While marijuana legalization may attract front-page media attention, there is an even bigger story hidden behind the headlines. Quietly, without fuss, millions of Americans young and old are using the power of Cannabis sativa—a plant with many varieties, only some of which are called “marijuana”—to relieve pain, reduce stress, improve sleep, build bone and more. And they’re doing so safely and legally, using a product called hemp.
Hemp is a type of Cannabis sativa. The varieties referred to as marijuana contain a psychoactive substance called THC that often gets them into legal hot water. Hemp contains practically no THC—and its use is entirely within the law.
What hemp does have is a family of powerfully therapeutic compounds known as phytocannabinoids. What’s more, scientists have discovered that the body produces a parallel set of substances called endocannabinoids, collectively known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS), that touches every organ and system in the body. While the ECS has been there since the beginning of time, scientists have only recently learned of its presence.
Hemp has a long history of use in traditional healing systems and as a source of such items as cloth. Today, just as hemp clothing has become a hit in the fashion world, the healthful phytocannabinoids in hemp have also been rediscovered for their ability to promote a wide variety of beneficial effects. And these benefits come from the fact that hemp’s phytocannabinoids act in a way similar to that of the body’s own endocannabinoids.
The System You Didn’t Know About
The most remarkable part of hemp’s healing story is that it is linked to a body system researchers never knew existed until two decades ago.
| Putting Hemp to Work for You|
There are a number of available hemp formulations, but the best ones use a full spectrum of phytocannabinoids. “It is important to avoid single magic-bullet products that contain purified CBD. The entourage of phytocannabinoids naturally found in hemp represents your best approach to supporting your endocannabinoid system,” states Germano. “Look for non-GMO, full-spectrum botanical hemp stalk/stem oils; there are no phytocannabinoids in hemp seeds or oil.”
It matters how hemp is grown and handled. European-raised hemp that has been farmed responsibly, with no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, provides the purest product you can find, especially when it’s been processed with CO2 extraction and is free of allergens and gluten.
Higher-end formulations include ingredients that help boost absorption, such as black pepper extract, cocoa, acacia and sunflower lecithin, as well as extracts that help support the ECS, such as rosemary, oregano, clove, flax and carrot. And they are tested by a third party for purity, quality and potency.
Finally, a line of quality hemp supplements provides not only products with different potencies but also those tailored to specific needs. For example, a product intended for inflammation control and mobility support might contain magnesium, selenium and vitamin D in addition to extracts from boswellia and curcumin. A stress-relief product may feature the herb ashwagandha, which supports adrenal function, along with L-theanine (a compound in green tea) and reishi mushroom, both of which promote calm focus. And for sleep support, hemp teams up well with the amino acids GABA and tryptophan, as well as with such traditional herbal sleep aids as chamomile, hops and lemon balm.
Scientists have long known that the body’s cells contain tiny “locks” on their surfaces, known as receptors. These receptors accept molecular “keys” found on various substances, such as hormones, allowing those substances to enter the cell.
In the 1990s, scientists realized that cells have receptors for endocannabinoids and that these receptors exist in every tissue the body contains—literally everywhere researchers looked. This means the ECS is capable of “talking” with every other system, allowing it to act as a master switchboard that plugs into the entire body.
It was an astounding breakthrough—like finding a new organ or bone.
“Every physiological function is governed or influenced by the endocannabinoid system,” says Carl Germano, RD, CNS, CDN, board-certified clinical nutritionist and author of the upcoming title, Road To Ananda: The Simplified, Illustrated Guide To The Endocannabinoid System. “The ECS is all about maintaining health and well-being, or what is known as homeostasis.”
What’s more, endocannabinoids control how the body responds to stress, which in turn has been found to upset endocannabinoid levels within the brain. This can become a downward spiral, in which ongoing stress causes the ECS to become more and more impaired.
Enhancing how the ECS operates offers an unprecedented opportunity for fighting pain and boosting well-being of both body and mind. As Germano puts it, “You cannot be healthy if your endocannabinoid system is not nourished and functioning properly.”
And that’s where hemp comes in.
Hemp and the ECS
Like endocannabinoids, the phytocannabinoids in hemp fit into the cannabinoid receptors on cells. As a result, hemp acts within the body in a similar fashion to the ECS, helping to keep the body in a healthy state of balance.
This means that hemp’s usage in traditional medicine is now backed by a wealth of modern research; to date, more than 100 related phytocannabinoids have been identified in hemp. But it has only recently appeared on health food store shelves, mainly because our understanding of how the ECS itself works is so new.
One reason hemp is helpful is that the body can go into a state of endocannabinoid deficiency. Researchers believe that insufficient cannabinoid production is linked to fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and other poorly understood conditions. And poor ECS function may also account for chronic low-level inflammation, which has been cited by researchers as a contributing factor in everything from arthritis to cardiovascular disease.
Stress isn’t the only reason the ECS doesn’t always operate the way it should. “Poor omega-3 status can interfere with proper ECS functioning,” says Germano. “When you are omega-3 deficient, your cannabinoid receptors are not as active and you don’t produce enough of the body’s own cannabinoids.” And if the body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids on its own, Germano says, “You then must rely on your diet.”
While phytocannabinoids can be found in a number of foods, such as black pepper, cloves, oregano and chocolate, the levels found in any of them aren’t significant. “Hemp is the richest source,” says Germano.
Finding the link between the ECS and hemp’s phytocannabinoids has profound implications for people searching for a natural way to deal with a wide range of health problems.
Hemp can have dramatic effects on pain and the inflammation that often causes it.
Joints and other tissues contain receptors that allow cannabinoids to play a role in regulating the perception of pain, which indicates just how important these substances are for pain relief. Phytocannabinoids have been found to ease mild to moderate pain, especially when inflammation is present. Hemp may even help reduce the need for powerful painkillers, which are thought to help drive the recent increase in addiction to heroin and other opioid drugs.
“Phytocannabinoids help keep our ECS functioning properly,” states Germano. “While some of these compounds have either a direct or an indirect ability to reduce inflammation and pain, it is our body’s own ECS that is intertwined with the inflammatory pathways of the body—pathways that control inflammation and pain. Numerous clinical trials have demonstrated both safety and efficacy for phytocannabinoids in neuropathic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disorders and cancer pain.”
Promoting Sleep, Easing Stress
Cannabinoids in hemp can also help reduce anxiety and create a more restful sleep.
Receptors in the brain for serotonin—the feel-good neurotransmitter best known for helping control mood—respond to cannabinoids. That creates an anti-anxiety and anti-
depressant effect that quiets the brain and encourages a sense of calm.
Hemp usage has been found to foster a stage of deep sleep called REM; a lack of REM can result in anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating. What’s more, hemp’s sleep-promoting effects don’t come with daytime drowsiness and other side effects that can result from the use of insomnia medications.
“Several studies have clearly shown that when you support the endocannabinoid receptors within the brain, some of the effects include controlling anxiety as well as lowering heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress,” states Germano. “In addition, supporting the ECS with phytocannabinoids can help reduce anxiousness and stress in the body as evidenced in studies on healthy volunteers and those with clinical social anxiety disorders. Lastly, the data suggests that anxiety is associated with decreased endocannabinoids in the body.”
Building Bone and Other Hemp Benefits
Pain relief and promoting a sense of calm are hemp’s best-known qualities. But because cells throughout the body respond to phytocannabinoids, hemp supplements can reinforce well-being in a number of ways.
One of the most promising uses of hemp lies in its ability to support a healthy skeleton; scientists have found cannabinoid receptors in bone tissue. “A healthy, functioning ECS has its presence in bone, as our endocannabinoids control the cells that build up bone and those that break down bone,” states Germano. “In both animals and humans, the ECS plays a critical role in bone health, which paves the way for phytocannabinoids to help combat osteoporosis.”
Skin health can also benefit from hemp. There are more endocannabinoids in the skin—where they help control cell proliferation and differentiation—than there are in the brain. Disruptions in these processes are related to conditions such as seborrhea, eczema, psoriasis and acne, as well as with age spot development.
Good health starts in the digestive tract, and one report has described the ECS’s effects on the digestive system as a “major player in human health and disease.” The ECS helps control gut motility, or the rate at which food moves through the digestive tract, and works with what is referred to as the gut-brain axis, the connection between neurons in the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. This explains why scientists are looking at hemp phytocannabinoids to help ease symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, such as inflammation, bloating and pain, and to help curb appetite, especially for the kinds of high-fat, high-sugar foods that promote excessive weight gain.
Science is only scratching the surface of hemp’s potential. “The best way to feed and nourish the ECS is with hemp oil extract rich in phytocannabinoids,” says Germano. “In a way, they act as a multivitamin for the ECS.”
Hemp Seeds for Good Taste
and Good Health
As impressive as hemp’s phytocannabinoids are, the hemp plant supplies a ton of other useful products, and one of the most popular right now are hemp seeds. Also referred to as hemp nuts (a misnomer, since they aren’t nuts), hemp seeds provide complete protein, which means that it contains all the amino acids you need to get from your diet, besides high levels of calcium, fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and zinc. In addition, it contains a healthful essential fat called gamma linoleic acid.
Given its powerful roster of nutrients, it isn’t surprising that hemp seeds have been linked to a long list of potential benefits, including:
- Cardiovascular Support. Hemp’s fiber and essential acids helps hold cholesterol levels in check.
- Healthy Digestion. Fiber also helps keep things moving smoothly through the digestive tract.
- Promoting Relaxation and Sleep. The minerals in hemp seed help the body relax and spur production of hormones necessary to normal sleep patterns.
- Building Bone. Both the calcium and the phosphorus in hemp are required for healthy bone metabolism.
- Encouraging Weight Loss. Fiber and protein produce a sensation of fullness, which helps prevent overeating.
- Avoiding Anemia. One type of anemia results from inadequate iron intake; hemp’s iron content helps prevent that.
The best way to preserve hemp’s essential fats is to use the seeds raw. In addition to eating them right out of the bag, you can sprinkle them on salads, add them to cereal or smoothies and even make pesto sauce by swapping out the pine nuts for hemp seeds.