With the legalization of marijuana, some women are turning to cannabis to relieve nausea during pregnancy. Currently, the main reason medical care providers will not recommend this is due to a lack of research and the unknown long term effects cannabis use has on the baby. Nausea can be a hard problem to have during pregnancy and there are no effective medical treatments for it. If you are experiencing mild nausea then the typical recommendations of ginger tea, eating small meals, eating crackers or potato chips and avoiding strong scents will probably be enough to get you through. However, for some women, nausea can be much more severe and may even lead to dehydration.
I felt nauseous all day and at its worst, was afraid to leave my apartment in case I needed to vomit
I remember clearly the nausea and vomiting I suffered from in my first pregnancy. While it’s commonly referred to as morning sickness, I felt nauseous all day and at its worst, was afraid to leave my apartment in case I needed to vomit. One day I did have to get off the bus and threw up in a garbage can on a busy, downtown street in the middle of the day. The looks I got from passersby! I was young and not visibly pregnant, so I’m sure the people who saw me thought I was some drunk teenager. Not my best day!
So if you are suffering, is cannabis a remedy to consider? To answer this question, we have to consider three factors:
Does cannabis reduce pregnancy related nausea?
Will using cannabis during pregnancy harm your baby?
Are there unwanted effects (side effects) that may impact your decision to use cannabis during pregnancy?
Prohibition has suppressed research on medical uses of marijuana.
Does cannabis reduce pregnancy related nausea?
One of the many problems with prohibition is that it has suppressed research about cannabis and studying drug use during pregnancy is always fraught with ethical issues. I wasn’t able to find any research that was specific to pregnancy related nausea. It is clear, however, that CBD is effective in reducing nausea and vomiting in people receiving chemotherapy.[i] It’s not hard to find stories written by women who say they used cannabis to treat their morning sickness. So there are some signs that CBD may be effective for morning sickness and I would love to see further research. Keep in mind, that when you read stories written by individuals, they can be very compelling but it doesn’t mean that there is a real therapeutic effect. Nausea symptoms can often be relieved by placebos so just because someone feels the CBD helped them; it could be that most of the effect was due to the placebo effect.
Will using cannabis during pregnancy harm my baby?
Again, we don’t really know. You may already know that our bodies have a cannabinoid system that is part of our central nervous system. Our bodies produce cannabis compounds known as endocannabinoids that have important roles in mood regulation, brain function and stress response.[ii] This endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the reason that cannabis affects how we feel. The ECS also plays an essential role in fertility and is found at the earliest stages of embryonic development.[iii] Throughout pregnancy and infancy, the ECS continues to develop and is important to healthy brain function.[iv]
Often people think that since we have a cannabinoid system and that since our bodies produce cannabis-like substances, that it follows that using cannabis must be safe. However this is just not true. All drugs use our bodies own systems in order to work effectively. And even substances that are biologically identical to what our body produces, don’t always work the same ways in the body when they are ingested or given intravenously. The truth is, we really don’t fully understand the ECS, what it does for our brains or how it affects us psychologically. Some studies found that marijuana use during pregnancy was related to pre-term birth, low birth weight, long term learning difficulties and behavioral issues such as impulsivity and hyperactivity.[v] However, the quality of evidence is quite low with very small study numbers (tracking 35 pregnancies, for example) and didn’t account for socioeconomic disparities (most women who admit to using marijuana during pregnancy have a low socioeconomic status) or tobacco and alcohol use.[vi]
The bottom line is, medical advice to not use marijuana during pregnancy is not based on evidence that it is unsafe but is due to the lack of evidence that it is safe.
Are there side effects of using marijuana?
Due to prohibition, marijuana has mainly been used recreationally or as a self-prescribed remedy. Since it is relatively harmless compared to other controlled substances I think many people downplay the risks. Marijuana is medicine and it should be treated with respect. Remember that even common, over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen (Advil) can be dangerous during pregnancy.
Again, we are still in the early stages of research on marijuana. However, if you are prone to anxiety, there is some evidence that marijuana use can increase anxiety if there is THC; while CBD is commonly used to relieve anxiety.[vii] So, avoiding THC is a good idea. Many women tend to have bouts of anxiety during pregnancy which I believe is due to the high level of social pressure women feel to be “good mothers” and fears about the changes having a baby will have on their lives. Women often feel a lot of pressure to eat healthy and this can be hard to do when everything makes you feel nauseous!
The stigma and social repercussions that can result from using marijuana during pregnancy should also be considered. I find that even when I speak to people who are very pro-marijuana, they are pretty shocked when I ask them about using it during pregnancy. You may find that if you use marijuana openly and people know you are pregnant, you will probably face a lot of judgement. I mean, pregnant people are often told not to have any caffeine during pregnancy and certainly face a lot of judgement for smoking cigarettes. If you are using marijuana or considering it, you should definitely talk to your doctor or midwife about it. Honestly, I doubt they will condone it but it is important for your medical care provider to know what drugs you are taking. Look for a care provider who is not judgmental or who takes a “harm reduction” approach.
The Bottom Line
We don’t have good research on the risks and benefits of using marijuana during pregnancy.
Using marijuana during pregnancy may have negative effects on your baby.
So what can you do if you are experiencing nausea and vomiting?
Really, how far you go to treat nausea and vomiting is a judgement call. Is your nausea mild? Or are you vomiting multiple times in a day? Here are some safe strategies for managing pregnancy related nausea and vomiting:
Eat small, frequent meals
Snack on crackers through the day. An empty stomach often worsens nausea.
Drink ginger tea or take a ginger supplement
Avoid strong smells (I couldn’t stand the smell of chocolate and I worked in a dessert restaurant!)
Eat bland, high carb meals like pasta, potatoes and bread. (Don’t worry about nutrition too much, in a few weeks you will probably feel better and you can eat healthier then. Your baby will get all the nutrients it needs from you.)
Take a break from your prenatal multi-vitamin and just take folic acid. Vitamins that are high in iron are hard on your stomach.
Use acupressure (Come out to one of my free workshops!)
If you are vomiting frequently, are losing weight or are not able to work, you need to get medical advice. These are some drugs that are considered safe to use but I would not use them without talking to your doctor or midwife first[viii]:
Antacids (Tums, Zantac)
Diclectin (Vitamin B6 + antihistamine) is the only drug specifically licensed in Canada for use in pregnancy for nausea and vomiting but has recently been shown to be ineffective.[ix]
At the end of the day, I would not recommend marijuana to deal with nausea. We just don’t know enough about the effects. Marijuana interacts with our endocannabinoid system (ECS) which is involved in fertility, mood regulation and brain function. One known effect of the ECS malfunctioning is psychosis. The ECS begins to develop in our babies at the earlies embryonic stages (around the 3rd week after conception). Since nausea and vomiting are symptoms that last weeks or months, CBD would have to be taken regularly over that time period to deal with it. We’re not talking a one-time dose here.
Start with the home remedies, which are all completely safe. If you are just experiencing nausea, without vomiting, consider just suffering through it. Things will get better in a few weeks. If you are vomiting regularly, talk to your doctor or midwife to come up with a treatment plan that may include drugs or in extreme cases, even hospitalization. If you do decide to try CBD, don’t hide it! It’s important for anyone giving you medical treatment to know what drugs you are taking.
If you have read this to the end, I bet you’re feeling pretty nauseous! I’m sorry you’re suffering, it is so miserable to feel that way. Remember that in almost all cases, it goes away after 10-12 weeks. And if it seems to be getting worse, know that morning sickness often gets worse gradually and then will suddenly end. Getting worse doesn’t mean it’s not going to go away!