An outlawed plant could help fight America’s top killer, heart disease, which ended the lives of nearly 600,000 in the United States in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A recent analysis identified several potentially heart-healthy chemicals in hemp, marijuana’s hard-working, non-intoxicating cousin.

In particular, oil from hemp seeds contained high levels of alpha-linolenic acid, according to the study published by Spanish pharmacologists in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.  Alpha-linolenic acid is an omega-3 fatty acid that research suggests could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Hemp seed oil’s high polyunsaturated fat content -- compared to saturated fats -- could help reduce people’s cholesterol levels and treat atherosclerosis, or the buildup of materials on the inside of arteries, wrote the researchers from the University of Seville, Spain.

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The hemp oil also held gamma-linolenic acid. This chemical improved the condition of mice suffering from fibromyalgia syndrome, a  chronic degenerative disease, in an experiment published in the Journal of Functional Foods.

The hemp seed used in the study grew in western Canada. Canada legalized industrial hemp in 1998 for the production of fiber, vegetable oil and other products.

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Since 1958, hemp has remained illegal in much of the United States, but change recently sprouted.

The Farm Bill currently working through the Senate would allow industrial hemp pilot projects on American farms. Seeking a head start in the reemergent hemp business, some state governments moved early in anticipation of the passage of the bill. For example, Kentucky’s General Assembly voted to legalize hemp last year and recently began moving forward with a test project, reported USA Today.

Botanists classify hemp and marijuana as different varieties of one plant, Cannabis sativa. Sturdy fibers from the stems of hemp have been used for thousands of years to make rope, fabric and other materials, yet contain very little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the main intoxicating chemicals that gives the flowers of the female marijuana plant her illegal potency.


Photo: Industrial hemp leaf/Bogdan, Wikimedia Commons