Pain associated with menstrual periods is an unfortunate fact of life for up to 90% of women of reproductive age. It can range from comparatively mild pain that responds well to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen), to debilitating agony that interferes with work, school, and home life, sometimes even requiring dangerous and habit-forming opiate painkillers.
The medical term for painful menstruation is “dysmenorrhea”, and it can really slow you down. Women have contended with the aches, pains, and cramping associated with their periods for millennia, and some today have begun to resort to a very old remedy – cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, like CBD, for natural relief.
Medicine women of past generations knew how effective cannabis was for pain relief, though they were unlikely to know how it worked. Now, with the social stigma against cannabis beginning to lessen, women are rediscovering the herb’s value for managing menstrual discomfort. For women who can’t use marijuana legally – or who just don’t want to get high – CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that’s legal everywhere, can be a valuable tool for managing painful periods. And now, with modern science, we know why.
To understand why CBD may be the best thing to happen to your period, it helps to know what’s going on in your body when bleeding and cramping pay their monthly visit.
If you have a uterus and you’re of reproductive age, your body prepares itself for the possibility of pregnancy all month long. After your previous period ends, your estrogen levels slowly ramp up, and your endometrium, or uterine lining, thickens and becomes rich with tiny blood cells. This is where a fertilized egg would implant, if there were one. The body gets a boost of progesterone when ovulation occurs, to further enrich the endometrium. And when your body detects that no fertilized egg has implanted, progesterone levels drop.
The new endometrial tissue begins to die and slough off. In the absence of protective progesterone, tissue-dissolving enzymes continue the breakdown, and levels of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins begin to rise. Prostaglandins trigger contractions in the smooth muscle tissues of the uterus, working to expel the no-longer-needed endometrial lining, an important process that can also be very uncomfortable. High levels of prostaglandins can cause heavy bleeding, painful cramping, and diarrhea.
NSAIDs like ibuprofen, acetaminophen (paracetamol), aspirin and naproxen are the most commonly used drugs used to lessen period discomfort. They work by inhibiting COX-2, an enzyme responsible for producing prostaglandins, and decrease inflammatory symptoms including pain.
NSAIDs are effective for many consumers. However, they also come with side effects, with digestive issues being the most common. This is because, in addition to inhibiting COX-2, NSAIDs also inhibit another enzyme called COX-1. This can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal distress, since COX-1 protects the digestive tract.
Recently, scientists have discovered that CBD – like NSAIDs – also inhibits prostaglandin-producing enzymes. However, unlike NSAIDs, it preferentially targets COX-2, and not COX-1 – meaning its anti-inflammatory properties don’t come with nasty digestive trouble.
And not only does CBD reduce pain-causing prostaglandins at the source, it also prevents your body from producing excessive prostaglandins in the first place.
You can’t eliminate prostaglandins entirely – and you wouldn’t want to, since they’re essential to proper functioning. But CBD can also help combat symptoms caused by prostaglandins in other ways.
CBD oil and tonics, taken orally, are becoming more popular for relieving menstrual pain. They have a systemic effect and work to relieve pain and muscle tension more generally, throughout the body. They’re also getting much easier to find, as more people are beginning to add CBD to their wellness routines. Nontoxic, non-psychoactive and well-tolerated, oral CBD solutions are well worth experimenting with.
However, if you’re trying to address period cramps specifically, CBD suppositories may be a better option. The tissues of the vagina are highly absorptive, and when inserted, the CBD will act on local receptors to ease symptoms quickly and effectively, so you can get on with your day. Look for a manufacturer that uses transparently-sourced, pristine, organic ingredients and broad-spectrum CBD as opposed to isolate. Broad-spectrum means that the CBD comes with a cohort of other non-psychoactive cannabinoids and compounds that boost its effectiveness, a phenomenon called the entourage effect. And of course, don’t use the product if it contains anything you’re allergic to.
If possible, try to treat your cramps early. This isn’t possible for everyone – if your cycle is irregular, or if your periods are regular but the level of pain you experience isn’t, you might be caught unawares. But if you have a general idea of when period pain is likely to start, get out ahead of it – so the prostaglandins are easier to get under control.
Non-medical treatments and behavioral modifications can be very helpful for period pain. Heating pads and hot-water bottles, though old-fashioned, do work for many; heat increases blood flow, soothes stressed muscles, and may desensitize some of the pain receptors that CBD also works on. Magnesium supplements may reduce pain and decrease inflammation. And although working out may be the last thing on your mind, regular exercise can help boost endorphins, the feel-good chemicals your body generates naturally, and improve blood flow.
Also, discuss your treatment plan with your doctor: Sometimes painful cramps and/or heavy bleeding can be a symptom of an underlying problem like endometriosis or PCOS. Talk with your OB-GYN or GP about your symptoms and treatment plan in order to rule out other health problems, particularly if your symptoms don’t improve with standard treatments. Your doctor can help you determine if there are surgical or medical treatments that could help you feel better.