The role of sex steroid hormones, cytokines and the endocannabinoid system in female fertility

T. Karasu, T. H. Marczylo, M. Maccarrone, J. C. Konje

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Marijuana, the most used recreational drug, has been shown to have adverse effects on human reproduction. Endogenous cannabinoids (also called endocannabinoids) bind to the same receptors as those of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of Cannabis sativa. The most extensively studied endocannabinoids are anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine, AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. The endocannabinoids, their congeners and the cannabinoid receptors, together with the metabolic enzymes and putative transporters form the endocannabinoid system (ECS). In this review, we summarize current knowledge about the relationships of ECS, sex steroid hormones and cytokines in female fertility, and underline the importance of this endocannabinoid-hormone-cytokine network. Methods: Pubmed and the Web of Science databases were searched for studies published since 1985, looking into the ECS, sex hormones, type-1/2 T-helper (Th1/Th2) cytokines, leukaemia inhibitory factor, leptin and reproduction. Results: The ECS plays a pivotal role in human reproduction. The enzymes involved in the synthesis and degradation of endocannabinoids normalize levels of AEA for successful implantation. The AEA degrading enzyme (fatty acid amide hydrolase) activity as well as AEA content in blood may potentially be used for the monitoring of early pregnancies. Progesterone and oestrogen are involved in the maintenance of endocannabinoid levels. The ECS plays an important role in the immune regulation of human fertility. Conclusions: The available studies suggest that tight control of the endocannabinoid-hormone-cytokine network is required for successful implantation and early pregnancy maintenance. This hormone-cytokine network is a key element at the maternal-foetal interface, and any defect in such a network may result in foetal loss.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberdmq058
Pages (from-to)347-361
Number of pages15
JournalHuman Reproduction Update
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2011


  • Endocannabinoids
  • Female fertility
  • Leptin
  • Leukaemia inhibitory factor
  • Sex hormones

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Obstetrics and Gynaecology
  • Reproductive Medicine


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