Welcome to the second episode in our series on menopause and cannabis. Today, we’ll talk with a doctor about the controversy & complexity of hormone therapy and estrogen, dig into a Harvard study on cannabis & menopause, and hear what women learned about menopause from their moms. Menopause will affect every single woman, and often sooner than you think. We hope you’ll share the episode with a friend!
Ellen Scanlon (00:00):
This podcast discusses cannabis and is intended for audiences 21 and over.
Megan Margulies (00:06):
I’m 41 and I had never once spoken to my gynecologist about perimenopause. I think it’s something that we need to be a lot more prepared for, especially as women who, at least for myself, am constantly doubting what I’m feeling and is this real, is this just my anxiety acting up because hormones and the fluctuating hormones, the dropping of hormones, it can really do a number on your body and it’s real, and it affects your everyday life. So I wish more women my age and younger were more prepared for what’s to come.
Ellen Scanlon (00:58):
Welcome to How to Do the Pot, a podcast helping you feel confident about cannabis. I’m your host, Ellen Scanlon. You just heard from Massachusetts-based author and journalist Megan Margulies. Megan wrote an article for InStyle Magazine about a Harvard-led study that showed women are turning to cannabis for menopause symptoms and that it’s working. This is the second episode in our series all about menopause. In the first episode, we talked about what menopause and perimenopause are. I shared how symptoms can start much younger than many people realize, and we learned why women are turning to cannabis for relief of symptoms related to stress, sleep, sex, and hot flashes. In today’s episode, we’ll talk about how a lack of research about women’s health has created basically a knowledge gap for women who are entering menopause. I’ll talk with menopause expert, Dr. Lauren Streicher, about hormone therapy and estrogen. Megan will tell us more about the Harvard study on menopause and cannabis, and we’ll find out what women have learned about menopause from their moms.
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Recently, we polled our Instagram followers at Do the Pot and asked how many of you have talked to your mothers or your grandmothers about menopause. More than half of you said you talked about it a tiny bit and 15% have never talked about it at all. Have you asked your mom or an older friend about menopause? I created this series because I know women want to learn more about what to expect in this stage of life. I hope these episodes will inspire you to feel more comfortable when you’re ready to bring it up. For California-based Patty Pappas, the co-founder of Cannabis brand Hello Again, talking about women’s health with her family felt pretty taboo, especially related to menopause.
Patty Pappas (04:28):
Sadly, I didn’t even talk to my mom when I got my period really, I talked to my sister, and so no, I didn’t have any of those conversations. I think my mom took hormones early on. It was a different generation. We have a saying that your grandmother tolerated it, your mother medicated it, and we want to celebrate it. So every generation sort of had a different way of dealing with it.
Ellen Scanlon (04:48):
Patty’s co-founder, Carrie Mapes, never talked to her mom about menopause. Looking back now, she has a different perspective on the health issues her mom was dealing with.
Carrie Mapes (05:00):
Sadly, I do remember when I was in junior high, my mom had a hysterectomy, and the years leading up to then she was pretty cranky and we used to tease her about it which is so awful now that I think about it and when I realize how she was feeling and what she was going through.
Ellen Scanlon (05:18):
Women’s health has long been a taboo topic, even among mothers and daughters, and for decades, women’s health was underrepresented in medical research. So many doctors didn’t know that much about it. It wasn’t until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health, NIH, mandated that women be included in clinical trials for new drugs. Bringing new drugs to market can take 12 to 15 years and cost millions of dollars, largely paid for by big pharmaceutical companies. A result of that is that doctors are still learning about the complexities of women’s health at different stages of life. Dr. Lauren Streicher is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois. She is an MD, a menopause expert, and the host of an excellent podcast, Dr. Streicher’s Inside Information, all about menopause. I asked Dr. Streicher why women have been underrepresented in medical research and how that affects research about menopause.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (06:34):
Women are complicated. They might be pregnant, they can be at different places in their cycle, there’s a difference between a postmenopausal woman and a premenopausal woman. So for that reason, historically, most research has been done not only in men, but in white men, healthy men in order to complete research as efficiently as possible. The problem with that, obviously, is that women are not little men and you cannot take data that has been found in men and extrapolate that to women, but that’s exactly what’s been done. So that’s just in general. When you look at research that pertains to women and things like high blood pressure pills or sleeping pills and all of that, all of those original studies were done in men. But then specifically when you get to menopause, there hasn’t been an emphasis on menopause research because up until recently, there was really a lack of awareness of the impact that menopause has, not just on quality of life, but on length of life.
We know that the loss of estrogen has a significant impact on bone health, osteoporosis, brain health, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health. The number one thing that kills women is cardiovascular disease, and we know that menopause has a huge impact. So there’s been a new emphasis on, okay, we got to figure this out, and we really have to circle back and see what is the impact of menopause long-term on women. But a lot of people have this idea that, oh, there’s no research on menopause. There’s a lot of research on menopause. Your doctor may not know it, your doctor may not be aware of it, it might not be out there in the mainstream, but this idea that there’s been no research on menopause simply isn’t true.
Ellen Scanlon (08:26):
It’s very good news that there is research available, and yet most medical schools don’t teach about menopause in their curriculums. Doctors, even OB-GYNs are not receiving specialized training in how to treat menopause in their patients. Dr. Streicher explains what’s going on.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (08:49):
A study just came out in the Journal of Menopause that looked at what do doctors get as far as training during their residency. So we’re not even talking medical school. We’re talking during specialty training, whether it’s OB-GYN, family practice, internal medicine, the kinds of specialties that you think people would need to have a knowledge of menopause. If you look at OB-GYN programs, one-third, one-third, have any kind of menopause curriculum at all. That means two-thirds of doctors who are graduating from residency programs in OB-GYN get no training in menopause. If you look at that one-third, when you do the deep dive into, okay, what is that curriculum they’re getting, it might be some reading material, it might be one or two lectures. It’s really a minimum amount of exposure.
I founded a menopause clinic at Northwestern which is arguably one of the best OB-GYN residencies in the country. I mean, these are really stellar doctors who are really going to be outstanding physicians. Not one of them has ever rotated through the menopause clinic, not one, not for one hour, not for one day. And to their defense, it’s not because they’re not interested, it’s because the curriculum doesn’t give them the time. They are so busy doing gynecologic oncology, fertility, obstetrics, surgery that there’s no time left for menopause. It just has not been a priority in training. So of course your doctor’s not going to talk to you about menopause because he or she has had no training in menopause. I became an expert in menopause and other doctors that are experts in menopause became experts because we chose to do so, because we did continuing medical education, research on our own. This was not part of my residency training.
Ellen Scanlon (10:43):
I know that is really frustrating to hear. I asked Dr. Streicher if she thinks this will change anytime soon.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (10:51):
No. If you look at your typical woman who’s in her forties, early fifties, is she seeing a gynecologist? No, she is not, and a lot of people forget that, that even if in a perfect world every OB-GYN resident graduated and was very, very knowledgeable about menopause, by this time women get there they’re no longer seeing an OB. Most women see at best, at best, one doctor a year, and that doctor’s generally going to be an internist or a family practice doctor. The truth is most women don’t even see a doctor for well-women care. They go if they have a problem, if they’re sick, and if someone has a diagnosis, whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, cancer, menopause is not going to be at the top of that discussion, even though that’s a very important part of that woman’s experience. So honestly, I don’t expect it to change anytime soon with the way medicine is delivered today.
What I do expect to change is that there’s going to be other ways for women to get menopause care. There’s a company called Midi that is an online menopause care company that has just contracted with Progyny which is a company that puts HR into the workplace so that women can have access to menopause information and care outside of a normal doctor’s appointment. So I think it’s initiatives like that that we’re going to be seeing in the future. I do not have an expectation that women are suddenly going to go to their doctor and he or she’s going to say, “So tell me, are you having hot flashes? Are you having vaginal dryness? Are you having an orgasm?” It’s not going to happen. It’s just not.
Ellen Scanlon (12:36):
If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, please wait. There is good news. There are doctors out there with a lot of expertise in menopause. You just might have to look harder to find them. In the first episode in the series, Dr. Streicher guided us to menopause.org and the Find a Physician tab on their website. You can put in your zip code and find a doctor either who’s in your area or who offers telemedicine appointments. One of the first things that may come up when you think about menopause is hormone therapy and estrogen. There are a lot of misconceptions about these treatments dating back to the 1990s. Dr. Streicher shares what physicians and researchers know today.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (13:34):
We use the term hormone therapy or menopause hormone therapy, and the reason is because we’re actually not replacing your hormones, we’re supplementing. We’re giving some hormones, but we are not reproducing the amounts that you had when you were 20. And hormone therapy may be estrogen, it may be estrogen and a progesterone, it may include a testosterone, so it means a lot of different things.
But for the sake of this discussion, let’s just start with estrogen because that’s really what women are talking about is that should they be taking estrogen, and when we talk about bad information and misconceptions, estrogen is at the top of the list. If you ask most women is estrogen dangerous, they’ll say, “Oh, yes, it causes breast cancer,” and they’re shocked when they learn that estrogen actually decreases the risk of breast cancer. This is not my opinion, this is facts. This is what has been demonstrated in the medical literature that if you give women between the ages of 50 and 60 estrogen that they will have an 18% decreased risk of developing breast cancer, so that when we think in terms of side effects, they’re really very, very minimal, particularly if we’re looking at transdermal estrogen.
When you take estrogen, you can either take it by mouth, which is oral, or you can take it through the skin in the form of a patch, a spray, a gel, and we know that if you take estrogen through the skin that it doesn’t get metabolized by the liver, and when it avoids that trip through the liver, what it means is that you avoid the number one side effect of estrogen and that’s blood clots. It’s not cancer, it’s blood clots, and even those numbers are very, very low in most women. So that’s the number one misconception is what is the side effects of estrogen. It’s not only the most effective thing, but is it the safest thing, and the answer is yes, it is.
Ellen Scanlon (15:36):
If you’d like to learn more about hormone therapy and menopause, Dr. Streicher introduced me to a great resource. It’s called the SWAN Study.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (15:46):
There’s a study that’s been going on now for almost 20 years called the SWAN Study, the Study of Women Across the Nation. This study is an extraordinary study not only in that it looked at women prospectively, meaning it started studying women when they were in their forties and then followed them through, but also because unlike other studies they didn’t just look at one population. They included women White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, to see what kinds of differences there are in terms of their menopause experience.
And so what we know from SWAN and some other studies that have emerged as well is that the experience of a Black woman is dramatically, dramatically different than it is for an Asian woman or Hispanic women. Black women tend to go through menopause sometimes earlier. They tend to have much more severe hot flashes, and those hot flashes last longer. The reason why that’s so important isn’t just about, again, quality of life, but the fact that when we look at rates of cardiovascular disease, cognitive function issues, et cetera, that we see in Black women, one of those reasons may well be because of their hot flash experience.
Ellen Scanlon (16:57):
We’ll talk more about hot flashes later in the series. While the recent Harvard study about menopause and cannabis does not offer as much information as SWAN, it is very exciting that the study exists at all. Journalist Megan Margulies who you heard at the beginning of the episode explains why she wanted to write about it.
Megan Margulies (17:20):
This study really caught my eye because a lot of women I knew were using cannabis, mostly gummies, for menopausal symptoms, perimenopause, the stress of motherhood, anything that created these really uncomfortable and often disruptive symptoms like sleep disturbances, insomnia, night sweats, anxiety, stress, depression. There’s so many things that a woman’s body with the hormones fluctuating or diminishing or whatever stage you’re in, it can really ruin your life. So I was really struck by the study because it enabled women to feel like, okay, I’m doing something that’s okay and possibly right, and I shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
The study itself was pretty small. So the study had 258 women participate, and they found that almost 80% of these women found relief with cannabis for the menopause related symptoms. The majority of those people, it was for sleep disturbance, and then the rest was for mood and anxiety. So even in the study itself at the end it says what this study accomplishes is not that this is the way to go for relieving symptoms with menopause. This isn’t the gold standard, but what it means is that it’s absolutely worth looking deeper into and researching more which is a big deal.
Ellen Scanlon (19:04):
Dr. Streicher is also conducting an anonymous study about cannabis and menopause which you can participate in. I’ll add the link to the show notes. Over 500 women have already shared their experiences with her. Here’s what she’s learned so far.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (19:20):
The other thing that is really interesting about the survey is the scope of symptoms that women are treating with cannabis. I thought that most women would say, “I’m using cannabis just to help me sleep, or maybe with my hot flashes,” but that’s not the case. People are using cannabis also for sexual function, specifically libido, to decrease vaginal dryness, to help with orgasm. So the scope of what they’re using it for is really way beyond, quite frankly, what most menopause experts are treating, and quite frankly, what most products that we use right now are treating. Many, many women turn to cannabis. So even when I’m out there talking about cannabis and when it might be useful and what it might do for a postmenopause woman, I’m always very clear to say that the gold standard is estrogen. We know that estrogen works the best, we know that estrogen is the safest, and that we’re not just looking at getting rid of bothersome symptoms, but also looking at long-term issues such as the effect on the brain and bones for cognitive function and osteoporosis.
The other thing also that’s interesting is to understand that when a woman is using cannabis and estrogen then she may experience the entourage effect, and the entourage effect means that the sum total of estrogen and cannabis is greater than either one of them individually, and that’s because we know that estrogen is involved in the metabolic pathway of cannabis.
Ellen Scanlon (21:00):
Jackie Cahan, the Illinois based managing partner of Peregrade Ventures, shares how she found cannabis for her menopause symptoms.
Jackie Cahan (21:08):
I’m actually closer to being out of menopause than being in the thick of it or certainly perimenopausal. I wish I was not so scared about menopause. To be honest with you, I was terrified of weight gain, hair loss, certainly terrified of decreased libido, all the things that traditional doctors will prescribe pharmaceuticals for and things that I have actually decided to manage with cannabis. I wish I knew it was okay to treat common symptoms of menopause with cannabis. I’m so very grateful that I found cannabis two and a half years ago. I was drinking heavily, experiencing insomnia, weight gain, and the loss of libido, and of course those really dreaded hot flashes. These are all typical menopausal mayhem. After finding low doses of cannabis via the edible format, my symptoms subsided greatly and eventually faded. I’ve experienced incredible sleep, weight loss, I actually have hair gain and I have overall sexual vitality due to cannabis.
Ellen Scanlon (22:06):
Here’s a stat that always gets people’s attention, a woman’s tolerance to cannabis can change by up to 30% depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. We talk more about why in Episode 123, Cannabis for Better Sex. For today, I asked Dr. Streicher what changes in tolerance women in menopause may experience. The data so far says that women might need less weed, a lower dose than they think to feel better.
Dr. Lauren Streicher (22:37):
The message for women out there is that a postmenopause woman, as best as we can tell from our available research, will metabolize cannabis significantly slower than she did premenopause. This is problematic because not only can this lead to people overdosing and having significant negative effects to cannabis, but it really impacts on other potential problems that we see in an older population, things like arrhythmias, things like interaction with other medications. So when I’m talking to a postmenopause population about the use of cannabis, it’s not just about what should you use and how it may help you, but how to use it safely.
Ellen Scanlon (23:24):
We’ll continue the conversation about how to safely consume cannabis during menopause later in the series. Dr. Streicher’s advice for trying cannabis is in line with what I say a lot, start with a low dose, two or three milligrams of THC, maybe with an equal amount of CBD. She recommends cannabis-infused oil tinctures which you put under your tongue for 30 to 60 seconds, and you’ll feel the effects in about 15 minutes. Edibles are also very popular with her patients, especially for sleep. We have a whole series about cannabis and sleep, so check it out to learn more. Megan Margulies has been writing about women’s health for several years. She started to notice a positive change in the conversation around menopause and women’s health in general.
Megan Margulies (24:15):
We’re in a really interesting time with women’s health in terms of just being more outspoken and demanding more attention to menopause and any other issues that were… I mean, there’s been so many books about invisible diseases that affect mostly women. Autoimmune diseases affect mostly women. So this study about women using cannabis might not feel so important to that endeavor, but I think it absolutely is because it’s just allowing women to see that you can take things in your own hands and be an advocate for yourself. I’m really excited about this time because I feel like more women are speaking out, more women journalists are speaking out about it and writing about it.
Ellen Scanlon (25:04):
If you want to speak out about your experience with cannabis and menopause, please consider participating in Dr. Streicher’s anonymous study. It’ll take you about 10 minutes. Stay tuned for more in our series all about cannabis and menopause. We’ll take on some of the most common symptoms of menopause, issues with sleep, sex, hot flashes, and weight gain. We’ll hear more from Dr. Streicher and from women all across the country about how cannabis is helping to relieve their symptoms. If you’d like to share your story, please reach out to email@example.com or DM us @dothepot. We have been getting such great feedback about the first episode, and I hope you’ll share the series with women that you love.
Thank you for listening to How to Do the Pot. For lots more information and past episodes, visit dothepot.com. Are you one of the thousands of people who love How to Do the Pot’s newsletter? If you’re not getting it, please sign up at dothepot.com. And if you like How to Do the Pot, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It really helps people find the show. Thank you to writer, Joanna Sokolowski, and producers, Madi Fair and Nick Patri. I’m Ellen Scanlon, and stay tuned for more of How to Do the Pot.
So you must be legal, too. Age 21+ invited to continue.