As an inadequate gardener, I marvel at the complexities of plants and their ecosystems. With whole foods at the root of my nutrition practice, I seek to understand their role in the human body. One plant continues to intrigue me: cannabis. Some consider cannabis only a drug, while others are touting its herbal and fibrous qualities.
With a growing body of research about the various therapeutic uses of cannabis, I wanted to understand how this controversial plant, in whole form, benefits the human body.
By definition, cannabis is a genus of flowering plants with three main subspecies, which are functionally different from each other. Some plants are cultivated for their psychoactive properties (marijuana), while others (hemp) are grown for their fibers to use in clothing and oils to use in skin products and dietary supplements. We also eat hemp seeds, protein powder and use hemp oil for cooking.
Whole hemp plant extract utilizes the entire plant – stalks, stems, seeds, and sometimes flowers and/or leaves. Picture “juicing” and entire plant (which some people do for medical purposes), and then extracting the “juice” to preserve the oil and its natural compounds. The oil of a whole hemp plant contains both cannabidiol (CBD) and other micronutrients, which work synergistically, similar to the interconnected systems in the human body.
When extracted efficiently, whole plant hemp oil contains essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and up to 100 non-psychoactive cannabinoids naturally present in hemp. Non-cannabinoid nutritional compounds of the plant, such as flavonoids, further enhance the potential for whole hemp oil as a functional supplement.
In contrast, CBD oil is typically isolated from the leaves, stalks and flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant, leaving behind other cannabinoids and inherent compounds. Compare this to, say, isolated soy proteins added to food. Are we receiving the full benefit of a plant if we ingest only one component of it? Let’s find out.
Cannabis produces phytocannabinoids, a fancy word for certain chemical compounds. Intoxicating tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), for example, is one of 85 psychoactive phytocannabinoids attributed solely to cannabis.
Non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) is one phytocannabinoid that offers numerous therapeutic benefits to the human body, particularly the autonomic nervous system, which unconsciously controls bodily functions. Thousands of studies have been conducted on CBD oil alone, simply because when isolated it’s easier to analyze in clinical trials.
Other research on whole hemp plant extracts indicates more beneficial effects on pain and muscle spasms than isolated CBD, because the combination of cannabinoids and micronutrients work in concert with the body’s endocannabinoid system to affect multiple areas of the body.
Around 1990, the endogenous cannabinoid system – or “endocannabinoid system” – was discovered to be an inherent, physiologic matrix in the human body that regulates and maintains homeostasis and affects tissues, appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory. Not only it is intricately interconnected with other systems, such as immune and nervous, but also the body makes its own cannabinoids that promote the function of endocannabinoid system receptors!
These receptors are located throughout our body, primarily in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Elsewhere in the body, receptors are almost exclusively in the immune system, affecting inflammation and pain. Endocannabinoid receptors in the gastrointestinal tract influence reflux, upset, inflammation, transit time and emptying.
Researchers are studying whether endocannabinoid deficiency is at the core of migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. From a functional nutrition perspective, I wonder: should we be consuming whole hemp extracts to stimulate our inherent endocannabinoid system to improve overall wellness?
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