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Women & Psychedelics: How Estrogen Alters Psilocybin’s Effects

women psychedelics
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Many drugs affect women differently than men, but does that apply to psychedelics also? Check out the new research on estrogen and psilocybin.

The numerous benefits of psychedelics have been coming to light in recent years, and women are taking notice. With little options in the way of pharmaceutical drugs, especially when it comes to treating mental illness and hormonal imbalances, it’s no surprise that women are experimenting with hallucinogens to see what can actually help. And better yet, a recent study found that psilocybin can help regulate menstrual issues. Let’s dig deeper into how and why psychedelics are so valuable for the fairer sex.

Women and psychedelics 

The psychedelic renaissance is in full swing, and women are at the heart of it. After decades of prohibition and condemnation (following a brief period of them being studied and used medicinally), the western world is finally starting to reexamine the many therapeutic benefits of these substances. LSD, Ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin have been undergoing various clinical trials to see how they can be utilized to address a growing mental health crisis in the United States.  

Jennifer Gural, a psychotherapist from Los Angeles, California, commented about how hallucinogens have helped change her life, and how she began using them to help her female patients as well. “It shifted the focus of my life,” she stated. “It really helped me to tackle how my brain works and how I was thinking … It was such a profoundly life-changing experience. I have done ayahuasca and I’ve done psilocybin. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but I’m open to that if it’s needed—which I think is how we should use psychedelics.”  

While there seems to be a recent influx of ladies trying psychedelics, self-medicating is nothing new for women. This could stem from frustrations with our existing health-care system, and how it has been historically geared toward treating men and either dismissing our issues or over-medicating us.  

As women – daughters, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, wives, friends – we have many struggles that we are often forced to face alone. Women are more likely to suffer from PTSD than men – particularly women of color, transgender, and gender-diverse individuals. Women also deal with depression and anxiety more often, and one in seven women have postpartum depression after childbirth.  

New studies have found that even a couple experiences with psychedelics, especially when combined with talk therapy, can lead to lifechanging, psychological developments. As a matter of fact, MDMA and psilocybin have been labeled as “breakthrough therapies” by the FDA, a designation given to “promising drugs proposed to fill an unmet need”. With so many pharmaceutical antidepressant and antianxiety drugs on the market, and the number of mental disorders still rising, we can clearly see that treating our troubled human minds is that unmet need.  

Is this the beginning of a brighter, more beautiful future for women’s healthcare? One where common mental illnesses, chronic pain, and hormonal conditions are treated successfully with psychedelic trips, rather than a lifetime of pharmaceutical medications? It seems quite promising.  

The new research on psilocybin and estrogen 

Although no clinical trials have been conducted, researchers from John Hopkins University have been looking over case files and anecdotal reports on women and psychedelics, and how estrogen can change the effects of psilocybin specifically. We know that estrogen can impact binding at serotonin receptor sites, and because most hallucinogens interact with serotonin receptors as well, experts believe that our cycles can influence how psilocybin works in our bodies, and vice versa, the psilocybin itself can have an impact on our hormones.  

Based on the aforementioned case studies, researchers discovered that psilocybin seemed to help regulate menstrual cycles. One of the women studied had premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is a very severe form of PMS, and she used psilocybin to help regulate it. In another case, a woman suffered from polycystic ovarian syndrome and was having irregular periods. At one point, menstruation completely stopped for a while, but after taking psilocybin, it came back.  

“Our menstrual cycles occur along the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, so as one hormone kicks off, it tells another hormone what to do in this feedback loop and that’s the trajectory of our menstrual cycles,” says Jennifer Chesak, author of The Psilocybin Handbook for Women. “We also have the axis that manages our stress response, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These two axes sort of overlap, and so they each impact one another. When we use psilocybin, we are at doing something along that stress response along the HPA axis.” 

Chesak added: “We already know from research outside of psychedelics, that these two axes do impact each other: our stress response can impact our cycle, and our cycles can impact our stress response. So, it’s not a stretch to think that when we are using psilocybin, that something is going on with our stress response that then impacts the menstrual cycle” 

Although we only have these few case studies and anecdotal reports at the moment, the results are telling. And it begs the question of when we can see a real clinical trial on this topic, so we can better understand the mechanisms of how it works from a scientific perspective. 

Aside from medical benefits, do women experience psychedelics differently than men? 

Honestly, who really knows? Obviously, no studies have been done on whether women trip differently than men. But it’s possible that because women tend to be more emotional, empathetic, and receptive to spiritual experiences – this could be beneficial to producing better and more positive, even more therapeutic highs.  

Historically, statistics indicate that men use more drugs than women – and this is across the board, from illicit drugs to legal substances like tobacco and alcohol. And since most research is still conducted on male subjects, female drug use patterns and their subsequent experiences remain somewhat of an enigma.  

However, we do know that in general, psychotropic drugs impact women differently than men, but sex-based responses to medications are often overlooked. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women were even allowed to participate in clinical trials in the United States, and many studies are still done using a larger number of male participants.  

Despite this, women are twice as likely as men to be prescribed psychotropic medication (back to that overmedicating issue), and recent research shows that factors like different hormones, body composition, and metabolism can cause different drug-reactions. For example, the sleep medication Ambien was found to be twice as potent for women.  

Additionally, experts claim that women are “between 50 and 75 percent more likely to experience side effects”. In an analysis of existing clinical trials published June 5, 2020, in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, authored by Prendergast and Irving Zucker of UC Berkley, researchers noted 86 drugs which presented “clear evidence of sex differences in how the body broke down the drug.” They found that “For nearly all of these drugs, women metabolized them more slowly than men, leading to higher levels of exposure to the drug; in 96% of cases, this resulted in significantly higher rates of adverse side effects in women.” 

Final thoughts 

To reiterate, because the foundation of modern medicine is structured around research performed almost exclusively on men, most of what science tells us about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of illness may not be applicable to women. With so much of our population feeling like they are not understood by healthcare professionals, it’s no surprise that a growing number of women are self-medicating with cannabis, psychedelics, and other natural, alternative solutions.

As we learn more about how psilocybin and other hallucinogens interact with female hormones, we can better understand how to use these incredible products to improve our health, and our lives.  

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.