More women are turning to cannabis to treat or offset menopause symptoms, according to new research.
A recent University of Alberta study surveyed women 35 and older and highlighted the challenges women face when seeking treatment options. The absence of research around menopause, coupled with the lack of education for women, can force women into isolating experiences.
Turning to cannabis has been one helpful path for some women trying to alleviate their symptoms.
One of those women is Christine Eriksen.
During the summer of 2021, in Shawnigan Lake, B.C., Eriksen "sank into a deep depression."
The 50-year-old Vancouver Island resident wasn't unfamiliar with sudden mood changes. She had managed her depression and anxiety for 30 years on and off, and experienced postpartum depression with all three of her kids.
But something was different. She had immense feelings of fatigue, aching joints, severe anxiety, digestive issues and mood swings.
"I'd be so incredibly happy in the morning and then all of a sudden I'd want to cry my eyes out," Eriksen said.
She added she visited her doctor several times, but at no point did they consider her age and link it to menopause. "No one had talked to me about menopause. I hadn't even heard of perimenopause. I felt lost and alone."
Eventually, Eriksen found a naturopathic physician who specialized in menopause, educating Erikson more about what her body needed.
Along with supplements, she now uses cannabis to ease her symptoms.
I have been so ignorant of menopause and perimenopause for so long.Christine Eriksen
Eriksen uses cannabinol (CBN) in the evening to help her relax and sleep. If she feels anxious, she takes an edible containing 2 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and 2 milligrams of CBN. She said the calming effect of the CBN takes the edge off her anxiety so she isn't struggling to cope.
The mom said she's been ignorant about the symptoms of menopause, and wishes she knew about treatment options sooner.
She's not alone.
Unfamiliar territory for many women
A 2022 online survey conducted by the Institute for Women's Health in London, U.K., found more than 90 per cent of women had never been taught about menopause at school and more than 60 per cent did not feel informed about menopause at all. A similar 2021 study found nearly half (45 per cent) of women surveyed did not know the difference between perimenopause and menopause.
Perimenopause is the months and years prior to menopause. This can begin as early as your 30s and can last anywhere from a year to 10 years. When you have no menstrual cycle for a full year, you have officially reached menopause.
For Jessica Erlendson, a 53-year-old based in Calgary, Alta., perimenopause wasn't on her radar when she first began experiencing symptoms in her late 30s. She felt like she was perpetually on her period—bloated, irritable, emotional, swollen breasts—along with a chronic inflammatory condition.
A few years ago she remembers waking up in the middle of the night, with an overwhelming sense of dread. She went for a walk, talked to her friend on the phone, went home, ran a bath and wept.
"It's this feeling like, this isn't my body, this isn't my life, this isn't what I'm like," said Erlendson. "That was the hardest part. And then shortly after that my doctor called and told me my estrogen levels were crazy and my progesterone was way too low. We started intervening."
Erlendson was fortunate to seek treatment from her family doctor and functional medicine doctor early on. She now knows that her sense of restlessness that evening was from a cortisol surge, where the body creates too much of the stress hormone. This is common for women experiencing menopause.
It's this feeling like, this isn't my body, this isn't my life, this isn't what I'm like.Jessica Erlendson
"I wish that [women] had more information," Erlendson said. "And that's kind of what my mission is now—to find Canadian-specific information for women."
Erlendson started a Canadian perimenopause and menopause support group on Facebook, which now has nearly 6,000 members, and she works as a menopause coach for those who are struggling to cope.
Some of the women in her group have discussed different treatment options like cannabis, which helps them relax, especially when they are experiencing symptoms like muscle tension.
Using cannabis to treat menopause symptoms and stigma
Erlendson's biggest challenges are difficulty sleeping as well as her mood swings, which cannabis helped her with.
Under guidance from her nurse practitioner, she vapes mostly cannabidiol (CBD) and an indica-strain THC. She has a CBD oil she sometimes uses if she feels particularly anxious, which she claimed works quite quickly and lasts a long time.
Dr. Sana-Ara Ahmed, an anesthesiologist, interventional chronic pain and cannabinoid medicine specialist and a medical director at Genuvis Health based in Calgary, sometimes incorporates cannabis to treat her patients.
Since her practice focuses on chronic pain, she told Yahoo Canada she sees a disproportionate amount of women, some of whom ask about menopause symptoms and pain management. Ahmed said CBD could help with pain and inflammation relief, anxiety and mood improvement, sleeping and hormone regulation.
"It's important to note that not all women will experience all these symptoms of menopause and their severity can vary widely," she said, adding it's best for women to consult with a healthcare professional who can provide treatment.
Ahmed said there is still limited research on CBD and menopausal symptoms. If you are considering using CBD, keep in mind that the effects vary from person to person.
One barrier for women accessing treatment to menopause, she said, is there aren't enough physicians who are open-minded and interested in using cannabinoid medicine to treat women.
"Stigma exists in healthcare circles and willingness of medical professionals to educate themselves on topics is scarce," Ahmed said. "Patients are left to go to adult recreation stores or self-manage. More research support is needed [as well as] more interest in women's health overall."
Other treatments for menopause
Dr. Shannon Trainor, a menopause practitioner working at the Westcoast Women's Clinic in Vancouver, B.C., said she sees patients who have struggled to find care with other doctors. She also sees women who have already tried using cannabis but are looking for more effective options.
"Hormone therapy is the best option for menopausal treatment," Trainor said.
In Canada, management options for menopause include menopausal hormone therapy, non-hormonal prescription medications and therapy (such as cognitive behavioural therapy).
Trainor said if you are not eligible for hormonal therapy, low-dosage selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help with hot flashes and mood swings. Also, a blood pressure pill called clonidine can help with hot flashes.
It's also important to consider lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise, for treatment.
Erlendson found immense benefits in the yoga classing she was taking, particularly in yoga nidra. She also cut added sugars from her diet which helps with her sleep, she said.
Mostly, Erlendson wishes there was more information for women out there since it could help with the prevention of certain symptoms, like vaginal dryness, rather than focusing on treatment.
I realized our society is kind of in trouble here.Jessica Erlendson
Some discussions in her Facebook group are concerning, she said, adding many women have had to take leave from work and are in pain and are struggling in their partnerships.
"And so much of it is unnecessary. If they knew what to expect, when to expect it and what action to take…maybe [women] would not be in such bad shape."