Legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada is now centre stage, setting the spotlight on adult use, but also upping the profile of its elder predecessor: medical cannabis.
That being the case, it comes as no surprise that women seem to be thinking more about cannabis, and what potential role it may play in lifestyle, health and wellness. In fact, a 2017 survey by U.S.-based BDS Analytics revealed that 37 percent of the 1,000-plus women respondents agreed that consuming cannabis gave them a sense of personal control over their health. On this International Women’s Day, here’s a #BalanceforBetter approach to understanding the current evidence for cannabis and women’s health.
Use of cannabis for medical purposes
In place since 2001, there are now over 350,000 Canadians accessing cannabis for authorized medical purposes and experts feel that the medical use market will keep growing in the future. Various expert groups, including the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC), recommend using medical cannabis for only a limited number of conditions for which there is some published evidence, and mainly those treatments supported by clinical trials. These recommended conditions are specifically neuropathic pain, palliative and end-of-life pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and spasticity as a result of multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury.
Despite the limited number of studies that currently support other medical uses, it seems as though a growing number of individual patients are attesting to the positive impact that medical cannabis has had in helping them manage a broader variety of conditions and symptoms. And although CFPC recommends that cannabis is not an appropriate therapy for general chronic pain, anxiety or insomnia, women appear to be increasingly curious about the potential benefits for these conditions, as indicated by the 35 percent of surveyed women cited in the Deloitte report who note using cannabis for medical reasons, including acute pain relief.
Adult-use cannabis for health and wellness
Deloitte reports that legalization of adult-use cannabis is expected to attract more consumers between the ages of 35 to 54, those with postsecondary education and those who have family and other responsibilities. In addition, two-thirds (66 percent) of recreational consumer respondents say they use cannabis to help them relax, sleep or reduce stress and anxiety.
Deloitte findings further make clear that women are seeking out potential alternative therapies for conditions such as anxiety and insomnia. The women surveyed suggest they were more likely than men to consume cannabis for relaxation or sleep (74 percent compared to 59 percent), or to use cannabis for relief of stress or anxiety (69 percent versus 55 percent). The longstanding “start low and go slow” recommendation is especially important to consider when edible cannabis products come to market in Canada in late 2019.
Preconception and maternal health
One of the most important factors for women to consider is the potential impact when it comes to cannabis use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. This use is reported to be on the rise among pregnant women, although Health Canadaand the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) recommend avoiding using cannabis during this period of a woman’s life. Until more is known about the short- and long-term effects of cannabis, both organizations have noted, it is safest to avoid using cannabis when pregnant and breastfeeding.
If thinking about getting pregnant, it’s important to know that cannabis may affect the ability to get pregnant by reducing estrogen, progesterone and luteinizing hormone production, shortening the length of the menstrual cycle or leading to anovulatory cycles (where no egg is released). Furthermore, Health Canada and SOGC do not recommend cannabis for treating so-called morning sickness during pregnancy or for other medical purposes while pregnant.
Studies have suggested that cannabis use in pregnancy may affect a baby’s developing brain, as well as affect a newborn’s risk for lower birth weight and reduced alertness, both of which may be associated with health risks as a child grows. Additionally, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC, accumulates in breast milk, which is transferred to a breastfed baby during the critical brain growth period in the first two years of life.
Check in with the doctor
The first place to start is to check with your doctor to ensure cannabis, either for medical or adult-use purposes, can be safely incorporated into your lifestyle. Screening tools are available to help make good decisions and ensure a person falls under Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines developed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. These resources specifically screen for potential underlying psychiatric symptoms and conditions, and look at specific health factors, including preconception and maternal health.
Women are increasingly looking for beneficial ways to improve their health and wellness, and starting with a well-informed discussion with your doctor and family, may help shed light on whether or not cannabis may be part of that mix.
Angela Smith, PhD, founder and principal of Catalyst Life Science Consulting, is a regulatory/scientific consultant with 10-plus years supporting strictly regulated food categories, natural health products and cannabis.
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