Hormones are neurotransmitters. This means that they are chemical messengers which carry instructions to organs and tissues to carry out certain functions. Hormones are produced by various glands in our bodies, with the main hormone-producing gland being the pituitary gland. Hormones are important for a wide range of functions, such as growth, regulating blood sugar levels, the reproductive cycle and mood. The network of glands that secrete these hormones is known as the endocrine system. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is able to influence various receptor systems in every cell throughout our bodies.
Cannabis affects our hormones. As with many other medications, cannabis can make our bodies produce more hormones or less, depending on whether you are using CBD or THC heavy products. Sometimes, these hormone changes can have a positive medical impact but sometimes the changes can be negative. That’s why it’s important to understand how cannabis affects our hormones. We have touched on how cannabis affects various receptors throughout our bodies. We look at it in a little more detail in this article.
How does Cannabis Affect Our Hormones?
The ECS is linked to every receptor system in our bodies. Whether it’s dopamine, serotonin or opioid receptors, cannabinoids can “talk” to them and exert their influence in ways both subtle and overt. This includes our hormones and the endocrine system.
However, hormones are complicated, and we do not understand how cannabis and the endocannabinoid system interacts with the endocrine system in any major detail. We do know that cannabis interacts with it, though, as it affects the production of hormones like insulin, testosterone, and estrogen. The effects can be positive or negative.
To give a practical example, with estrogen-positive breast cancer, too much THC may be best avoided, as it can increase estrogen levels. CBD may be a better choice in such an instance, but we shouldn’t necessarily get rid of THC entirely. This is because THC has many cancer-beating properties. Therefore, it is hugely important to match the THC:CBD ratio to the type of cancer you’re treating. But it’s complicated and everybody is different. Here’s what we know so far.
Cannabis and the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis
The HPA axis is perhaps one of the most well-known hormonal systems. The HPA is most often associated with flight-or-fight and stress. It is what produces cortisol. Cortisol helps control blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, blood pressure via salt and water regulation, and assists with memory formation.
However, having high levels of cortisol produced by your body can be harmful. The negative feedback loops that prevent too much cortisol from being produced becomes less effective. This is a major problem in those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both THC and CBD can reduce the amount of cortisol produced by lowering the body’s response to stress.
Too much THC can increase cortisol levels after use so it is important to be careful when using this for some medical conditions. Those who are just starting off using cannabis ought to microdose THC, as small doses can decrease anxiety but large doses can increase anxiety. Microdosing of THC is therefore extremely important to treat anxiety.
Another hormone released by the HPA axis, adrenaline, also has its production lowered by THC use. This dampens the flight-or-fight response. This can lead to slower reactions.
Serotonin is released by the HPA axis, and regulates mood, memory, sleep, digestion and some muscular functions.Low levels of serotonin can cause agitation, migraine, insomnia, and carbohydrate cravings. High levels of serotonin can cause agitation, confusion and sedation. Keeping serotonin levels in balance is very important for the treatment of anxiety, depression and PTSD.
THC helps treat anxiety, PTSD and other associated disorders when used long-term. This is because sustained release of cortisol blunts the stress response and decreases cortisol production.
Long-term THC use blunts the morning spike of cortisol, called Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), which is one reason why the sleepy effects of THC can be felt upon awakening. This also makes using THC effective for the treatment of insomnia.
CBD can lower the levels of cortisol, but is not necessarily as useful as THC and CBN in treating insomnia.
Cannabis and the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Thyroid (HPT) Axis
The HPT axis is responsible for maintaining metabolic rate, heart and digestive functions, muscle control, brain development, and bone health. There are two main hormones released by the thyroid gland: Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). The HPT axis is important for controlling the metabolism of our bodies, including the regulation of the body’s internal core temperature, weight, skin and hair.
THC can inhibit TSH. Low circulating TSH levels can lead to symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism, such as fatigue, weight gain, an intolerance to the cold, decreased libido, depression and an abnormal menstrual cycle.
Many of these negatives can be diminished by using cannabinoids like CBD and low doses of tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV).
It is also worth remembering that reducing TSH levels is not necessarily always a negative. Those suffering from insomnia will want help getting to sleep. Cannabis users generally have a lower body mass index (BMI) compared to non-cannabis users, so weight gain is not usually an issue (although having a low BMI doesn’t mean you aren’t skinny fat, so exercise is key as well). Many find that the stress-relieving properties of cannabis increases their libido. A mixture of THC and CBD at the right dosage may help improve the mood, not cause depression. Some women also find that cannabis is very useful for PMS and menstrual cramps, and there is very little evidence showing that it causes an abnormal menstrual cycle.
Cannabis and the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Gonadal (HPG) Axis – Cannabis and the Menstrual Cycle
The HPG axis plays an important role in maintaining the optimal functioning and health of all tissues throughout the body. The HPG axis also oversees the body’s functions related to reproductive health.
THC can reduce hormone levels in the HPG axis, and can lead to a decrease in fertility in both men and women. In women, THC can slow follicle maturation, which can lead to changes in the menstrual cycle. During ovulation, the body releases anandamide, and using THC can cause an excess of endocannabinoid production that disrupts the menstrual cycle.
In men, THC has been shown to decrease LH & testosterone, reduce sperm motility, and sperm’s ability to achieve conception. Testosterone is also useful for increasing the mass of muscles and bones and body hair growth. Insufficient testosterone can lead to bone and muscle mass loss.
Interestingly, research has identified that frequent cannabis users have lower levels of prolactin in their blood plasma. Prolactin inhibits FSH and GnRH as well, which is another way in which menstrual cycles and testosterone production are affected.
Cannabis and the Growth Hormone (GH) Axis, aka Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) Axis
The GH/IGF axis produces the growth hormone somatotropin, as well as insulin. Somatotropin stimulates growth, cell reproduction, cell regeneration, and in boosting metabolism. Insulin regulates blood-glucose levels by absorbing glucose into the liver, fat and skeletal muscles. The GH axis is also involved in the regulation of brain development, including neurogenesis and neuroprotection.
Cannabis, and in particular cannabinoids like CBD, CBG and THCV, can help improve insulin sensitivity, allowing for sugar to be processed more readily. Cannabis can boost the metabolism, which can prevent weight gain.
THC use when young can affect brain development, and cannabinoids like CBD and THCV have shown to be very useful for the treatment of diabetes and neuropathic pain. For older people, THC, CBD and THCV can be very useful in promoting brain cell growth (neurogenesis).
The ECS is intimately linked with all the hormonal axes, and it is with the GH axis that this link is perhaps most obvious.
Conclusion – The Positives and Negatives of Cannabis Use on Hormones
Reading the above, it can be tempting to think that cannabis can have a negative effect on hormonal systems. This is not really accurate, as EC dysregulation can cause hormonal dysregulation. This can lead to PMS, migraines, cancer, diabetes, PTSD, anxiety, depression and many more health problems.
Also, much of the focus is on THC. This is because THC binds to and affects CB1 receptors, which can cause changes in hormone levels. Other cannabinoids like CBD have less direct effects, and we know less about how CBD and other cannabinoids affect various hormones. What does seem true is that having a mixture of cannabinoids and terpenes can help mitigate some of the negative effects THC can have on hormones, whilst also retaining some of its benefits.