There’s lots of biochemical changes that occur throughout the menopause, as the body attempts to find its new set point of equilibrium. Amongst the most notable change is the fluctuations and eventual decline of oestrogen.
Many of the symptoms of menopause can be attributed to the fluctuations in hormones, with that of oestrogen being the most noteworthy.
A few of the major ones include:
Research has established that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is involved in fertility, sexual function and reproduction, and plays a major role in the menstrual cycle.
The ECS influences these processes via regulating hormones, acting as a middle man controlling the release, response and degradation of ones like estrogen and progesterone.
The ECS is densely populated in the hypothalamus where there’s lots of CB1 receptors, which are also found in the ovaries as well. This gives the ECS control over hormonal pathways, such as the hypothalamic pituitary ovarian axis (HPO).
Basically, the ECS acts as a braking system, suppressing the release of estrogen and progesterone.
This is how a healthy balance of hormones is usually maintained, as the ECS puts on and lets off the brakes depending on what time of the month it is.
For example, before ovulation, levels of the endocannabinoid Anandamide are very low, but surge during and after ovulation, driving the hormonal changes in estrogen and progesterone. It is Anandamide that acts on the HPO axis to control hormonal balance.
But when menopause hits, research has shown that the ECS becomes dysregulated and loses its grip on maintaining hormonal balance. Levels of Anandamide and 2-AG change, which cause a change in regular cycles.
As many women journey through menopause, the ECS is overtime trying to find a new equilibrium. Sadly, there can be some pretty nasty symptoms to deal with as the ECS is adjusting.
But, the good news is that something can be done to support this new acclimatisation, as we will soon cover.
Estrogen can also regulate the ECS, which forms a negative feedback loop between the two systems.
Estrogen can both up and down regulate CB1 receptors, depending on which area of the limbic system it is acting on. It can also prevent degradation of the bodies principal endocannabinoid, anandamide, by inhibiting the enzyme (FAAH) which breaks it down.
This means that when the ECS is out of whack, so is estrogen and it is actually the ECS that could be responsible for the many symptoms of the menopause usually associated with low estrogen.
For example, the anti-inflammatory benefits of estrogen are partly because of its Anandamide boosting effect on T cells in the immune system. The mood boosting effects of estrogen may also be due to its ability to control levels of the CB1 receptor in the brain, as well as boosting levels of anandamide, the ‘bliss chemical’.
So, when levels of estrogen start to decline, so may levels of the anti-inflammatory, mood boosting Anandamide.
This is a chicken or the egg scenario, it is unclear which comes first. We know that fluctuations in endocannabinoids and estrogen occur during menopause, and that the two systems are linked, but not which precedes the other.
Whats also very interesting is the roles of the ECS, and the symptoms of the menopause.
The ECS controls:
It could be that fluctuations in the levels of endocannabinoids are partly responsible for some of the symptoms of menopause.
For example, levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG have been shown to surge when women go through the menopause.
High levels of 2-AG are also seen in cases of obesity and diabetes, which drives cellular insulin resistance, fat deposition, lethargy and reductions in metabolic rate.
This could be related to the weight gain, and blood sugar/lipid increases seen in menopause.
Another example is the ECS acting as a middle man between estrogen, mood and sleep.
Anandamide stimulates the firing of GABA neurones, which acts to calm and quiet the mind, helping to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. So when estrogen declines, so does anandamide which loses its grip on promoting the calming GABA response.
Anandamide also regulates the balance between bone synthesis and degradation, via CB1 receptors found on osteoblast (bone forming) and osteoclast (bone degrading) cells.
Hence, disruptions in estrogen and therefore anandamide may underlie the degradation in bone during menopause.
Like estrogen, progesterone also influences how immune cells work by controlling Anandamide
levels. This interaction may also influence levels of inflammation, mood and sleep when imbalances crop up.
Progesterone also ‘talks’ to the ECS in other areas such as the ovaries and hypothalamus.
In fact, research has shown that CB1 receptors in the hypothalamus can influence levels of progesterone, which has an effect on sexual appetite in females.
So by using cannabinoids to restore ‘normal’ ECS regulation of CB1, some sexual appetite may theoretically return.
Using CBD is effectively a way to hack the disruption in the feedback loop between hormones and the ECS, and restore some level of hormonal balance.
Although there’s no evidence to suggest that CBD boosts levels of estrogen, it may alleviate the downstream negative consequences of low estrogen by boosting levels of anandamide.
The same may be true for progesterone levels, although again more research is needed.
Many of the well known therapeutic effects of CBD are largely because of increased levels of Anandamide:
It could very well be that the therapeutic effects of CBD are because of its ability to regulate the ECS.
Although we need to see more research in this area, there’s a good case to argue that the ECS becomes disturbed by the fluctuations in hormones, principally estrogen (but also others like progesterone).
Since CBD acts naturally as an adaptogen, it may act to support the ECS and the symptoms of menopause in a way that is needed for each individual.
This article was written by Rory Batt, Msc - one of the co-founders of Gaia Guru, who also is head of product development. His knowledge of the endocannabinoid system, CBD, and other adaptogens is vast - he has dedicated his education and career to this field.
Image @ VSCO