Endometriosis is frequently described as having a painful period, but as a disorder, it’s a lot more complex than that. One in ten women suffers from endometriosis, a condition that causes severe pain, fertility issues, and digestive problems. Today, the condition is mostly treated with painkillers or with hormones that can stop a woman’s period. Cannabis has also been used to treat this condition for centuries, as it is a natural painkiller. But as research progresses, scientists are starting to realize that certain compounds in cannabis help endometriosis not just by stopping pain, but also by addressing its root causes. And some cannabis compounds, like CBD, even have the advantage of not causing a high. Here’s how they work, and how they can benefit people with endometriosis.
What is endometriosis?
Every month, a new uterine lining grows in the uterus, preparing the womb to host a fetus. When no egg has been fertilized and there is no fetus, the uterus sheds that lining. This is known as having a period.
But for women with endometriosis, the uterine lining grows not just in the womb, but in other places around it. For example, it may develop around the ovaries or fallopian tubes. This is an issue because when that lining sheds, it has nowhere to go.
As a result, blood and tissue accumulate in the body, creating inflammation and pain. This usually lasts for a few days, until the body manages to reabsorb the excess material.
The most common symptom of endometriosis is severe pain in the lower belly or lower back during menstruation. However, not every woman necessarily experiences it.
Because the excess uterine lining grows all around the uterus, it can affect different organs. This causes symptoms that include:
- Pain during intercourse
- Digestive issues like diarrhea or constipation
- Pain while going to the bathroom
What causes endometriosis?
So far, there isn’t a consensus on what causes certain women to grow a uterine lining outside of the uterus.
We suspect there might be a genetic component, as endometriosis runs in certain families.
Some women also claim that their painful periods are linked to lifestyle factors like drinking, smoking, or eating more junk food.
The treatment of endometriosis
There is no definitive cure for endometriosis. Painkillers can help to manage the pain. Hormones may decrease or suppress the period, helping to manage endometriosis. Finally, surgery can remove endometrial tissue, which provides significant relief—but doesn’t stop that tissue from coming back.
The painkillers that are most commonly prescribed are anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. These are available off the counter, but many women have to resort to prescription NSAIDs to really get the relief they need. Although they tend to be effective, NSAIDs can have very negative side effects, like causing stomach ulcers, liver, and kidney problems.
Taking a hormonal form of contraception can also help women with endometriosis because it limits the production of the uterine lining. And with some forms of contraception, you don’t get a period at all! This can be a very effective way of dealing with the symptoms of endometriosis, but not all women react well to synthetic hormones.
Finally, surgery is usually considered a last resort. It can help patients with severe endometriosis by manually removing their misplaced endometrial tissue. However, the tissue keeps growing back afterward, and they may need another surgery further down the line.
In online endometriosis communities, women share additional tips on managing symptoms. They claim that changing up your diet might help, as could adopting certain forms of exercise. So far, there isn’t much clinical research behind these natural ways of treating endometriosis. However, it does seem to provide relief for a lot of people.
Cannabis as a potential treatment option
The cannabis plant has been used for centuries to treat almost any kind of pain-related condition, from arthritis to fibromyalgia to endometriosis.
Today, CBD is in the spotlight of the news for its health benefits. This cannabis compound is effective in dealing with pain and it is legal in more regions than THC because it isn’t psychoactive. Here’s what you need to know about it.
What is CBD?
CBD is a cannabis molecule also known as cannabidiol. Unlike THC, it doesn’t cause a “high,” so it isn’t used as a recreational drug. But many people use it to treat health conditions as varied as Crohn’s disease and depression.
CBD affects the way that our endocannabinoid system (ECS) works. This biological system is a vast network of receptors, responsible for regulating appetite, mood, pain, inflammation, and stress management, among other things.
When we take CBD, it binds to our ECS receptors and sends a signal to the endocannabinoid system. As a result, we can experience a decrease in symptoms that relate to pain, inflammation, and mood disorders. It’s hard to summarize what CBD can help with because it treats the symptoms of so many different conditions. For example, scientists have found it useful in treating the most painful symptoms of:
- Epileptic disorders
- Crohn’s disease
- Acne, eczema, and psoriasis
- Chronic anxiety
Non-prescription CBD products are not currently approved by the FDA. However, research suggests that this molecule is effective in treating a number of conditions. We recommend consulting with a medical professional to see if prescription CBD could help your condition.
So how can CBD help the lives of women with endometriosis? It can relieve pain, restore balance in the ECS, stop cell multiplication, and regulate the immune system.
Regulating the ECS
So far, we don’t fully understand how our endocannabinoid system is affected by endometriosis. But what we do know is that women with endometriosis tend to suffer from a cannabinoid imbalance.
This 2016 study showed that women with endometriosis had abnormal levels of endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are the cannabinoids created by your own body. They’re very useful, as they transmit information to the ECS, helping it work correctly.
This other study from 2008 showed that women with endometriosis had elevated levels of certain ECS receptors at the level of the uterus. This also lets us know that their ECS may not be working normally.
When endocannabinoids are out of balance, this can cause a whole array of problems. As a general rule, CBD helps to maintain a good balance in the endocannabinoid system. So taking it might be a good way to fix some of the imbalances that women with endometriosis tend to have, which could potentially relieve their symptoms.
The most difficult symptom of endometriosis is pain. Women who suffer from this condition experience different levels of pain. For some, it’s only a dull pain that makes their day slightly harder. For others, it’s a blinding pain that can stop them from going to work, socializing, and even falling asleep.
In most cases, NSAIDs are often the first course of action. But with dangerous consequences over the long term, these medicines are not necessarily your best options.
With proven effectiveness against inflammatory pain, CBD can be a good alternative to painkillers. That being said, CBD is not always enough to relieve endometriosis pain. But it’s good to know that you can combine it with other painkillers, which might help you limit the use of more dangerous ones.
Stopping the growth of the uterine lining
One of the most interesting benefits of CBD for endometriosis is that it may prevent misplaced uterine tissue from growing in the first place.
Women with endometriosis experience issues with uterine tissue outside of the uterus because their bodies struggle to get rid of it. We already know that the endocannabinoid system plays an important part in managing how cells are created and how they die. Again, CBD could help by restoring balance in the ECS.
We also know from years of cancer research that cannabinoids can help to prevent cells from multiplying. In a 2010 study, a group of scientists decided to see whether cannabinoids could have the same effect not on cancer cells this time, but on endometriosis cells. They found that activating ECS receptors could indeed stop the growth of misplaced endometriosis cells, at least in mice.
Lowering the response of the immune system
Finally, we know that women with endometriosis have higher rates of autoimmune diseases. For example, more of them experience fibromyalgia, asthma, or allergies, a study showed. What this lets us know is that women with endometriosis probably have a slightly hyperactive immune system.
CBD actually helps with a number of autoimmune conditions, including IBD, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. We think that it works by regulating the endocannabinoid system, which plays an important part in immune function.
So CBD could help not only with endometriosis, but also with some of its comorbidities, or disorders that are more frequent in women with endometriosis.
How to use CBD for endometriosis
When it comes to using CBD for endometriosis, you have lots of different options.
During the first days of your period, your endometriosis symptoms will be at their most painful. During that time, you need fast-acting relief that gets rid of the pain. There are three ways we’d recommend doing that:
- Applying a CBD ointment on the belly and back
- Using a vaginal suppository
- Smoking or vaping CBD
CBD topicals are very effective because they penetrate directly into the skin and provide relief to the joints, muscles, cartilage and bones underneath. Unlike oral CBD, you don’t have to wait for the product to be absorbed into your digestive tract. That’s why massaging a CBD lotion or ointment onto painful areas can provide relief from menstrual cramps within a few minutes.
Today, we’re also seeing more vaginal suppositories make their way into CBD shops. These are often marketed directly at women with endometriosis or other kinds of menstrual problems. Suppositories are one of the fastest-acting and most bioavailable ways of consuming CBD. So if putting a small pill into your vagina doesn’t deter you, it’s an option to consider.
Finally, smoking and vaping CBD are two of the fastest ways to get relief from pain. If you’re already smoking cannabis to deal with period pains, then making the switch to CBD can be very beneficial, as it’s been shown to have more benefits against uterine cell proliferation. But if you don’t smoke already, then smoking or vaping shouldn’t be your first option as these can be harmful to your respiratory system.
And as we’ve discussed, CBD can also help to relieve the causes of endometriosis in the long term by stopping cell proliferation. In that regard, it could be beneficial to take it daily, instead of just when you get your period. Whether you want to take a daily CBD capsule, get a transdermal patch, or vape it throughout the day is up to you. We encourage you to check out our guide to CBD products so you can find out which one is best for you.
Although the exact causes of endometriosis are still unknown, we’ve found a few ways to deal with the symptoms of this condition. Surgery, hormone therapy, and painkillers are all useful options. But with fewer side effects in the long term, CBD is now appearing as an alternative or complementary treatment option for women with endometriosis. It can stop the pain, reduce the number of endometrial cells outside the uterus, and regulate the endocannabinoid system to decrease the severity of this condition.
CBD for regulating endometriosis
2016 study on endocannabinoid levels in women with endometriosis
2008 study on endocannabinoid receptors in women with endometriosis
2003 study on the effects of the endocannabinoid system on cell regulation and cell death
2010 study on the antiproliferative effects of cannabinoids on endometriosis cells
CBD for endometriosis pain
2018 review of research on cannabinoids and pain
CBD for endometriosis comorbidities
2002 study on the comorbidities of endometriosis
2011 study on the role of endocannabinoids in immune regulation