As more and more states legalize marijuana, we’re able to collect additional anecdotal evidence about how the plant affects consumers. We’re also getting more data from scientists conducting research around cannabis. One of the most interesting questions folks are attempting to answer is: How exactly does cannabis affect men and women differently?
Every person reacts differently to cannabis based on their unique biochemistry as well as genetic factors like height and weight. But we’re learning that gender can also play a big role in a person’s relationship with cannabis. Sex hormones, the amount of cannabinoid receptors and where these receptors are found in the body differ between men and women—and researchers are still discovering other differences.
Research shows that sex hormones are a big part of why one gender experiences marijuana differently than the other. For women, estrogen plays a particularly significant role in the effects of cannabis.
Estrogen regulates something called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which degrades a naturally occurring endocannabinoid named anandamide. Anandamide is the body’s natural version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), known for its euphoric effects and ability to regulate mood and appetite.
Estrogen levels fluctuate during a female’s menstrual cycle and are lowest during a woman’s period. When estrogen levels are low, FAAH is able to more freely degrade anandamide, which can often result in temporary states of anxiety and depression. This is also why women report marijuana to be less effective just before and during their period.
For men, the effects of marijuana on the endocannabinoid system (ECS) don’t fluctuate nearly as much. At any given time in a month, cannabinoids from cannabis generally synthesize and affect men in the same way.
According to a study out of Washington State University performed on rats, females build up a tolerance to cannabis faster than men. But it should be noted that tolerance to cannabis, regardless of gender, increases rapidly.
What does this mean for women? It may be worth it for women to do a cannabis tolerance cleanse more often than men do in order to get tolerance levels back down to where it doesn’t take increasingly more marijuana to feel the desired effects.
In men, high levels of THC can cause temporary low levels of testosterone. Lower testosterone levels can affect libido, sexual performance and male fertility. It’s important to note that THC-related decreases in testosterone are short-lived; testosterone levels can be restored to normal levels by taking a short cannabis break.
A study by the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia looked at cannabis and its effects on women’s libido. Researchers found that cannabis topicals can increase arousal and sexual stimulation as well as improve overall sexual health. They concluded that women generally have more positive sexual outcomes from consuming cannabis than men tend to have.
A 2016 study looked at the pain-relieving effects of cannabis on males and females. The researchers concluded that active cannabis, when smoked, “significantly decreased” pain sensitivity in men. Compared to female subjects, men experienced more pain relief from consuming marijuana. This could mean that women need higher doses of cannabis to feel the same pain relief that men receive with a lower dose of the same product.
There are other studies that conflict with these findings, including the Washington State University study. According to that research, women were more susceptible to pain relief from cannabis, but only when their estrogen levels were at their peak. These conflicting studies highlight the need for more research on the topic.
In the same study from Washington State University, researchers found that men are more susceptible than women are to getting the munchies after consuming cannabis. According to researchers, this increased appetite after cannabis consumption was the only “THC reaction where males show more sensitivity than females.” This finding seems to corroborate other studies that show THC increases appetite in males more than it does in females.
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse looked at cannabis withdrawal symptoms in men and women. According to this research, women reported more withdrawal symptoms like lack of appetite, anxiety and sleep issues than men did. Women were especially likely to report upset stomachs as a result of withdrawal, something not commonly reported by men. It should be noted that this study had a relatively small sample size of 104 participants.
It’s important to know how cannabis might affect you based on gender.
Photo credit: Stephanie Liverani