Why I Turned to Cannabis for Morning Sickness—And Why You Shouldn’t Judge
At a ripe six months pregnant, I’m currently one of those ‘poor women’ whose nausea lasts well beyond the first trimester. It came on like a tidal wave at six weeks and the combined powers of acupressure wristbands, lemon rind and ginger candy did little more than make me laugh with disappointment.
Rounding out the second trimester, I no longer tear up at the casual mention of kimchi or unfriend anyone who snaps a lunch selfie, but nausea management remains a part of my daily life. I’ve asked every doctor, doula, mom, and midwife I know about remedies and the consensus may surprise you: Try cannabis.
The conversation usually goes like this: “I’m not officially allowed to recommend this…” or “you didn’t hear it from me, but…” followed by a hearty plug for CBD, or CBD with low doses of THC. But using cannabis to treat nausea is not new. People have turned to pot for tummy relief for decades. U.S. doctors have prescribed it for chemo, cancer, and AIDS-related nausea since the 80s in the form of Marinol, a synthetic form of THC everyone seems to have forgotten exists.
Marinol is sometimes even prescribed to pregnant women for hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness famously suffered by Kate Middleton. Hyperemesis is one of the most dangerous conditions causing mother and baby alike to lose weight and vital nutrients, often resulting in miscarriage or developmental issues. Women who suffer from this severe and dangerous condition are significantly more likely to try cannabis while pregnant, though the Duchess of Cambridge was likely not one of them (what ever would the queen say?). For some, though, a little bud is the difference between a fetus-endangering food aversion and the sudden craving for Doritos with Cool Whip.
With no research to lean on, the use of cannabis in pregnancy remains unspeakable.
But the consensus in the medical community is that marijuana and pregnancy should never mix. So despite medical studies showing that “Marijuana significantly reduced ratings of ‘queasiness’,” there has been little in the way of research on the safety of cannabis for pregnant women.
In fact, the policy at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is that women shouldn’t use cannabis products in pregnancy. Period. “Like almost all other prescription and non-prescription drugs, there are no studies which can guarantee that it is safe,” says Dr. Allison Hill, author of Your Pregnancy, Your Way: A Guide to Natural Pregnancy and Childbirth and a top Los Angeles OBGYN.
But Hill points out there are no studies that prove it to be dangerous, either. “The research does not show any increased risk in birth defects, preterm labor, low birth rates, etc,” she says. “The only thing that has come up has been a slightly higher risk of behavioral problems in children, though the studies are not definitive.”
Additionally, Hill explains, these studies are difficult to interpret due to the many factors that could also be triggering these behavioral issues. For instance, many of these marijuana users might also be smoking cigarettes, or consuming alcohol.
The problem is, nobody wants to test drugs on pregnant women. And even if they do, Big Pharma and their Washington lobbyists don’t welcome the competition.
The US doesn’t consider CBD safe for pregnancy despite numerous studies that state: “It has no effect on embryonic development.”
With no research to lean on, the use of cannabis in pregnancy remains unspeakable. Hill was the only doctor brave enough to go on the record about using cannabis as a remedy to pregnancy pains. Alas, most doctors won’t prescribe cannabis out of fear of being criticized or sued.
Elizabeth Bachner, midwife and owner of Gracefull Birthing, Los Angeles’ first accredited birthing center, believes the stigma is robbing women of safe and natural relief. “We have a smear campaign that’s been going on for years that takes all forms of cannabis—THC, THCA, CBD—and they lump it all together as the same class of drug.”
For reference, THCA is the unactivated, non-psychoactive form of THC. You can extract THCA from the plant through cold extraction. “THCA is a wonderful medicine that they are recommending for pediatric cancer,” says Bachner. “Combined with CBD it would be an amazing, natural, non-psychoactive drug.”
The US doesn’t consider CBD safe for pregnancy despite numerous studies including one from the World Health Organization that states: “It has no effect on embryonic development.” But CBD, THCA and THC are all lumped together under the cannabis umbrella and treated equally. That’s like failing to differentiate between a glass of wine and a box of grape juice—it’s all grape liquid, right?
CBD included, most people still think any form of marijuana consumption in pregnancy is tantamount to child abuse. And for pharmaceutical companies, that stigma may be the only thing stopping cannabis from overthrowing their reign of the morning sickness industry.
The long-hailed morning sickness drug Zofran has recently found itself at the center of controversy and legal trouble after a study showed a correlation between the drug and congenital heart defects.
“You gotta look at risk-benefit analysis,” says Bachner. “Are you vomiting so much that you can’t keep food down? If you’re putting your body at risk, you’re putting your baby at risk. Is CBD something you can buy over the counter at Whole Foods that can cure that?”
To Bachner’s dismay, her medical board license won’t allow her to suggest CBD to sick clients. She’s one of a growing movement demanding research on the natural antiemetic.
“Cannabis and motherhood is a stigma wrapped in a taboo,” says Keira Sumimoto, founder of Cannabis and Motherhood, an organization calling for a cannabis revolution. (They have a popular Facebook group of the same name.)
Some may think they’re a bunch of stoners who don’t want to give up ripping bongs just because they got knocked up. But in actuality, these are often the same crunchy mamas eating organic and doing prenatal yoga like it’s their job. “I have yet to see one mother ask me about CBD who wants to hurt her baby or just get high,” says Bachner, “we’re not dealing with addicts here.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t people out there who have and will abuse marijuana. Nobody is advocating for pregnant women to hot-box their cars and get lit all day every day. But to say a few drops of CBD tincture is the same as eating high-dose edibles or taking dabs on the daily is inaccurate, and robbing millions of women of safe relief.
“Cannabis and motherhood is a stigma wrapped in a taboo.”
Plus, nausea isn’t the only issue pregnant women are turning to CBD for, according to Anna Kallinikos, a budtender at CCA—a dispensary located above Gracefull Birthing. “[CBD also helps with] swelling in feet and ankles, insomnia, and anxiety,” she says. “It’s regenerative so people use it topically for stretch marks, too. CBD chemically balances the mind, so it makes sense you’d find relief when your hormones are in a tizzy. Once [expecting mothers] try it, they always come back.”
Although higher doses of THC are not recommended for women, using low doses of the psychoactive cannabinoid is nothing new. Dr. Michele Ross, a neuroscientist and author of Vitamin Weed, explains that people often forget pregnant women have used cannabis for thousands of years.
“In India they make a tea with [THC] which helps relieve nausea and the pain of childbirth,” she says. “In the tea, they get more THCA, which is better for nausea than THC. THCA doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so it doesn’t get you high.”
Ross dreams of a day when a THCA/CBD/Vitamin B6 cocktail is the new go-to morning sickness drug. Many in medicine agree we should at least give cannabis a chance, including Dr. Hill, who agrees that using something natural seems better than using a synthetic drug. “Hopefully, as cannabis use becomes more common, we will have more data so women can make informed decisions,” says Hill.
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