There has been increasing interest in the role of endocannabinoids as critical modulators of the female reproductive processes. Endocannabinoids are natural ligands of cannabinoid, vanilloid, and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors. Together with their receptors, enzymes and downstream signaling targets, they form the endocannabinoid system (ECS). While the ECS is known to modulate pain and neurodevelopment, it is also known to impact the female reproductive system where it affects folliculogenesis, oocyte maturation, and ovarian endocrine secretion. In addition, the ECS affects oviductal embryo transport, implantation, uterine decidualization and placentation. There is a complex interplay between the ECS and the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, and an intricate crosstalk between the ECS and steroid hormone production and secretion. Exogenous cannabinoids, derived from plants such as Cannabis sativa, are also ligands for cannabinoid receptors. These have been shown to have clinical outcomes related to ECS dysregulation, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, along with adverse effects on female reproduction. The aim of this review is to describe and discuss data from human, animal, and in vitro studies that support the important role of the endocannabinoid system in female reproductive tissues and processes. In particular, we will discuss some of the mechanisms by which endocannabinoid signaling can affect ovarian function in both physiological and pathophysiological states.
Keywords: Female reproduction, Endocannabinoid system, Ovary, Cannabis, PCOS, Ovarian cancer