Whenever I get cramps, I complain. Whenever my husband asks me what a period cramp feels like, I give the same answer: "For about 20 seconds, it seems like two hands are ringing out your uterus as you would a wet washcloth," I say. "Like they are really trying to get all the water out in one go. Then, it stops for 15 seconds. That's awesome, but then it starts up again. This goes on for hours."
"Brutal," he replies.
"I imagine this is our version of being kicked in the balls. Except getting kicked in the balls is like a nasty sucker punch that is short and harsh, whereas period cramps are a drawn-out, annoying pain, like a mix between water torture and a tattoo on your pelvic bone."
"Both of those suck."
Most women will go through period cramping at some point in their lives, some worse than others. We all have that one friend who can't even move when she has her period—she's texting anyone who recently had dental surgery in hopes of something stronger than Midol. I never suffered from painful periods until I had my IUD inserted a few years back, and I accept the two-to-three days of intense cramping as a trade-off for the ease of that particular method of contraception. The way I see it, period cramps are part of the deal when your body is a human incubator.
But surely something could make them better. With the decriminalization of marijuana in California, Colorado, and Washington, there has been a push to market cannabis products more like lipstick than some evil drug. Combined with the possibilities for marijuana as medicine to help everything from headaches to sexual satisfaction, weed has become a huge part of women's health news. Among the most talked-about companies is Foria, a California-based brand that specializes in a THC-enhanced lubricant designed to increase female pleasure. (The product itself is named "Foria Pleasure.") Since the product's debut in spring of 2014 Foria has been known as the "weed lube" company; founder Mathew Gerson was just happy that the public was open to using THC for a healthier sex life.
As Foria circulated the press, however, it garnered attention and curiosity, and it eventually caught the eye of Beverly Hills urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman. The prominent physician, also known also for her television role on the Emmy-winning series The Doctors, was tipped off to Foria from a 75-year-old patient who was determined to fix her unsatisfactory sex life. She told Dr. Berman about this new "weed lube" she had read about in a magazine. It was reported to help women, especially those who are post-menopausal, regain orgasms and sexual pleasure. Dr. Berman did some research of her own, wondering if cannabis could help pelvic inflammation and pain. She got in touch with Gerson, and they started talking about new ideas.
Using the once-criminal plant to treat menstrual cramps made sense. "When a woman experiences menstrual cramps, the uterus is contracting," Berman told me over the phone. "The muscle goes into spasm, and it releases inflammatory mediators that exacerbate pain. Cannabis, in general, works to relieve muscle spasms by increasing blood flow and decreasing muscle contractions. When you increase blood flow, you help to restore oxygenation to the tissue, thereby decreasing inflammation and lessening discomfort."
The approval of drugs for women is lagging far behind that for men.
Berman and Gerson soon developed the idea for a new Foria product: a vaginal suppository to quell menstrual pain that would be named Foria Relief.
"Large numbers of women were sharing with us the pain-relieving benefits they were experiencing using Foria Pleasure [the spray]," Gerson said. "Not just for menstrual cramps, but for endometriosis and pelvic pain."
A little over a year ago, I interviewed Gerson about his new weed lube, and at the time he was excited about his partnership with Dr. Berman. "Even if you put a little spray of Foria [Pleasure] on the top of the tampon when you insert it, it can relieve menstrual cramps," he told me. (I tried his trick, and it seemed to mildly help.) But he was working on something official and much more powerful.
Six months later, a package from Foria arrived at my house: a small, white tin box with the brand name, Foria, in blue and a marijuana leaf on top. The contents list read "240MG THC + 40MG CBD." Inside the $44 magic box were four individually wrapped vaginal suppositories, each about an inch long, made from concentrated organic cocoa butter. The first cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, assists in blocking pain while allowing the brain to receive pleasure signals, while the latter, cannabidiol, or CBD, works with the immune system to suppress inflammation. The instructions said to lie on your back with a pillow under your butt and insert the suppository as far up as you can, so the cannabinoids can do their work on the nerve endings of the uterus, cervix, and muscle tissue.
"When a medicine is delivered through the mucosa of the vagina, rather than orally or [as] a topical treatment, it is directly absorbed into the bloodstream," Dr. Berman said. This means it can take effect faster than other pain relievers. "This is not about Foria being better or worse than prescription medication for treating cramps—nor is Foria FDA-approved, nor has it been clinically studied in women yet. All we are talking about is that cannabis-based products help relax the muscles, and the uterus is a muscle."
When my cramps arrived a week later, I popped in a Relief and lay flat with a pillow elevating my butt, just as instructed. The strange thing about the original spray product, Foria Pleasure, is that using it in or on your vulva does not have the psychotropic effects that it does when ingested orally. (However, Gerson told me that some users, when they used Foria Pleasure for anal sex, did report feeling stoned.) The same is true for Foria Relief; I took the vaginal suppositories about an hour before an interview, confident that only my uterus would be high and happy.
Within 20 minutes, my cramps totally disappeared. Unlike recent "natural" products like "herbal detox pearls" (meant to "cleanse" your uterus), Foria consists of just three ingredients—cocoa butter, THC and CBD—all of which I have ingested for many years with no major problems. I was not surprised at how well the suppository worked. What I was surprised about was the longevity. Midol will wear off after about half a work day, and during most periods I'll pop six a day. But one Foria suppository did its job well into my evening.
When it comes to promoting women's sexual health, there are not many options by way of pharmaceuticals. Foria Pleasure sparked such popularity because it was the only product marketed at women to aid low sexual satisfaction or libido. Even though it was not FDA-approved, it was something—plus it was organic and made of simple ingredients. It was not until August of last year that the FDA announced their approval of the first pharmaceutical, Addyi (flibanserin), designed to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in premenopausal women. The press release reads like any other advertisement for Zoloft or Lyrica, in that it says you can take this drug to help one problem, but it comes with a laundry list of other potential downfalls; consequently, the drug's release was widely regarded as a flop. Foria Pleasure, on the other hand, promotes general wellness, health, and an enjoyment of sex, rather meeting a standardized criteria for disorder and hoping a pill would fix it.
The more I thought about it, the more unclenching your uterus with cannabinoids made perfect sense.
"There is difficulty getting drugs approved for women in general—this has been a decades-old challenge," Dr. Berman explained. "The approval of drugs for women is lagging far behind that for men. The causes are not so much that they are discriminatory against women—there is actually a higher degree of caution with women, due to reproductive health and safety concerns."
This degree of caution can inhibit progress in research, development, and treatment. Another roadblock is that sexual arousal and pleasure are not life-or-death issues, but rather quality of life ones. The common devil's advocate argument is that Viagra has been FDA-approved to treat erectile dysfunction since the early 1990s, but treatment for female sexual dysfunction has been met with resistance and skepticism.
"There have been numerous studies linking erectile dysfunction to cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes," Dr. Berman said, explaining how ED can be linked to fatal medical problems for men. "The female problems surrounding sexual satisfaction and desire are not acknowledged in the same way as [those surrounding] male erectile dysfunction, because the scientific community has yet to make a link between female sexual arousal problems and medical problems that put the female at risk."
Foria may have started with the intention of amping up the female orgasm, but now it has grown into something bigger. I always wrote off the pot enthusiasts as pusher hippies who were too stoned to know any better than to preach the healing powers of cannabis. But Berman is no hippie, and neither is Gerson. The more I thought about it, the more unclenching your uterus with cannabinoids made perfect sense. Besides, it seems a lot better for me in the long run than a Valium, a hot water bottle, and a bunch of whining.
Update: The headline of this article has been changed since publication.