How cannabis affects men and women differently

Wondering what the research says about how cannabis affects men and women differently? Read on...

by Petar Petrov, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

Cannabis enthusiasts have long noticed some differences between the smoking habits of men and women on average, but those differences have mostly been considered socio-cultural, or even somewhat illusionary, largely due to the lack of in-depth research.

However, those differences might have deeper roots than we think; ones that go to the cores of our gender-specific hormonal and neurological structures.

Who consumes more cannabis and why?

As most people might guess, men do. They make three quarters of all cannabis consumers.

This has a lot to do with three major factors in cannabis use; factors which men, on average, are far more susceptible to. First, men are more inclined to taking risks, and that’s not some sexist myth, designed to make them seem cooler; it’s a simple, scientific fact.

"Male sex steroids increase risk-taking behavior and suppress the brain's reward system, which could explain why males are more likely to try drugs, including cannabis" explains Dr Liana Fattore, Senior Researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, President of the Mediterranean Society of Neuroscience and author of the study “The Modulating Role of Sex and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Hormones in Cannabinoid Sensitivity**”**.[1] “This is true for both natural male sex steroids like testosterone and synthetic steroids like nandrolone, “Fattore continued.

Second, men are more influenced by external factors like peer pressure or use and something as simple as cannabis availability. [2] Basically, men tend to say things like “I might as well…” or “why not” more often than women.

Women, on the other hand, are more driven by internal factors, whether that’s something positive like simply being in the mood, or something negative like anxiety. [3]

Third, men usually hang out in circles where cannabis use is more prevalent, [2] and that only makes sense considering the other two factors mentioned above.

Who does cannabis affect more and why?

In short, women, although this matter is not as straightforward.

Estrogen amplifies the effects of THC, making women more susceptible to it. [4] In fact, it’s a pronounced fact, supported by different studies, that that women experience a 30% stronger THC-induced pain-relief than men. [5]

This is in line with Fattore’s findings that “female rats have different levels of endocannabinoids and more sensitive receptors than males in key brain areas,” meaning their endocannabinoid system - the doorway through which the effects of cannabis flow into our bodies - absorbs more cannabinoids than the males’. (rats’ endocannabinoid system closely mimics the human one)

However, scientists believe women also build up a tolerance to cannabis faster than men, something that may come as a surprise considering they use it less and are also more affected by THC. (6) And the surprises don’t stop here.

With women, a casual cannabis enthusiasm is more likely to turn into something less innocent in nature.

"Females seem to be more vulnerable, at a neurochemical level, in developing addiction to cannabis," explains Fattore.

The one to blame is the female hormone estradiol and its special connection with the endocannabinoid system, affecting “control of movement, social behavior and filtering of sensory input to the brain -- all targets of drug taking -- via modulation of the endocannabinoid system, whose feedback in turn influences estradiol production,” Fattore adds. "As a result, the interactions between the endocannabinoid system and the brain level of dopamine -- the neurotransmitter of "pleasure" and "reward" -- are sex-dependent."

Other differences

Here’s an outline of some of the other main differences between the effects of cannabis on men and women.

Under the influence of cannabis, men tend to eat more and have less sexual desire, the latter usually being attributed to performance anxiety they can get from consuming larger quantities of the herb. [7]

Women, on the other hand, actually get more sexually aroused by cannabis than men which might have something to do with the theory that relaxation helps them get in the mood. That being said, there might be some inconsistencies/holes in this theory, at least on a case by case basis, as women tend to report more cannabis-induced anxiety and depression.

Some findings’ limitations, inconsistencies, and fluctuations

It’s very important to note that these findings are not to be taken as universal rules for two reasons.

First, both men and women come in all varieties. Everyone interprets emotions and information differently, our hormone ratios vary, even on a day-to-day basis, and how we react to the differences in these ratios vary as well.

In short, the fluctuations are too big, and the studies’ findings should be viewed more as frequently recurring patterns rather than absolute, universal facts.

Second, women’s hormones can be more unpredictable in certain cases, especially during menstruation, which adds another variable to the equation. That being said, estradiol always seems to be a central ingredient in the cannabis-women mix.

"Blood levels of enzymes which break down cannabinoids fluctuate across the human menstrual cycle, and imaging studies show that brain levels of cannabinoid receptors increase with aging in females -- mirroring in each case changes in estradiol levels,” Fattore says.

References:

  1. Struik et al,. The Modulating Role of Sex and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Hormones in Cannabinoid Sensitivity. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2018; 12 (impact factor = 3.138)

2. Copeland et al, Clinical profile of participants in a brief intervention program for cannabis use disorder,J Subst Abuse Treat. 2001; 20(1):45-52. (impact factor = 2.602; cited by 177)

3. Tu, Gender Differences in the Correlates of Adolescents' Cannabis Use, Sbst Use Misuse. 2008 Aug; 43(10): 1438–1463. (impact factor = 1.132; cited by 90)

  1. Cooper and Haney, Sex-dependent effects of cannabis-induced analgesia,Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2016 Oct 1;167:112-20. (impact factor = 3.278; cited by 18)

  2. Pullman**, Estrogen Increases Cannabis Sensitivity**, Washington State University, Public Release: 3 September 2014

  3. Wakley et al, Sex differences in antinociceptive tolerance to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol in the rat, Plum X Metric, DOI:

  4. Fattore, Frata, How important are sex differences in cannabinoid action?,Br J Pharmacol. 2010 Jun; 160(3): 544–548. (impact factor = 5.259; cited by 88

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Comments
No. 1-2
jollygreengiant
jollygreengiant

Wow, very interesting information here! The complexities of the human body will never cease to amaze me. All the more reason to continue research into cannabis and the endocannabinoid system.

kaycee420
kaycee420

Really cool read. As a female in the industry and a smoker it's interesting to read why so many more men are in the cannabis scene.

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