The Health Benefits of Hemp
Nutritional Advantages of Eating Hemp Seeds and Hempseed Oil
Lana Butner, ND, LAc, is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist in private practice in New York City .
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Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) is cultivated for making a wide range of products including foods, health products, fabric, rope, natural remedies, and much more. The various parts of the hemp plant are used to make different products.
The seeds of hemp are edible and are considered highly nutritious with a high concentration of soluble and insoluble fiber, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for heart health and skin health.
Hemp is grown for non-drug use because it contains only trace amounts of THC (the psychoactive component of the marijuana plant that is responsible for getting a person high).
Also Known As
- Narrow-leaf hemp
- Bitter root
- Wild cotton
There are three different species of plants that come from the Cannabis genus (in the Cannabaceae family). These include Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.
Hemp classifies as varieties of Cannabis that contain 0.3% or less THC content. Marijuana, on the other hand, describes Cannabis plant species that have more than 0.3% THC, which can induce euphoric effects.
The hemp seeds are the primary part of the hemp plant that is edible. The leaves can be used to make a tea, but it’s the seeds that contain most of the plant’s nutrients. In fact, hemp seeds have over 30% fat, including essential fatty acids. The health benefits of hemp, therefore, primarily come from its seeds.
Hemp seeds are, pretty much, as the name implies—the seeds of the hemp plant. Sometimes, the seeds are also referred to as hemp hearts.
They are high in insoluble and soluble fiber, rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) which has been linked in studies to many health benefits, offers a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Note that hemp hearts have had the fibrous shell removed and, thus, are lower in fiber and other nutrients than whole hemp seeds.
A 2016 study discovered that GLA has very strong anti-inflammatory properties and has a “great potential to dampen [the] inflammatory processes and improve signs and symptoms of several inflammatory diseases.”
Hemp seeds contain the perfect 3-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is considered the optimal ratio for heart and brain health. This ratio is difficult to attain in the Western diet, as most foods contain far too many omega-6 fatty acids (like vegetable oil) and not nearly enough omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon and other wild-caught, cold-water fish).
Hemp seeds contain many nutrients, including minerals (such as magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc) as well as vitamins.
The high content of 20% soluble and 80% insoluble fiber, in whole hemp seeds, may aid in digestion while helping to lower bad cholesterol and improve heart health. The insoluble fiber in hemp seeds has also been linked with a lower risk of diabetes.
Hemp Oil Versus CBD Oil
Hemp oil (also called hempseed oil) comes from the seeds of the hemp plant; it is made by cold-pressing hemp seeds. Hempseed oil differs from CBD oil in that CBD oil is extracted from the cannabis plant and then combined with a base oil (such as coconut, MCT, or olive oil).
Hempseed oil, which comes from the seeds only—and not from a hemp variety of the Cannabis plant itself—does not contain any psychoactive properties (such as those from THC which cause a person to get high). Hemp oil has its own unique properties and health benefits.
Hemp oil is used in foods for its high level of healthy nutrients such as:
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
- Minerals (such as zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, and more)
- Antioxidants (such as Vitamin E)
Hemp oil can be used as a cooking oil and, just like any other type of healthy oil, can be added to foods such as salads, dips, and spreads.
Animal studies have shown that hempseed oil may lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Hemp oil is often used as a hair conditioner, a skin moisturizer. Some studies found that hempseed oil may improve dry, itchy skin and help symptoms of eczema, reducing the need for prescription medication.
Hemp protein is a powder made from the seeds of the hemp plant; it contains over 25% high-quality protein with nearly 20 amino acids and nine essential amino acids.
Hemp protein is an excellent choice in a protein powder for vegetarians or vegans because it also contains essential fatty acids that are vital to health. The protein content in hemp seeds is considerably higher than that of flax or chia seeds, which contain only around 15% to 18% protein.
Other Health Benefits
Hemp has been used to treat a variety of health conditions, but there is not enough clinical research data to back up the claims that hemp is safe or effective to treat many illnesses. These include:
- Heart problems
- Urinary conditions (increasing urine flow)
- Warts (when applied topically to the skin)
How it Works
It is thought that hemp contains chemicals (like the drug Lanoxin) that lower the blood pressure, slow heart rate, and increase the strength of the heartbeat, and increase urine output.
Hemp is also known to have terpenes, which are molecules produced by plants that are responsible for the plant’s distinctive smell (such as lavender). Studies are beginning to show that terpenes are thought to have many health benefits including neuroprotective (brain-protective), anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties.
Possible Side Effects
According to RX List, taking whole hemp by mouth can cause many side effects including:
- Throat irritation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
There is not enough clinical research data to prove that hemp is safe for use in people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or to use topically (on the skin).
Eating hemp seeds is not considered as unsafe as is ingesting the hemp leaves or other parts of the plant. But the seeds can cause mild diarrhea because of the high-fat content.
Interaction with Medications
Do not ingest hemp when taking cardiac glycosides or diuretics.
Cardiac glycosides, such as Lanoxin (digoxin) help the heart beat strongly and can slow down the heart rate. Hemp is also known to slow the heart rate; this could result in bradycardia. Do not take hemp when taking Lanoxin without consulting with the prescribing physician or another healthcare provider.
Diuretics such as Diuril (chlorothiazide), Thalitone (chlorthalidone), Lasix (furosemide), Microzide (hydrochlorothiazide) and others may lower potassium in the body as they work to flush fluids. Hemp has a similar action.
When there is an increase in urine/fluid output, it’s common that potassium is also lost. Taking diuretics and hemp together may result in dangerously low potassium levels which could adversely impact the heart.
Selection, Preparation, and Storage
Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, roasted, or cooked with other foods. Hempseed oil has been used as food or made into medicine for thousands of years in China.
There are many ways to eat hemp protein, oil, and seeds, including:
- In a smoothie
- On oatmeal or cereal
- Sprinkled over salads
- As a nut butter
- As a form of milk (hemp milk)
- On yogurt
- In meal bars or granola bars
- As a salad dressing (hemp oil)
- Sprinkle (hemp seeds) on casserole dishes
- Add hemp seeds to baked goods
- In recipes
- As a cooking oil
Exposing hemp seeds to air for long periods of time or storing hemp at high temperatures can cause the degradation of its healthy fat content; this could result in trans-fatty acids (which are the very worst type of fats a person could eat).
It is recommended to store hemp seeds and hemp oil at cool temperatures, away from exposure to bright light, in an airtight container. It is best to refrigerate hemp products after opening.
Many hemp products, including hemp oil, hemp milk, and hemp protein powder can be purchased at a health food store, or online.
Cooking hemp seeds or heating the oil to temperatures above 350 degrees Fahrenheit can denature the fats, destroying the healthy fatty acids. Hemp seeds and oil are best eaten raw; if cooking with hemp oil, use low heat.
The dosage of any herbal or natural supplement depends on several factors, including a person’s age, health condition, and more.
Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking hemp (or any other herb) regarding the recommended dosage. When taking herbal preparations, never exceed the dosage or other recommendations on the package insert.
When eating hemp seeds, some experts suggest starting out slow (such as 1 teaspoon) then gradually working up to more as tolerated, particularly for those with digestive problems.
Hemp seeds are grown in many different countries, but the hemp that is grown in Canada is said to produce a great tasting, high-quality seed. Look for products that have been tested in the lab for purity and potency.
Keep in mind that the regulations on hemp grown in the U.S., Europe, and Canada are stricter than those in other countries, such as China. Also, Canada’s products are non-GMO. Be sure to select an organic product for the ultimate in nutritional value, taste, potency, and overall quality.
Are hemp seed hearts that same as hemp seed?
No. Hemp hearts have had the fibrous shell removed and, thus, are lower in fiber and other nutrients than whole hemp seeds. Hemp hearts not as nutritionally beneficial as the whole hemp seed. However, hemp hearts are very high in healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Are hemp seeds legal to ingest in the U.S.?
Yes, hemp seeds are legal in the United States, but the seeds must contain a minimal amount of THC (the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that gets a person high).
According to the FDA, some hemp products, including hemp seeds, hemp seed protein powder, and hempseed oil are safe for food, and therefore there is no need for special legislation regarding legalization.
Can eating hemp cause a person to fail a drug test?
No, not when eating moderate amounts of hempseed oil, protein powder made of hemp, or hemp seeds. There are only trace amounts of THC in hemp; unless a person is using other variations of the hemp plant, such as marijuana, (or ingesting abnormally large amounts of hemp) failing a drug test from eating hemp seeds is unlikely.
Although hemp hearts do not contain any THC at all, the shells do have trace amounts (below 0.3% THC).
Therefore, although a person is very unlikely to test positive on a drug test from eating hemp seeds, those who are recovering from cannabis addiction—with a goal of avoiding all exposure to THC— may want to avoid eating the whole hemp seeds, and opt for hemp hearts instead.
What does hemp taste like?
Hemp seeds have a very pleasant, mild, nutty flavor, like unsalted sunflower seeds, but the texture is not as hard.
Learn what medical research says about the nutritional benefits of eating hemp seeds, hempseed oil, and hempseed protein powder.