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Cannabis and motherhood: “I live in complete fear – I could lose my son, I could lose everything”

In a new series we share the stories of mothers who use medical cannabis – and the stigma they face.

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Cannabis allows Ellen to function so she can care for her son and elderly mother

In the run up to our women’s health webinar on Tuesday 3 August, we are sharing the stories of mothers who have found cannabis medicines helpful in the management of their health conditions – and how they’ve coped with stigma from the rest of society. 

Ellen*, 39, lives with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome/ME and depression, she is also a carer for her 14-year-old autistic son and her elderly mother who has stage 4 cancer. Cannabis allows her to function enough to be a mum and carer, but she lives in constant fear of the consequences of being caught consuming illegally. 

“I avoided cannabis for many years due to the fear of the repercussions if I was caught,” says Ellen. 

“A criminal record could have so many implications. Having a son who is classed as vulnerable, I didn’t want social services at my door and I was a teacher, I could have lost my career.”

But two years ago while socialising with friends Ellen said yes when one of them offered her some cannabis. 

A year earlier she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia – a chronic condition which causes widespread musculoskeletal pain – and had recently left her job in early years education as she was no longer able to manage.

By the time she left her friends and went home that night, her pain had eased considerably and she slept well for the first time in ages.

From then on, each payday Ellen set aside enough money to buy some cannabis through a friend.

“I only ever consumed on a weekend and I never told my work colleagues,” she says.

“Although I was no longer teaching, I was then working in the NHS so still couldn’t risk losing my job. A few close friends knew, but I didn’t tell my family as their attitude is very ‘anti-drugs’.”

Over the last 18 months, Ellen’s symptoms have progressively worsened and earlier this year she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome/ME, having given up work entirely in October.

She is now a full-time carer for her son Daniel*, 14, who is autistic and lives with severe anxiety and learning difficulties, and her elderly mother, who has stage four cancer. 

Despite trying several prescribed medications and painkillers, they often caused her to experience adverse side effects and some even left her feeling suicidal. 

“I now consume cannabis daily as it’s the only thing that eases my pain enough for me to move and function and carry out care duties,” says Ellen.

“I can function better after cannabis compared to some of the pain medication I’ve been prescribed, as it turns me into a zombie. I avoid taking prescribed painkillers unless my son is at his dad’s and even then I will only take them at night as they wipe me out.”

She continues: “I medicate first thing in the morning as I’m so stiff and in so much pain, it enables me to do mum duties and get my son sorted for school. Without that vape I struggle to move and pain just radiates through me.

“Although I’m not pain free with cannabis, it allows me to be a mum and carer and get out of the house a little bit more.

“I vaped some cannabis in front of a friend for the first time last week and they commented that they saw the pain almost lift out of my body. They were amazed at the difference in mobility and how my spasms and twitches stopped.”

Ellen is not alone. While the scientific data is limited, many other patients living with fibromyalgia report finding cannabis medicines helpful in managing their condition.

A study by Italian researchers published earlier this year reported that medical cannabis therapy was found to “significantly reduce pain intensity” in fibromyalgia patients, with approximately half reporting a reduction in pain.

But it’s not only in relieving pain that this treatment can be helpful, but also in managing other symptoms such as insomnia, which in turn helps cope with fatigue and improves general quality of life.

Fibromyalgia patients often report it is the lack of ability to sleep properly that leads to the horrible brain fog, fatigue and depression.

A study published in 2020 followed 102 patients who had not responded well to conventional treatments, a third reported reduced symptoms of the disease overall, as well as an improvement in quality of life.

Many patients in the UK are now reporting great improvements in their symptoms having obtained a private prescription for medical cannabis. But this comes at a cost which is often out of reach for those who are unable to work and survive on disability benefits due to their condition.

Ellen has enquired about accessing cannabis medicines through the NHS – she says she was even recommended it by one physiotherapist who had heard lots of patients use it with success. 

But she was shot down when she raised with the doctors in her pain clinic. 

“I wouldn’t be able to afford to go private as I no longer work, so I continue to purchase it illegally through a trusted friend,” she admits.

“I always live in fear of being caught, especially now it’s class B and I usually buy in bulk so I have enough to last me. If I was caught with that amount I could be charged with not only possession but intent to supply, as I’m sure they wouldn’t believe that much would be for personal use.”

“I only vape in one room of the house when my son isn’t around – I never do it in front of him – and I won’t do it outside in fear of the neighbours reporting me. 

“I could lose my son, I could lose everything – and my partner also works in education so it could affect his job too.”

Living with depression, as well as her physical health conditions, the stress of living in constant fear has taken its toll on Ellen’s mental health.

“My mental health is awful, I consume in complete fear but feel it’s worth it to have a slightly better quality of life,” she adds.

I don’t vape to get stoned, just to try and help my body to function properly.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those in the story

 

Have you registered for our upcoming webinar, Women’s Health and Cannabis Medicines: Motherhood?

The second episode in this ground-breaking series, will focus on the complexities facing mothers who are both prescribed medical cannabis and those whose children require cannabis medicines to manage their conditions.

Join speakers Hannah Deacon, patient advocate and mum-of-six, Gillian Flood and clinicians Dr Sally Ghazaleh, pain management consultant at the Whittington Hospital and Women’s Health Consultant at Integro Clinics, and Sarah Higgins CNS, women’s health lead at CPASS to explore cannabis and motherhood on Tuesday 3 August at 7pm.

The webinar is free of charge, register here

Women's health

Cannabis legalisation not linked to adverse birth outcomes – study

Researchers studied the relationship between the liberalisation of cannabis laws and key indicators of child health

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Studies assessing the potential impacts of cannabis exposure during pregnancy are mixed.

Legalisation of cannabis in the US is not linked to any significant adverse outcomes for  child health, according to a recent study.

New data shows that changes in legal status of cannabis in US states is not associated with increases in adverse clinical birth outcomes.

Researchers at Purdue University studied the relationship between the liberalisation of state-level cannabis laws and two key indicators of child health – birthweight and gestational age.

Their findings were published in the journal Population Research and Policy Review.

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While the authors reported a trend which indicated a reduction in average birthweight and gestational age for some groups of women following the relaxation of cannabis penalties, they acknowledged that these changes were not linked to any “increases in clinically meaningful birth indicators associated with adverse child health.”

The findings are similar to those reported in a 2021 study which found “no statistically significant effect of medical cannabis laws on the proportion of newborn hospitalisations”. 

The authors concluded: “Our findings indicate that cannabis policy liberalisation may be contributing to lower average birth weights and reduced average gestational age, but not in a manner that has increased low birthweight (<2500 g) infants or preterm (<37 weeks) births. 

“These results indicate that while cannabis policies have not led to increases in adverse clinical birth outcomes overall, these trends are worth monitoring to ensure that increases in clinically relevant child health outcomes do not emerge as the nationwide trend toward liberalised cannabis policy persists. “

They added: “Although our study does not show substantial changes in adverse birth outcomes, policymakers should be attentive to opportunities to strengthen child health by considering policies that minimise consumption, particularly heavier forms of consumption, by prospective parents.

While the evidence base around the effects of cannabis use during pregnancy on perinatal is growing, studies assessing the potential impacts of cannabis exposure are mixed.

Some observational data has identified a link between exposure and low birth weight and/or an increased risk of preterm birth. However others have failed to substantiate these claims once adjusting for other factors, such as tobacco smoking.

The majority of the existing studies have been done on recreational cannabis, accessed through the illicit market, which tends to contain higher levels of THC than that in medicinal cannabis.

There have been very limited, if any, studies exploring the effect of prescribed cannabis on perinatal health, as advice from clinicians is that women should refrain from using cannabis medicinally or otherwise whilst pregnant or breastfeeding.  

 

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Can cannabis help with menopause?

Juicy Fields explores how cannabis could help women with some of the symptoms brought on by menopause. 

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Juicy Fields explores how cannabis could help women with some of the mental and physical symptoms brought on by menopause.

Menopause is one of the most challenging transitions women face as they go through dramatic physical, psychological, and vaginal/uterine changes.

The stage is characterised by symptoms such as insomnia, night sweats, hot flashes, pain, inflammation, and mood swings.

Although there are various medical alternatives to deal with the unwanted and uncomfortable symptoms, a study conducted in 2021 by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research showed that women experiencing menopause (perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause) in Alberta were significantly using cannabis to relieve symptoms. Sixty five per cent of the participants had ever used cannabis to relieve menopausal symptoms, while 35 per cent of the group were using marijuana during the period the study was conducted. 

Another study presented to the  North American Menopause Society (NAMS) in 2020 had similar conclusions. In a sample of 232 women from Northern California, 27 per cent indicated using cannabis to manage hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia.

Ten per cent of the participants expressed interest in using cannabis, while only 19 per cent utilised hormone therapy to combat menopause symptoms. From the studies, one can conclude that women are shifting from hormonal medication and switching to organic, natural alternatives, specifically cannabis. This piece explores everything about menopause and its symptoms and how cannabis can help alleviate these conditions. 

What is menopause?

Menopause is a period in a woman’s life that can stretch 10 or more years. During this period, their reproductive hormones go through a natural decline. This marks the end of the menstrual cycle and, consequently, their fertility. It is divided into three stages;

Perimenopause: this includes the years leading to menopause. Most women experience this during their early to mid-40s, although others can begin early during their 30s or late 40s. The woman will experience biological disturbances characterized by irregular menstrual cycles and varying hormone levels during this time. 

Menopause: this is when a woman stops having her menstrual period for 12 consecutive months. One will not know when they are experiencing menopause until the 12 months have gone by. Common symptoms during this stage include vaginal dryness, night sweats, hot flashes, and sleep issues. 

Postmenopause: this refers to the period after a woman has stayed 12 consecutive months or more without menstruating – after menopause. Symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats begin to fade or disappear entirely. 

Physical, psychological, and vaginal symptoms of menopause

As mentioned earlier, menopause is a life-changing transition with its fair share of problems. It is attached to a host of symptoms, which can be classified as either physical, psychological, or vaginal.

Physical: symptoms include fatigue, pain and inflammation, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, stiffness, insomnia, and chest discomfort.

Psychological: symptoms include anxiety, depression, lowered sex drive, lack of concentration, memory loss, and mood changes.

Vaginal/uterine: symptoms include dryness and pain during sexual intercourse.

The relationship between cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and cannabis

Does cannabis help with menopause? To answer this question, we must first look into the endocannabinoid system. This is a system comprising endocannabinoids, receptors, and neurotransmitters. This cell-signaling system utilizes these components to support normal body functioning, aka homeostasis. It regulates and controls various immune system, cardiovascular, nervous, and reproduction (including fertility and menopause) functions. 

During menopause, the ECS is disrupted, which causes changes in various related biological systems. Cannabis interacts with the ECS on different molecular levels to support its function of maintaining homeostasis, thus relieving the menopause symptoms.

The research into how cannabis directly relieves menopausal symptoms is currently unavailable. However, cannabis is known to have potent analgesic, anxiolytic, antidepressant, appetite-stimulating, sleep-inducing, antiemetic, and muscle-relaxing properties that can play a significant role in managing symptoms like pain, inflammation, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues. Below is a highlight of top menopause symptoms and how cannabis can help combat them. 

Hot flashes and night sweats

These symptoms are the primary reasons why women turn to cannabis. THC, the most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis, is associated with lowered body temperatures. The cannabinoid supports thermoregulation, which is handy for women experiencing hot flashes and night sweats. Ever heard of THC-induced hypothermia? This may happen when THC is taken in high doses. Identifying the right amount of cannabis to consume may help mitigate the disturbing hot flashes and night sweats. 

Mood swings, anxiety, depression, and concentration

Anecdotal and scientific evidence point out the effectiveness of cannabis’ mood-boosting and regulating, antidepressant, and focus-boosting properties. Its anxiolytic capability is dependent on various factors, such as the dose taken and the consumer’s tolerance level. These psychological issues affect most women undergoing menopause due to the numerous changes, discomforts, and uncertainties they go through.

Vaginal dryness and low sex drive

Cannabis can help with vaginal dryness and low sex drive in either of two ways; first, its calming, relaxing, and mood-boosting properties coupled with clear-headedness may support a return of the sex drive. Secondly, CBD lubricants have been known to decrease inflammation in the vaginal area, increase blood flow in the area, and support muscle relaxation. 

Pain and inflammation 

Cannabis is a powerful analgesic and anti-inflammation agent. It is utilised by numerous cannabis consumers to treat pain resulting from conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, MS, sciatica, and headaches. Athletes have been known to incorporate cannabis in their pre- and post-workout regimes to combat muscle aches, pains, and injuries.  

Fatigue and insomnia 

Cannabis is a powerful muscle relaxant that, when consumed, melts all the tightness and tension away. It also promotes full-body relaxation and sleep. It helps restore one’s sleep pattern and promotes a regular sleep cycle. 

Take away

Although not directly, cannabis has been proven to help relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, pain, anxiety, inflammation, depression, sex drive, and insomnia. There is a need for more research to link the two together. This will facilitate the identification of proper cannabis strain genetics and dosage for managing perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause symptoms. 

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Medical cannabis and endometriosis – “I can live a normal life”

Thirty-two-year-old Megan has lived with the symptoms of endometriosis since her teens.

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Megan was diagnosed with endometriosis in February this year.

Megan, an Australian medical cannabis patient living with endometriosis, shares how the plant has helped in managing her symptoms.

Thirty-two-year-old Megan has lived with the symptoms of endometriosis since her teens. At times she’s experienced such intense pain that she struggled to leave her house.

“I honestly believe I would have ended up suicidal within the next few months if I didn’t pursue and get approved for medicinal cannabis when I did,” she said.

During Endometriosis Awareness Month in March, Cannabis Health interviewed several patients across the globe who  live with the often-debilitating symptoms of the inflammatory condition.

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Endometriosis is present in about one in 10 women and non-binary people aged between 25 to 40 in the United Kingdom – but can affect people at any age.

Cells similar to those lining the womb grow elsewhere in the body, such as the bladder, ovaries, colon and rectum, and react to changing hormones in the menstrual cycle.

They grow thicker in the middle of the cycle and then break away and start to bleed before being slowly reabsorbed by the body. This process can cause inflammation, pain and new scar tissue.

Megan, who lives in Australia, explained that she was only officially diagnosed with endometriosis in February this year.

Lengthy diagnosis is common as the condition can mirror others and is widely misunderstood among many doctors – the average time from onset of symptoms is seven and a half years.

“I’ve always had painful periods – I just always thought they were meant to be painful,” Megan told Cannabis Health.

“I didn’t question it until early 2018 my periods stopped for about three months and when they returned it was like everything was turned up and the pain was excruciating.”

In early 2019 Megan was told she had adenomyosis, a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus breaks through the muscle wall of the uterus.

Symptoms can include lower abdominal pressure, menstrual cramps, bloating and heavy periods.

Her GP at the time suggested that she may have endometriosis as well, but it was not confirmed until surgeons performed a laparoscopy – keyhole surgery of the abdomen or pelvis.

Managing pain

People who have endometriosis often suffer from painful periods, painful sex, pain in the lower abdomen, pain on passing a stool and urinating, or lower back pain.

This can then lead to difficulty sleeping, an inability to focus on daily tasks, and in some cases a mental health decline.

Over the years Megan has tried NSAIDs, codeine and oxycodone in an attempt to manage the pain.

“I’m somewhat unlucky that I don’t respond to a lot of painkillers… so I was always ‘pushing through’ the pain and essentially burning myself with heat packs,” she said.

Meanwhile, she was using cannabis recreationally, but it took a comment from her partner to realise that it was also helping to dull the symptoms of her two conditions.

I was mid-flare about 12 months ago and we’d run out of cannabis. It was a long weekend in my city so all the dealers we knew were sold out,” she recalled.

“I was curled up in bed with my heat packs and my partner said then I should see if I can get into trials for medicinal cannabis or a prescription for it.

“He’d picked up that it was the only thing that would help my pain and being reliant on black market wasn’t ideal long term.”

She was initially nervous to make an appointment at a clinic, because she did not think she would get approved.

“Everyone downplays endo so much, I was worried I’d get the same kind of dismissal about my symptoms and pain that so many doctors had done in the past,” she said.

She finally applied for a prescription last summer, and because she was able to show all the painkillers she had tried that had not worked, the process to approval was fairly quick.

Among the methods she uses to take cannabis are ingesting CBD and THC oils, and cannabis flower to vape.

The CBD oil helps with overall symptoms – definitely reduces anxiety and nausea and has a huge impact on reducing pain,”  said Megan.

“THC oil I’ll use more on days when the pain is worse than my normal levels, or when I get a random flare up some days, it helps to take THC oil and flower together to get through it.”

Stigma

Despite how much it helps her, Megan has experienced some negative comments due to her use of cannabis, particularly before she was given a prescription.

I think a lot of people still just view it as this evil illegal drug and don’t understand that it’s such a powerful and useful plant and tool in treating people’s illnesses,” she explained.

However, after getting a prescription she said her friends and family had been “surprisingly supportive”.

She continued: “I’m not sure if it’s because it’s issued via a prescription that makes people more approving of it, or if it’s just because they can see the effect it’s had on me since starting it. Maybe a combination of both.”

Getting a prescription for cannabis made a huge difference to her wellbeing. 

“With cannabis I can live a pretty normal life,” she added.

But in the long term, Megan is worried for women who have endometriosis, and the dismissive nature of some doctors when it comes to the benefits of cannabis for pain.

“I’m scared for the next generation of endo warriors who are going to be pushed onto these incredibly strong medications,” she said.

I really struggle to comprehend how some doctors will be happy for their patients to be on really strong pharmaceuticals every day to manage their pain, but can still be so anti-cannabis.”

Alongside the cannabis, the laparoscopy – during which surgeons removed some of the offending cells – also helped to significantly ease the pain of the endometriosis.

She stressed that it is vital that more surgeons are trained in expert excision surgery as a more permanent solution for patients.

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