Cannabis is one of the oldest medicinal herbs. It comes in two varieties: marijuana and hemp. Although both belong to the species Cannabis sativa, they differ in their chemical makeup.
Marijuana is rich in THC, the compound responsible for the mind-altering effects of cannabis. Hemp, on the other hand, is low in THC and high in CBD, which is non-intoxicating.
Both have been used as medicine throughout history, with records going back thousands of years in China, India, Egypt, and other civilisations. That practice continues today with medical cannabis and hemp-derived CBD products.
Read on to learn more about the historical medical uses of hemp and how it’s regaining its popularity in the form of CBD oil.
History of medicinal hemp and cannabis
Hemp was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. Originating in Asia, hemp gradually spread throughout the world, becoming an important crop in many places.
According to archaeological evidence from the Middle East, it was in use as early as 10,000 years ago. An incredibly versatile plant, hemp was utilised as a source of fibre, food, and even medicine. Its most common uses included making rope, paper, and clothing.
The earliest record of the medical use of hemp and cannabis comes from a Chinese text believed to have been written around 2700 BC. Here, it was noted as a treatment for more than 100 conditions, including gout, malaria, and pain.
Scientists also believe that hemp — or “shemshemet” as it was called — was used medicinally in Ancient Egypt, one of the first civilisations with an advanced system of medicine.
The oldest mention of its medical use comes from a papyrus written in 1700 BC, where it was ground and used together with celery to treat eye conditions. Another medical papyrus talked about using ground hemp with honey during childbirth and as a poultice for infections.
Cannabis was also reportedly used for fever, diarrhoea, and for its pain and inflammation-relieving effects.
Similar records of medical hemp and cannabis are also noted in other cultures. In India, cannabis was used medicinally for conditions that include epilepsy, rabies, anxiety, pain, inflammation, bronchitis, and asthma as early as 1000 BC.
Later on, cannabis was also mentioned in Middle Eastern medicine as a treatment for gout, oedema, and headaches.
Finally, medical hemp made its introduction to Europe in 1839, when Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy published a book on its beneficial effects. By the end of the century, cannabis was a common over-the-counter medication in Europe and North America.
Modern medicinal uses of hemp
We’ve already highlighted some of the medicinal uses of hemp throughout history. Today, hemp-derived health products are used far more extensively, albeit in a more refined form.
Whereas historically, medicinal hemp was utilised in its raw, whole-plant form, present-day hemp use mostly focuses on isolating the main active ingredients from the plant.
The best example of this is CBD oil, which contains CBD-rich hemp extract dissolved in a plant-based oil.
In medical terms, CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is one of more than 120 chemicals called cannabinoids. Unlike THC, CBD is non-intoxicating. It has many useful properties and is the main ingredient responsible for the potential health benefits of hemp.
CBD products are made by isolating pure CBD or all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and other beneficial compounds from hemp.
At this time, the sole medical use of CBD is the treatment of rare types of childhood epilepsy that don’t respond to standard medication. Only the pharmaceutical CBD drug Epidyolex is approved by UK and EU medical authorities for these conditions.
Other medicinal uses of hemp-derived CBD are not approved due to a lack of strong research evidence.
Having said that, far more people use CBD oil and other cannabidiol products as a food supplement rather than medicine.
Hemp-derived CBD oil is used to relieve anxiety, pain, and nausea, reduce inflammation, and provide other benefits. It’s also taken to support overall health and well-being, especially in combination with healthy lifestyle choices such as regular exercise and a wholesome diet.
The future of hemp as medicine
Hemp and cannabis have been used as medicine for thousands of years. Today, millions of people continue to use hemp in the form of CBD oil and similar products to benefit their health and overall wellness.
Smokable hemp flower is also growing in popularity and is perhaps the closest modern equivalent of how cannabis was used therapeutically throughout history.
Although hemp and hemp-derived CBD preparations are not currently approved for any medical condition — with the exception of specific kinds of epilepsy — that may change in the near future as more high-quality research evidence comes to light.
Medical marijuana is already widely utilised for chronic pain, nausea, and many other medical issues. In many ways, the growing modern use of hemp and cannabis is a rediscovery of insights learned long ago.