Cannabis sativa is a plant with a long and controversial history of use in food and medicine around the world. In this column I will examine this plant in cross cultural perspective as well as recent findings from clinical studies on its medical applications and interest among pharmaceutical companies. In particular, I will explore its applications in the management of pain, as occurs with fibromyalgia, MS and other related health conditions. This paper is the culmination of early research I performed for a natural products company. Much of this information is drawn from the excellent text by Conrad (1997) on this subject.
In traditional medicine (Conrad 1997) formulas containing hemp's seed or flowering tops were frequently recommended for difficult childbirth, menstrual cramps, rheumatism and convulsions, earaches, fevers, dysentery, epilepsy and insomnia, as well as to soothe nervous tension, stimulate appetite, and serve as an analgesic and aphrodesiac.
The oldest confirmed medical use of cannabis was in China in 3750 B.C.A philosopher farmer named Shen Nung produced the first reported pharmacopoeia, the Pen Ts'ao which listed hemp, ta ma, as a superior immortality elixir. The female plant was said to possess yin energy as opposed to the male plant's yang energy and was recommended for "female weakness," rheumatism, beri-beri, malaria, constipation, gout and absent-mindedness, among other ailments. Hempseed is discussed in the 16th century Chinese manuscript Pen T'sao Kang Mu of Li Shih-chen. He described the ability of the seed to increase chi, slow aging, enhance circulation, preventing stagnation of lymphatic fluid, increase flow of milk in nursing mothers and help paralysis. Li also claimed a shampoo of the seed would accelerate hair growth.
In the second century BC, Pliny the Elder prescribed hempseed for constipation, the herb for earaches, and root poultices to ease cramped joints, gout and burns. His contemporary, Galen, described how Romans would fry and consume the seed with desserts. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, the use and study of hemp was put on hold. The Inquisition banned use of the scientific method and herbal medicine in Europe in favor of the medieval Church, magic and witch-hunts.
Hemp was used in Ayurvedic medicine for the alleviation of migraine headaches and stomach spasms, as an analgesic, antispasmodic, to promote digestion, and to assist in the flow of urine. India is so heavily steeped in the cultural and spiritual use of resinous cannabis that its people won a cultural exception to the UN Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs. It allows them to continue to consume the plant, known as ganga. The Vedas are ancient writings that serve as the foundation of Hindu civilization. Ganga, like many other important medicinal plants, is said to have originated from the primordial nectar which arose during the churning of the oceans. Ganja is used by priests and yogis (to trigger meditation), devotees of Shiva and other gods (for ceremonies), people who perform hard physical labor and athletes such as the wrestlers called Chaubes (to...