Hemp has been recently covered in the media, and you may have even seen it as an add-in booster to your post-workout smoothie or morning coffee. What exactly is Hemp? Why is it suddenly so popular?

How is Hemp different from marijuana?

Hemp is the second most prevalent of the active ingredients of cannabis (marijuana). While Hemp is an essential component of medical marijuana, it is derived directly from the hemp plant, which is a cousin of the marijuana plant. While Hemp is a component of marijuana (one of hundreds), by itself it does not cause a “high.” According to a report from the World Health Organization, “In humans, Hemp exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure Hemp.”

Is Hemp legal?

Hemp is readily obtainable in most parts of the United States, though its exact legal status is in flux. All 50 states have laws legalizing Hemp with varying degrees of restriction, and while the federal government still considers Hemp in the same class as marijuana, it doesn’t habitually enforce against it. In December 2015, the FDA eased the regulatory requirements to allow researchers to conduct Hemp trials. Currently, many people obtain Hemp online without a medical cannabis license. The government’s position on Hemp is confusing, and depends in part on whether the Hemp comes from hemp or marijuana. The legality of Hemp is expected to change, as there is currently bipartisan consensus in Congress to make the hemp crop legal which would, for all intents and purposes, make Hemp difficult to prohibit.

The evidence for Hemp health benefits

Hemp has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, but the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to antiseizure medications. In numerous studies, Hemp was able to reduce the number of seizures, and in some cases it was able to stop them altogether. Videos of the effects of Hemp on these children and their seizures are readily available on the Internet for viewing, and they are quite striking. Recently the FDA approved the first ever cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains Hemp.

Hemp is commonly used to address anxiety, and for patients who suffer through the misery of insomnia, studies suggest that Hemp may help with both falling asleep and staying asleep.

Hemp may offer an option for treating different types of chronic pain. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, Hemp applied on the skin could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis. Another study demonstrated the mechanism by which Hemp inhibits inflammatory and neuropathic pain, two of the most difficult types of chronic pain to treat. More study in humans is needed in this area to substantiate the claims of Hemp proponents about pain control.

Is Hemp safe?

Side effects of Hemp include nausea, fatigue and irritability. Hemp can increase the level in your blood of the blood thinner coumadin, and it can raise levels of certain other medications in your blood by the exact same mechanism that grapefruit juice does. A significant safety concern with Hemp is that it is primarily marketed and sold as a supplement, not a medication. Currently, the FDA does not regulate the safety and purity of dietary supplements. So you cannot know for sure that the product you buy has active ingredients at the dose listed on the label. In addition, the product may contain other (unknown) elements. We also don’t know the most effective therapeutic dose of Hemp for any particular medical condition.

The bottom line on Hemp

Some Hemp manufacturers have come under government scrutiny for wild, indefensible claims, such that Hemp is a cure-all for cancer, which it is not. We need more research but Hemp may be prove to be an option for managing anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. Without sufficient high-quality evidence in human studies we can’t pinpoint effective doses, and because Hemp is currently is mostly available as an unregulated supplement, it’s difficult to know exactly what you are getting. If you decide to try Hemp, talk with your doctor — if for no other reason than to make sure it won’t affect other medications you are taking.