The Highlights of Hemp

By Mary Beth Janssen / September 21, 2011

Oh, do I have an opinion on hemp seed oil! And hemp in general—one of the most extraordinary plants in the world, given its astonishing versatility. “Hemp” or Cannabis sativa is a multi-purpose plant that’s been domesticated for fiber from the stem, grain, oil from its seeds, and the intoxicating resin secreted by its epidermal glands. The names “hemp” and “marijuana” have been applied loosely to all three forms, although historically hemp has been used for its fiber and “non-drug” applications, and marijuana for medicinal and ritual use—specifically for the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It has been said that hemp can be used to produce more than 25,000 different products. Talk about diversity! These include textiles, construction materials, paper products, food, nutritional supplements, medicines, personal care products, essential oils, molded plastics, biomass energy, fuel oil, livestock feed, bedding, and so much more.

And then there are the environmental advantages. As a crop, hemp is the real deal. It has limited need, if any, for pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides (it has exceptional resistance to pests and weeds). If ever a plant was pre-adapted to sustainable/organic agricultural production, hemp is it.

Additionally, hemp has tremendous potential to save trees that otherwise would be harvested for production of lumber and pulp. Deforestation and the world’s decreasing supply of wild timber resources are major ecological concerns. In developing countries where fuel wood is becoming scarce and food security is a concern, introducing a crop such as hemp to meet food, shelter, and fuel needs may significantly contribute to preserving biodiversity.

Hemp’s ability to detoxify degraded earth is the stuff of legend. It has been used in bioremediation, where hemp grown in contaminated soil (heavy metals, etc.) remains virtually free of the metals. Further, hemp as an industrial absorbent has led to use for oil and waste spill cleanup. Hemp is also used to create “geotextiles,” or biodegradable matting that can stabilize plantings and prevent soil erosion which is a serious concern world-wide.

A Natural History of Hemp

Indigenous to Asia, hemp is the oldest cultivated fiber plant known and has been used in textiles dating back to 8000 B.C. This “king of fiber-bearing plants,” came to North America around 1600 and its cultivation flourished. A number of our country’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson amongst them, were prolific hemp farmers. Nevertheless, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1938 ended hemp production in the United States, and today regulations against hemp cultivation remain, with legislation lagging behind other countries in terms of differentiating between hemp production for recreational and industrial uses. It is the only industrialized country where it is illegal to grow hemp freely. Thankfully, this tide is slowly beginning to shift. Regardless, a substantial hemp trade has developed in the United States that is based on imports of hemp fiber, grain, and oil. Notably, the United States. is one of the biggest producers of personal-care products manufactured with hemp seed (by law, the seed must be sterilized to ensure no THC).

Health and Beauty Benefits

Hempseed is considered one of the most nutritious super foods on the planet—packed with protein, vitamin E, omega-3, and GLA. With such powerhouse nutrition, it’s been used during famine to treat severely malnutritioned populations. There’s even an ancient legend that Buddha survived a six-year interval of asceticism by eating nothing but one hemp seed daily. This story may hold a germ of truth, given hemp seed’s astonishing nutritional profile.

Hemp seeds have been used as food since ancient times. They have a delicious nutty taste, and are now incorporated into many food preparations from “health” bars to nut butters, bread to pasta, burgers to pizza, salad dressings to cheese, beverages including milk, lemonade, and beer, and so much more.

For edible purposes, hempseed oil is extracted by cold pressing and the first pressing is the highest quality. Because of its high, unsaturated fatty acid levels (75 percent), which can easily oxidize, it’s not suitable for frying or baking.

Hemp seeds contain 25 percent to 30 percent pure, digestible protein, with a good balance of all eight amino acids essential in the human diet, among others. It has three times the vitamin E of flax and twice the iron and magnesium (a mineral often depleted by industrial agriculture) contained in flax. The vitamin E group or tocopherols are major antioxidants in human serum. These fat-soluble vitamins are essential for human nutrition, especially the alpha-form of which hempseed oil is about 80 percent. These antioxidants as well as sterols not only help stabilize the oil, but impart their protective health and beauty benefits.

Hemp seed oil is extremely rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs), mostly oleic, linoleic, alpha-linolenic, and gamma-linolenic acids. Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are the only two that must be ingested and are considered essential to human health. They serve as raw materials for cell structure and are involved in the synthesis of many of our body’s regulatory biochemicals. In hemp oil, linoleic (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic (omega-3) occur in a ratio of 3:1, considered the perfect balance in healthy human adipose tissue, and apparently unique in the universe of plant oils.

Hemp oil’s high level of gamma-linolenic acid or GLA is also significant. GLA affects vital metabolic functions ranging from control of inflammation and vascular tone to initiation of contractions during childbirth. GLA may also benefit cardiovascular, psychiatric, and immunological disorders. Aging and pathology (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) may impair GLA metabolism, making supplementation desirable for many. GLA has primarily been available as capsules of borage or evening primrose oil, but hemp is certainly an economic source, especially in food or oil form, although given its high EFA content it’s now being marketed as a dietary supplement.

EFAs and notably GLA, are of critical importance for healthy skin, making hemp oil a highly effective skin-care product. Its lipid constituents allow it to permeate through intact skin/scalp, directly nourishing skin cells while also carrying therapeutic substances with it into the skin. Products containing EFAs can alleviate inflammation of any kind (skin eruptions, infections, sunburn, insect bites), excessive epidermal water loss (dry, itchy skin/scalp) and improve scar and wound healing. GLA specifically has been shown to be beneficial for psoriasis and atopic eczema.

An Early Supporter

A significant development for North America’s personal-care hemp industry was the investment in hemp products by the Grande Dame of sustainable cosmetics Anita Roddick, founder with husband Gordon of The Body Shop, the international chain of personal-care product retailers. This principled and courageous move required overcoming American legal obstacles related to THC content. The Body Shop now markets an impressive array of hemp cosmetics, and this has given the industry considerable credibility. The Body Shop’s annual sales include a healthy percentage of hemp product sales. Try their Chanvre (French for hemp) Hemp Hand Protector—one of The Body Shop’s best selling products.

As always, Google and research organic hemp products, especially personal-care brands on-line. From Dr. Bronner to The Body Shop, Earthly Body to The Healing Seed, there are a myriad of divine choices. Also search Facebook and Twitter for a large number of hemp resources, groups, and pages. Quite prolific!

Mary Beth Janssen is a highly respected beauty and wellness educator, certified mind-body-health educator for the Chopra Center for Well-Being, and the author of five books.

Mary Beth Janssen

Mary Beth Janssen

Author, Mind-Body Health Educator at Chopra Center for Wellbeing
Mary Beth Janssen is a certified mind-body health educator for the Chopra Center for Wellbeing and author of five books. Send questions to
Mary Beth Janssen

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