this area.

Endocannabinoid Imbalances

Although fluctuations and changes in the endocannabinoid system are natural, some women experience consistently lower or higher levels of these molecules. Endocannabinoid imbalances are associated with diseases and disorders throughout the body, including in the reproductive system, where they’re linked to the following conditions: Endometriosis, painful cramps, pain during sex, miscarriage, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy.

The sources of these imbalances can be hard to pin down and often are best addressed through a combination of lifestyle and medical changes. Some conditions, like pain, have a large body of scientific evidence in favor of phytocannabinoid supplementation. Clinical trials for different cannabis therapeutics are currently underway, but the medical field is still years away from providing actionable advice for many of these imbalances.

Putting Cannabinoids Where They Count

The endocannabinoid system exists throughout your body, but sometimes you don’t want to experience the effects of cannabis everywhere—like your brain, for instance.

Fat-soluble molecules (such as cannabinoids) tend to stay in the area where they’re applied, unless combined with a carrier chemical to help them reach your bloodstream. For this reason, phytocannabinoids applied to the skin are delivered primarily to local nerves, muscles, glands, and immune cells.

Although there are no conclusive studies on the diffusion of phytocannabinoids across skin and mucous membranes, we can make some inferences based on studies of estrogen—which is similar in size and fat-solubility to phytocannabinoids. When people apply estrogen vaginally instead of orally, they end up with much higher concentrations of it in their reproductive tissues. Doctors often encourage people to opt for localized low-dosage hormones, for the very reason that it helps avoid the systemic complications of oral hormone therapy.

Based on reports from women who use cannabinoid suppositories, when applied inside the vagina, near the cervix, suppositories like Foria Relief deliver cannabinoids to the muscles and tissue of the uterus and vagina. Alternately, cannabinoid arousal oils like Foria Pleasure and Foria Awaken deliver their magic primarily to the vulva and vagina (or wherever you feel like applying them.)

Does Getting My Vagina High Get Me High Too?

You may already be convinced that you want to try phytocannabinoids to spice up your love life or help with a gynaecological problem, but some people still worry about the cognitive side-effects.

Fortunately, most women do not experience a “high” from vaginal application of phytocannabinoids. Not only do topical cannabinoids mostly stay where they’re applied, if any do get absorbed into your bloodstream they are processed differently than cannabis edibles or vapor.

Cannabinoids that reach your bloodstream through the skin will skip your liver—avoiding first-pass metabolism, which converts THC into an even more psychoactive molecule, 11-hydroxy-THC. This first-pass metabolism is one reason why cannabis edible can be much more psychoactive than cannabis vapor, btw.

That said, an experience using cannabinoids vaginally will be deeply individual—influenced by your epidermal thickness, age, and where you are in your menstrual cycle.

If you’re concerned about experiencing any cognitive effects, experiment on a lazy Sunday—when you can relax and enjoy the effects if they do happen. Alternately, if you know you just can’t tolerate a THC buzz, you can stick to a CBD-only product like Foria Awaken.

This article originally appeared on Foriawellness.com.

Genevieve R. Moore PhD is a Yale-educated biologist who has worked in biotech startups and academic research labs since her undergraduate days. She writes under a pen name until the stigma against cannabis no longer impacts her professional pursuits.