Sex hormone differences in men and women appear to influence the prevalence and frequency of cannabis use, patterns of use, and vulnerability to dependency.
A team of researchers in Italy recently examined how and why cannabis affects women and men differently in a new research review published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
While social, environmental factors, and individual personality traits influence whether someone is open to trying cannabis and their consumption habits, new data suggests biological factors play a notable role.
Specifically, differences in sex hormones and chromosomes appear to influence cannabis use patterns.
In the new review, researchers used animal studies to examine the influence of sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone on the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a complex regulatory network that cannabis-derived compounds — called cannabinoids — interact with to elicit effects.
“It has been pretty hard to get laboratory animals to self-administer cannabinoids like human cannabis users,” said study co-author Dr. Liana Fattore, Senior Researcher at the National Research Council of Italy and President of the Mediterranean Society of Neuroscience in a statement.
“However, animal studies on the effects of sex hormones and anabolic steroids on cannabinoid self-administration behavior have contributed to a lot of our current understanding of sex differences in responses to cannabis,” she added.
Here’s a brief overview of what the researchers discovered about how cannabis affects men and women differently.
Men More Likely to Try Cannabis and Use Higher Doses
Men are far more likely to consume marijuana at all.
According to the study’s findings, men are up to four times more likely to try cannabis. Additionally, men are much more likely to take higher doses of cannabis more frequently.
The researchers attribute these differences in prevalence and frequency of cannabis use to a combination of sociocultural factors, biological factors, and sex hormones that are naturally higher in men.
“Male sex steroids increase risk-taking behavior and suppress the brain’s reward system, which could explain why males are more likely to try drugs, including cannabis,” said Fattore. “This is true for both natural male sex steroids like testosterone and synthetic steroids like nandrolone.”
Women More Sensitive to Cannabis’ Influence on Dopamine
Women tend to be more sensitive to cannabis’ influence on the brain reward system.
Cannabinoids and their interaction with the endocannabinoid system indirectly elicit changes in the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have shown to trigger short-term increases in dopamine concentrations.
According to Fattore, “females seem to be more vulnerable” to this impact on the dopamine reward system.
Why? It seems to be related to higher levels of the sex hormone estrogen, or estradiol.
Estradiol, the major female sex hormone, has been previously linked to dopamine signalling. It appears to influence the female response to cannabinoids.
“Studies in rats show that the female hormone estradiol affects control of movement, social behavior and filtering of sensory input to the brain – all targets of drug taking – via modulation of the endocannabinoid system, whose feedback in turn influences estradiol production,” said Fattore.
“Specifically, female rats have different levels of endocannabinoids and more sensitive receptors than males in key brain areas related to these functions, with significant changes along the menstrual cycle.
“As a result, the interactions between the endocannabinoid system and the brain level of dopamine – the neurotransmitter of “pleasure” and “reward” – are sex dependent,” she added.
Neurochemically, this could mean women are more vulnerable to developing cannabis dependency faster.
Human Studies Still Needed
Fattore and her colleagues urged for more human studies on the complex role of sex hormones in the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoid sensitivity.
Animal studies, while helpful, were hard to interpret because of their diverse methods and inconsistent conditions.
“The effects varied according the specific cannabinoid studied, as well as the strain of animals tested and duration of hormone exposure,” said Fattore.
The human data collected so far is consistent with the findings of animal studies, but Fattore believes more research is needed to deepen the understanding of the interaction between cannabinoids and sex steroids.
More Cannabis Research
If you’re interested in reading the entire new study, “The Modulating Role of Sex and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Hormones in Cannabinoid Sensitivity,” you can access it for free through Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Over 23,000 studies on cannabis and cannabinoids have been published. Read about their overall findings here, or learn about their therapeutic potential for various medical indications through our education page.