Everything You Need To Know About Hemp Oil

Photo: Oleg Zharsky

In the United States, we're in the middle of a cannabis revolution. Our nation is slowly waking up to the truth that cannabis, what was once dubiously considered a dangerous psychoactive substance, is not only safe but extremely versatile in its medical benefits. This has been reflected in the sales of legal cannabis products, which is expected to grow from $6.6 billion in 2016 to $24.1 billion in 2025.

But even with the recent acknowledgment of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in the medical literature, there is still a lot of confusion. It's important to clear up the murkiness surrounding cannabis products and their legality first. Then we can all focus on the benefits of hemp oil as well as the ins and outs of buying and taking it.

The ins and outs of cannabis and hemp.

Cannabis has been around for thousands of years and is believed to have originated in South or Central Asia. The two main species of cannabis are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Both Cannabis sativa and indica contain varying amounts of psychoactive and nonpsychoactive components. Cannabis sativa is more commonly known for its stimulatory, mental effects while Cannabis indica is more known for its relaxing, body-calming effects.

Over the past few decades, most strains have been bred to increase the amount of the main psychoactive component, (-)-trans-delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, within the past decade, researchers have become increasingly interested in the medical benefits of another compound found in both plants, known as cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant but is reputed to help with a myriad of medical conditions.

It's important to know that although THC and CBD are the most studied components of cannabis, there are many more chemical compounds found within the plant, such as cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabidivarin (CBDV), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), terpenes, and flavonoids. While there is still much to learn about these other chemicals, researchers in Israel have discovered that whole-plant cannabis extracts that contain these other chemicals are more beneficial than isolated extracts that contain just CBD or THC.

Different types of hemp oil.

Distinguishing cannabis and hemp can be confusing, so let's make it simple. There are many varietals of Cannabis sativa, all of which have different amounts of THC and CBD. Cannabis sativa varietals that have more than 0.3 percent THC are commonly referred to as marijuana. Hemp is any varietal of Cannabis sativa that contains less than 0.3 percent THC.

That's right, Cannabis sativa and hemp are the same species! The only difference between the two is that to be designated as hemp, a Cannabis sativa plant must be comprised of less than 0.3 percent THC. So what's the difference between hemp oil, hemp seed oil, CBD oil, and cannabis oil?

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1. Hemp oil.

This product has been extracted from the stalk of a hemp plant, mainly for its CBD content. Legally, it must have less than 0.3 percent THC.

2. Hemp seed oil.

This is oil that has been extracted from hemp seeds. Hemp seed oil contains little to no THC or CBD and is instead extracted for its healthy fatty acid profile.

3. CBD oil.

In states where cannabis is legal, CBD oil can be made from Cannabis sativa or hemp and is made from the whole plant, including the flowering portion. In states where cannabis is illegal, CBD oil must be made from hemp, which means the stalks of the hemp plant.

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4. Cannabis oil.

This oil is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant that can contain both CBD and THC in varying concentrations. The clear drawback of cannabis oil is that it cannot be purchased outside of a state that has not legalized the sale of cannabis. Cannabis oil can also contain higher amounts of THC, which could be problematic for those not looking for the psychoactive effects of cannabis oil.

Photo: Leander Nardin

The legality of hemp and cannabis.

Cannabis sales have been illegal since the 1970 Controlled Substances Act was passed, with the only exceptions being the products made from the "mature stalk" and "sterilized seed" of the hemp plant, which could still be sold since they contained little to no psychoactive components. Even today, federal law has not changed its stance on cannabis. On the state level, however, things have changed dramatically. As of this writing, there are 30 states that have legalized the sale of cannabis in some form, whether that be medicinally or recreationally. Because federal law continues to outlaw the production and sales of cannabis aside from the CBD oil and hemp seed oil from hemp plants, it is illegal for states that have legalized cannabis to sell products across state borders.

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What's in hemp oil.

As detailed previously, hemp oil in the United States refers to the oil extracted from the stalk of the hemp plant. The extraction process involves using a solvent to extract the oil from the hemp stalk. There are numerous solvents used commercially, all of which have benefits and drawbacks.

Hemp oil extraction methods:

1. CO2 extraction.

In this extraction method, the hemp is exposed to high-pressure, low-temperature CO2 gas, which helps isolate and preserve the cannabinoids in the oil. The drawbacks include slow extraction time and high production costs, meaning that these products will be on the more expensive end.

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2. Ethanol extraction.

Ethanol extraction is safe and nontoxic in small amounts. The main drawback is that ethanol-extraction destroys the plant waxes, which some claim have health benefits.

3. Olive oil extraction.

Olive oil is safe and cost-effective. It's two main drawbacks are that they are not able to be made into a concentrate and that the oils can turn rancid, meaning they need to be stored in a dark, cold environment.

4. Butane or hexane extraction.

These solvents do a great job of extracting the cannabinoids from hemp, but some remain after the extraction process and are potentially harmful to your lungs.

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Hemp oil safety.

Because it takes a significantly larger amount of hemp stalks to produce hemp oil, there is an increased risk of contamination of toxins contained within the plant. This is a result of hemp's strong bio-accumulator properties, where it pulls toxins from the soil it grows in. Many hemp oils are also known to lack the full spectrum of terpenes and other cannabinoids that are believed to act synergistically with the CBD, meaning that consumers receive less of a benefit. That being said, there are some brands that test rigorously to make sure that the CBD content, as well as the terpenes and other cannabinoids, are up to par. It's a good sign if they offer to provide a certificate of analysis, which will tell you what kind of compounds are in the hemp oil and in what concentrations

Hemp oil uses.

Hemp oil can be found in many different delivery forms. Hemp oil can be consumed orally, applied topically or sublingually, or smoked via vaporization. Vaporization and sublingual application of hemp oil allows for a fast onset-of-action of the CBD, whereas pills and edible products can take 30 to 90 minutes on average to take effect. Topical hemp oil can be applied directly to areas of pain or inflammation, though it can also be absorbed into the systemic circulation.

Photo: @OlegMalyshev

Hemp oil benefits.

When talking about the benefits of hemp oil, what we are mostly really referring to are the benefits of the CBD within the hemp oil. While there is still a need for higher-quality studies regarding the benefits of CBD oil, the available research and clinical evidence are compelling:

1. Hemp oil for epilepsy.

The CBD in hemp oil has been used by patients with recalcitrant epilepsy for decades. A recent retrospective study out of Israel showed significant decreases in seizure activity with the use of CBD-enriched medical cannabis. In this study, 52 percent of patients had a greater than 50 percent reduction in seizure activity.

2. Hemp oil for anxiety.

CBD oil has been shown to decrease activity in the limbic part of the human brain, which is responsible for our "fight-or-flight" response. A study in 2011 found that CBD oil significantly reduced anxiety and cognitive impairment compared to placebo.

3. Hemp oil for pain.

There are some animal studies that show improved markers for pain and inflammation with the use of topical hemp oil. However, most of the current data studying the benefits of cannabinoids for pain show the combination of CBD with THC to be the most effective for pain.

4. Hemp oil for Alzheimer's disease.

A small study on mice in 2014 showed that CBD oil prevented the development of social recognition deficit, which is a common occurrence in Alzheimer's disease. But more research is needed to validate these findings in humans!

CBD is also a potent antioxidant, which means it protects your body from free radical damage, and is thought to exhibit anti-depressant, anti-nausea, gut-protective, and immune-system-balancing effects. But again, more research needs to be done in all these areas.

How to choose a hemp oil product.

When deciding which hemp oil to use, these are the criteria you should look out for:

  • The hemp plants should be 100 percent organically grown to minimize exposure to pesticides.
  • The hemp oil should be extracted using CO2, ethanol, or olive oil. If opting for olive oil, make sure you store in a dark, cool place to prevent rancidity.
  • Ask for a third-party certificate of analysis. This paperwork will show the chemical composition of the hemp oil and also show if there are any unwanted contaminants such as toxic heavy metals.
  • If choosing to use a vape pen, check to make sure propylene glycol is not used as a thinning agent. This chemical, when heated, can create formaldehyde, which has carcinogenic properties.

How to dose hemp oil.

Here are a few guidelines when trying to determine the optimal dose of hemp oil to use:

1. Remember that everyone is different.

Each person has a different genetic and biochemical makeup. This means people will respond to different doses of CBD, so you will have to test to see which doses are best for you.

2. Start low and go slow.

Start at a lower dose of hemp oil and increase slowly to achieve the desired effect. Remember that if you choose an oral product, it can take 30 to 90 minutes to notice any benefit.

3. Take a few small doses over the course of a day.

Spacing out your doses—rather than one large dose once a day—can help you maintain adequate blood levels.

4. Know that more is not always better.

Sometimes smaller doses can have a more substantial effect than larger doses. Remember that you are genetically and biochemically distinct from everyone else and need to discover the best dosage for you.

5. Check with your health care provider.

This is especially relevant if you have any medical conditions or are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications. At higher levels, CBD has been shown to interact with common medications.

Hemp oil side effects.

Though very rare, some people report side effects when using hemp oil. These side effects include low blood pressure, dry mouth, slowed thoughts, lightheadedness, and sedation. Animal studies have not found any toxicity issues with using CBD. In fact, a study in 2006 found that "the available clinical data suggest that CBD can be safely administered over a wide dose range." As always, because there aren't long-term safety studies, you should always check with your health care provider before starting hemp oil.

Interested in edible CBD products? These are the best ones out there.

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