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What Is Hemp? Its Many Uses and Complicated History

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What is hemp? - Dr. Axe

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Axe nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.

Hemp is getting a lot of attention lately. It seems like everybody is trying to get their hands on products derived from this plant. But you may also be wondering — what is hemp?

If it’s simply a plant with a range of uses and industrial purposes, then why has hemp been suspect by many for the last 80+ years? Hemp’s complicated history may be deterring people from using the plant for its beneficial effects. But when you learn about its many industrial uses, since ancient times and beyond, you’ll wonder why there has been such great debate over the topic of hemp..

With the growing interest in CBD oil benefits and uses, it’s interesting (and helpful) to understand the history of hemp and how we’ve come full circle since ancient times.


What Is Hemp?

Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species with a rich history in industrial, food and health-related uses. It’s one of the fastest growing plants and its parts are used for a range of products, including food, clothing, rope and natural remedies.

Hemp Oil vs. CBD Oil

What is hemp oil and how is it different than CBD oil? Hemp oil is extracted from the seeds of the hemp plant. The oil is often used in food and topically for its nutrient content, and it’s available in your local grocery stores, right next to other cooking oils. Hemp oil does not contain CBD or THC.

CBD oil is extracted from the stalks and stems of the hemp plant. Within these parts of the plant are high amounts of cannabidiol, but only trace amounts of THC. CBD is generally used for its therapeutic effects, as it is able to interact with receptors within the endocannabinoid system.

Hemp vs. Marijuana (Cannabis)

Hemp and “marijuana” are both members of the Cannabis sativa plant species. The term marijuana has a checkered past and the word was used to emphasize and foreignness and create fear about the plants intoxicating effects. Using the term “cannabis” instead is more accurate and appropriate.

Hemp naturally has higher amounts of CBD and only trace amounts (less than 0.3 percent)  of THC. This is what makes hemp-derived CBD oil so appealing. Hemp also naturally features 100+ other cannabinoids, terpenes and essential oils.

Cannabis has both THC and CBD, plus over one hundred other cannabinoids. The amount of CBD vs. THC in cannabis varies, depending on the plant variety. In some varieties, using oils or products derived from cannabis can have intoxicating effects due to the THC content.

Related: 10 Herbs and Superfoods That Are “Cannabimimetic”


Hemp Products and Types

Hemp Oil: Hemp oil (also called hempseed oil) is made by cold-pressing hemp seeds. Hemp oil serves as a natural source of important nutrients, like polyunsaturated fatty acids, proteins and terpenes. There are a range of popular hemp oil uses. People use it on their skin as a nutrient-rich moisturizer, in their hair as a natural conditioner and in food. It can be added to smoothies, salads, dips and spreads.

Hemp Seeds: Hemp seeds are just what the name implies — the seeds of the hemp plant. Sometimes, the seeds are also referred to as hemp hearts. They are also high in insoluble and soluble fiber, rich in GLA and offer a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You can use hemp seeds in your smoothies or grind them and add them to your morning yogurt, oatmeal or energy balls. Hemp seeds are also available as a nut butter and non-dairy milk.

Hemp Protein: Hemp protein powder is made from the seeds of the hemp plant. This is a popular type of protein powder because it contains at least 20 amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids. Plus, it provides a 3:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It also serves as a nutrient-dense vegan and vegetarian option.


Most Common Hemp Uses

Did you know that hemp is one of the most widely utilized and diverse industrial crops in the world? At one time, the plant was one of the most significant crops in America — being used to make everyday products.

Since ancient times, the roots, seeds and flowers of the hemp plant have been used to make:

  • clothing and textiles
  • shoes
  • rope and canvas
  • building materials
  • paint and varnishes
  • paper
  • fuel
  • automobile parts
  • plastics
  • jewelry
  • water and soil purification
  • weed control
  • health foods
  • cleaning products
  • body care products
  • animal bedding

What do we use hemp for today? Cultivation of the plant has been soaring in the U.S., and industrial hemp is being grown as a renewable source for a number of raw materials. Hemp seeds and hempseed oil are used in many foods, body and beauty products, and health products.

The stalk of the hemp plant is used for a number of industrial purposes, including to make paper products, clothes, shoes, bags, rope and netting, mulch, plastics and other textiles.

Not only is hemp such a useful plant, but it’s also easy to grow. It requires less water than many plants and doesn’t need to be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. When hemp is grown with conventional methods, it is able to absorb toxins that will then be present in dietary products. That’s why it’s so important to use organic hemp products. Not only is organic farming better for people who are using the herbs for food and health-related purposes, but it’s better for the environment too, as it avoids the use of harmful materials and chemicals.


History of Hemp

There tends to be a lot of controversy surrounding hemp, especially now that the CBD business is growing exponentially. But did you know that components of the hemp plant, including its seeds and flowers, have been consumed as food and used in ancient health practices  since the beginning of humankind?

From Ancient Times to The New World

In ancient times, from 8000 to 2000 BC, hemp was used in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China for practical purposes, as material for clothes, rope and paper.

In 1454, the Gutenberg Bible — the world’s first book made on a moveable printing press — was printed on hemp paper. And centuries later, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence would be written on hemp paper by a hemp farmer, Thomas Jefferson.

When pilgrims sailed to America, they used ropes and sails made from hemp, which was known to be much more durable than cotton. The sail material would be named canvas, which comes from the Latin phrase “made of hemp” and the Greek word for “cannabis.”

Hemp was also used for health purposes in ancient times, with the first recorded such use of hemp coming from China in 2600 B.C. Centuries ago, and throughout the world, hemp was used in folk remedies and ancient health practices. All parts of the plant were used — the roots, seeds, leaves and flowers. People would turn to hemp for a variety of reasons.

The Billion Dollar Crop

In 1619,  it was required that all farmers must grow hemp, which was accepted in payments of debt and taxes. Centuries following this, hemp would be used for a number of industrial purposes. The first pair of jeans were made from hemp by Levi Strauss & Co in 1853, the first diesel engine was fueled by clean-burning hemp oil …

By the 1920s, 80 percent of clothing was made from hemp. New patented machinery was able to separate the fiber from the rest of the plant, similar to the cotton engine. This made the plant even more efficient and cost-effective. Manufacturers were also interested in using hemp to create paint, lacquer and paper with this new machine. Hemp was predicted to become “the billion-dollar crop,” according to a write-up on the plant in a 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Banning Hemp

Hemp was, without a doubt, one of the most significant crops in America. It was being grown across the U.S. from the time pilgrims anchored on our shores, and likely before then. So how did hemp end up being under such scrutiny? It all boils down to money, history suggests.

In 1930, the new commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was newly created, was named Harry Anslinger. The commissioner’s father-in-law, Andrew Mellon, was a very powerful U.S. banker who, along with bankers Carnegie and Rockefeller, had significant investments in paper, synthetic textiles, plastics and oil. Another player, William Randolph Hearst, was heavily invested in the lumber industry, as a means to supply paper for his magazine and newspaper business.

To protect their interests, these investors launched a major PR campaign that was meant to demonize hemp and any other product derived from the cannabis plant species. The public was meant to believe that all varieties of cannabis were dangerous.

During World War II, hemp was used again to meet the demand for war production. But when the war was over and soldiers returned home, the plant was marginalized once again. Since then, research into the potential positive effects of cannabis have been blocked.


Hemp Side Effects

Generally speaking, when you use hemp in appropriate amounts in your food or topically, there aren’t any known side effects.

If you take anticoagulants, consult with your healthcare professional before using hemp products. As always, any time you are concerned about possible drug interactions when you are bringing a new herb into your diet, it’s recommended to consult with your doctor.


Final Thoughts

  • What is hemp? Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species with a rich history in industrial, food and health-related uses.
  • Since ancient times, all parts of the hemp plant has been used for food and ancient health practices. Industrial hemp was also used to make clothing, paper, rope, paint, fuel and building materials.
  • Today, you’ll see many hemp-derived foods in your local grocery store, including hemp oil, hemp seeds and hemp protein.
  • CBD extracted from hemp is also gaining popularity, as it is believed to interact with receptors in the endocannabinoid system that promote changes within our cells.

Read Next: How to Use CBD Oil for Relief


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