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Cannabis and Women's Health

Dr. Shelley Turner is a family doctor practising in Ontario and Manitoba, who specializes in medical cannabis, addictions and Indigenous health. We spoke to her about the ways cannabis can contribute to a better quality of life for women. 

What are the most common ailments you prescribe for?

“You could probably put it under headings like musculoskeletal, rheumatological and neurological. Ultimately, it’s three things: I’ve got pain; I can’t sleep; and my mood is terrible or has changed negatively.”

How is marijuana useful for women, specifically?

“It comes back to those three things. The things women come to see me for—sleep, pain and mood—are all very closely related. Pain-wise, depending on the age group, younger women that are menstruating with period pain or menorrhagia may benefit from CBD. I know there are lots of products in the States being marketed, like cannabis tampons and all kinds of interesting things. I’ve had a lot of younger women use it for that. In the menopausal age, it’s night sweats and sleep disturbance. Women are using cannabis now for sleep. And also rheumatological issues—autoimmune disorders are quite prevalent and fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia really affects women under those three headings, again, sleep, quality of life and pain. I think a lot of women get into this prescription cascade. They have this pain, that side-effect; they can get constipated from the opiates that they’re on, so they get a prescription to help them with the stomach, a prescription to help them with their bowels and, next thing you know, they’re on 10 medications a day. [With cannabis] a lot of people are able to reduce many medications and things that we take for granted, like NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, i.e., Advil), which people kind of take benignly, over-the-counter. It’s the same kind of thing with Tylenol and over-the-counter sleep aids. There’s a lot of potential harm with these in terms of liver and kidney issues. I think we need to take a step back and look at how we care for ourselves as women. How are we managing all those things—pain, living, sleep? We have to really look at it holistically and step back. ‘What are the things that I’m doing for myself? What are the things I can change?’ Obviously, talking to your family physician about anything you can change or they can help you change.”

Is it a misconception that people are getting high using medicinal marijuana?

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions when patients are using cannabis is that they’re high. They’re not. We talk about patients that are using [narcotics], which is almost normalized. You can buy Tylenol 1 over-the-counter which has codeine, which is a narcotic. The normalization of narcotic taking or pill taking: I shudder to think how many patients are driving with oxycodone in their blood, Percocet. And we have to talk about tolerance, as well. Patients build up tolerance, they’re not feeling high, they’re not feeling out of control. I think there are going to be some big challenges coming up with time and with the legalization.”

Have your patients experienced success with cannabis?

“There are so many of them. Two women who are living with fibromyalgia pop into my head. A woman in her mid-40s had been on numerous medications, opiates and benzodiazepine, NSAIDs, the whole works. Within four months, she was off all her medications except one, and she’s actually cut that in half. She’s already lost 32 pounds and she said, ‘I don’t know why they haven’t offered this to me before.’ She’s calm, relaxed. She’s ready to go back to work. I had another woman who was on morphine for 20 years and she used the one-to-one cannabis oil (it has equal parts THC and CBD) at night to help her sleep. The first thing she said when she woke up in the morning was ‘Well, I don’t have fibromyalgia anymore.’ [laughs] So, she felt that good. The challenges are will the effects last? I think once we get a better handle on cannabinoids, terpenes, all of those things that need more research and more funding for research, I think we have such a great potential for another option for wellness. From my perspective and my positionality, I’m coming at it from reducing opiates and reducing as many harmful substances to the patient as possible. Cannabis may not be for everybody, but for most people it can be life-changing.” Dr. Shelley Turner is a family doctor specializing in medical cannabis, addictions, and Indigenous health. She is involved in the research project dataCANN (datacann.mcmaster.ca) through the centre for medical cannabis research at McMaster University and sees patients at National Access Cannabis clinics in Ontario and Manitoba.

 

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