The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) is somewhat of a super wonder! Like the flax plant, it's extremely versatile in its uses and hardy as a crop plant. It provides for us food, medicine, entheogen, and fibres for making durable textiles, rope, paper, and other materials. In an amusing sense, it's one of the few organisms on this planet for which almost everyone knows its taxonomic binomial!
As a native to South and Central Asia, the hemp plant, locally called many variants of the word ganja, most certainly didn't gain fame because of its nutritious seeds, although these were still an important dietary staple for many societies and also for prehistoric humans. In contrast, the plant leaves, flower buds, and resin were far more sought after for spiritual, yogic, and shamanic purposes. Ancient civilizations including those of Egypt and China also used the leaves as anodyne and anti-spasmodic remedies.
In recent decades, the plant seed has regained popularity as a unique victual that's rich in the full spectrum of amino acids necessary for human health, essential fats and other polyunsaturated fats (abbreviated as PUFAs), minerals, and plant sterols. Some zealots claim this seed is the most complete source of nutrition on the planet and that no other single food contains all that is necessary to sustain human health (although others also purport the same about bee pollen, blue-green algae, and other impressively nutritious foods!). Hemp seeds certainly boast an outstanding nutrient profile, but I wouldn't recommend a mono-diet of this or any other food.
Hemp Seed Oils
Cannabis seeds contain both essential fatty acids, omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid and omega-6 linoleic acid, in a healthy 1:2.5 ratio (I'll discuss the importance of this ratio in a future blog). The seeds are also an excellent source of the relatively rare PUFA known as gamma-linolenic acid (abbreviated as GLA). GLA is a type of omega-6 fat that indirectly has strongly anti-inflammatory effects on the body in least two ways:
1. It's a precursor to the long chain omega-6 PUFA known as dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (abbreviated as DGLA), which is converted into anti-inflammatory compounds such as prostaglandin E1 (abbreviated as PGE1) and thromboxane A1 (abbreviated as TXA1).
2. It influences the activity of certain enzymes, hence reducing the amount of pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid (abbreviated as AA) synthesized by the body. I'll explain the physiological relevance of AA in a future blog.
Because GLA helps to reduce systemic inflammation, GLA-rich foods such as hemp seeds are thought to help relieve various symptoms associated with PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
How does that work? Well, no one really knows for sure—yet! While some studies have suggested that GLA doesn't relieve PMS at all, there are women who anecdotally do notice an improvement in monthly symptoms and supplementing with GLA-rich oils remains a common natural preventative and remedy for alleviating PMS. Many symptoms associated with PMS could be rooted in, and/or be exacerbated by, systemic inflammation.
Even if you don't suffer from PMS, adding hemp seeds to your diet is still a good idea! Keeping inflammation in check is important for everyone to attain optimal health and stave off disease. Hemp seeds are easy to incorporate into your diet—toss them anywhere you would use seeds or nuts. Like other seeds rich in PUFAs, hemp seeds are best eaten raw.
You can also add the raw hemp seed oil to your diet if you want to boost your dietary intake of GLA. Hemp seed oil is a deep green-yellow colour because it's rich in chlorophyll, the green pigment present in plants, algae, and other photosynthetic organisms. It has a unique flavour—something like a blend of raw nuts, fresh leafy greens, and freshly shelled seeds!
One of my favourite ways to eat hemp seeds is to make hemp seed butter. Hemp seed butter makes a phenomenal and irresistible alternative to peanut butter! It's also wonderfully fast and easy to make!
Hemp Seed Butter Recipe
Simply toss raw, shelled hemp seeds into a coffee grinder and mill into a smooth paste. Eat as a raw spread on vegetables, fruits, or bread. If you want to accent its naturally nutty taste, add any of the following flavour variants alone or in combination (I assure you each one is over-the-top delicious!):
- a pinch of unrefined sea salt
- an unrefined sweetener such as stevia, maple syrup, or honey
- date or fig paste (soak dates or figs in filtered water until soft; drain and reserve water; puree with hand blender or food processor)
- powdered spices such as ginger root, clove bud, cinnamon bark, cardamom seed, or cayenne pepper fruit
- a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice with or without fresh lemon or lime zest
- orange zest
- cacao seed, carob pod, or mesquite pod powder
Experiment with your own combinations and have fun with your creations! If you find that the paste you made is a little crumbly and you want to smooth it into a rich and creamy seed butter, add a smidgen of raw hemp seed oil. A good proportion is: for every 1 cup of whole seeds, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of seed oil.
In Part 2, I'll discuss the protein and vitamin content of hemp seeds. If you're looking for a vitamin E rich food source, hemp seeds are your answer! Read part 2 to see why.