Affecting one in 10 women of childbearing age, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a problem in which the ovaries or adrenal glands produce more male hormones than normal.
There is no cure for the syndrome, but some lifestyle adjustments and medications can help control symptoms.
Studies show that cannabinoids, which are natural compounds extracted from hemp plants such as industrial hemp, may also offer some benefits to women diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome.
What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
Women with polycystic ovary syndrome may experience infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods. Their ovaries can develop numerous follicles or small collections of fluids, which prevent the regular release of eggs and lead to infertility. Other symptoms commonly associated with the syndrome are pelvic pain, weight gain, acne or oily skin and severe hair growth.
While the exact cause of PCOS remains unknown, the syndrome is more common in women who are obese or have a family history of PCOS. Other factors that may play a role are too much insulin and low-grade inflammation. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the risk of long-term complications of the syndrome, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
How can cannabinoids benefit polycystic ovary syndrome?
No human studies have yet been conducted to investigate the effect of cannabinoid administration on polycystic ovary syndrome. However, research suggests that cannabinoids may be beneficial for polycystic ovary syndrome through their influence on the body’s endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is a signalling network that keeps many of the body’s systems in homeostasis. It consists of endocannabinoids, which are adducts synthesised by the body on demand, and cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2). Endocannabinoids constantly act on cannabinoid receptors to trigger chemical responses designed to balance our systems, including reproduction.
Researchers have evidence that dysfunction of the endocannabinoid system may be involved in the development of polycystic ovary syndrome. Dysfunction in the endocannabinoid system occurs when the body does not produce enough endocannabinoids or does not have enough receptors to function properly. Several of the underlying features of polycystic ovary syndrome – insulin resistance, androgen hypersecretion and obesity – can also be affected by the endocanninogenous system.
What does this mean?
That cannabinoids derived from cannabis plants, such as hemp, could help in efforts to treat PCOS. Cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), share similar chemical constituents with endocannabinoids and can therefore interact with cannabinoid receptors to help the endocannabinoid system in its efforts to balance functions. Researchers know that cannabinoid and endocannabinoid receptors are found within the human ovaries and previous studies have suggested that they can help when there is a dysfunction in the endocannabinoid system.
A small body of evidence suggests that regulating the endocannabinoid system by supplementing the body with cannabinoids could help women with PCOS. A study investigating 20 women with PCOS and 20 healthy women as a control group found evidence linking insulin release in women with PCOS to endocannabinoid activation and overexpression of cannabinoid receptors, particularly CB1 receptors. The researchers also found that a CB1 receptor antagonist was effective in causing weight loss in patients with PCOS. In animal experiments, it was found that activation of CB1 receptors in pancreatic cells causes insulin hypersecretion and insulin resistance. These findings suggest that endocannabinoid signalling in the pancreas may also play a role in PCOS-associated insulin resistance.
For patients suffering from pain with PCOS, cannabinoids have been established as powerful pain-relieving compounds. While studies investigating their effectiveness for PCOS-related pain are lacking, cannabinoids have shown that they can reduce pain caused by a number of causes.