Bhang or hemp is typically a preparation of cannabis, which has been in use since as early as 1000 BCE. Bhang is of cultural and religious importance to Hindus in India and thus despite the legal norms on the use of cannabis, this preparation is widely utilised in the country, especially during the time of Holi. Bhang leaves and seeds are ground and the formed paste is utilised in edible preparations in the form of thandai, milkshakes and sweet preparations.

While the use of bhang is highly associated with addiction, it also has certain benefits when used in prescribed amounts, the major one being its assistance in pain control. Due to these reasons, bhang is available in the form of tablets and Ayurvedic preparations available at drug stores.

This article will discuss the potential benefits and side effects of bhang in the light of scientific evidence. However, you must note that, it is inadvisable to consume any form of this preparation, unless so prescribed. An unprescribed use or an exceeded dosage can lead to severe disabling side effects, so, that must be avoided.

Before exploring into the benefits and side effects of bhang, let’s understand more about this preparation.

Some basic facts about bhang or hemp

Bhang as an edible preparation has originated in the lands of India and is now served as a festive delight. There are two varieties of hemp, namely, industrial hemp and the kind that is used as a medicinal drug, with the latter having a higher concentration of tetrahydrocannanbinol or THC. Industrial hemp is used in over-the-counter products like skin lotions and creams. Here is what you must know about hemp:

  • Scientific name: Cannabis sativa
  • Family: Cannabaceae
  • Common name: Bhang
  • Native region and geographic distribution: The native region of bhang is Northern India where the plant is widely grown. Mortar and pestle are then used to form the preparation. Currently, government-regulated cultivation of hemp is legal in the state of Uttarakhand.
  • Parts used: Seeds and leaves
  • Legality: Like other forms of cannabis, the use of bhang is also a criminalised offence since 1961 when bhang was included along with other hard drugs under the ‘single convention on narcotic drugs’. Thus, legally, bhang can only be sold by government sellers and authorised medicinal stores. However, due to the cultural significance of bhang, it is still commonly available during local festivities in several states, particularly in the states of Northern India.
  1. Health benefits of bhang (hemp)
  2. Side effects of hemp

Although bhang is addictive in nature, it has some benefits for your health, which are only experienced when it is used in the form of a prescribed medicinal formulation. When taken under medical supervision, it is reported to have physical, psychological and even emotional benefits, and is thus used as an adjunct to medicines. Bhang is medically available and utilised in the form of powder and tablets, which have the following applications:

  • For pain control: Bhang is used for the management of chronic pain conditions and can be used in the form of a vapouriser to manage pain at home.
  • For the brain: Hemp improves the brain functioning and is useful in a range of mental health and neurological disorders including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorders. It is even useful in the management of epileptic seizures when used as an oral solution.
  • For cancer: Bhang or hemp may have potential against a variety of tumours and cancers including melanoma, hepatic cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. It functions by inducing apoptosis and significant activity has been found against glioblastoma multiforme. Other than aiding in tumour control, hemp formulations cater to pain reduction and also help to reduce other symptoms associated with chemotherapy like nausea and vomiting. It thus helps to improve the quality of life years of cancer-affected individuals.
  • For AIDS: The use of bhang is also helpful in individuals suffering from AIDS as it reduces the incidence of opportunistic infections in them, which could arise due to immunosuppression by the HIV virus.

Bhang for pain control

The most significant benefit of hemp is that it helps in the control of pain, particularly chronic pain, that is persistent and more difficult to manage. In addition to being a physical burden, this type of pain often has a psychological impact and the sufferer experiences a reduction in the quality of life and reduced interest in daily activities. With the use of cannabis or hemp, a significant reduction in the intensity of pain has been ascertained, as it was self-reported by the participants.

Although the side effects of the drug are plenty, when used irrationally, a medically supervised use has been considered to be safe. In fact, it is even said to have a better safety profile than other drugs, which are used conventionally. For this benefit, practitioners prescribe to use it in the form of a smokeless inhalation with the help of a vapouriser device. This requires titration of a specific dosage, which will slowly deliver the medication and thus describes a form of patient-controlled analgesia (PCA).

These effects have been found to be comparable to other forms of PCA utilising the intravenous route and thus it can be established that cannabis is a pronounced method of pain control. Vapour pens and conventional vapourisers can be used for this purpose in a dosage prescribed by your doctor.

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Bhang for the brain

Concerning the brain, the role of bhang is quite debatable. On one end of the spectrum, it is highly associated with an addictive response, and on the other end, researchers mention its potential in the management of several neurological and mental health disorders.

Hemp has been recognised as an anxiolytic (reduces anxiety) due to its effects on the endocannabinoid system (a biological system consisting of endocannabinoids where cannabis binds itself). This explains the relaxing effects experienced after having bhang.

Research indicates that hemp helps to minimise depressive and psychotic behaviours in individuals when used in a prescribed manner. It has further been demonstrated that the preparation has an anti-inflammatory effect and also helps in reducing the levels of oxidative stress and damage. When tested on animal models, it was found that hemp helps to reduce brain damage.

This suggests its neuroprotective potential and its role in facilitating in the prevention of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, post-concussion syndrome and even some neurodegenerative disorders. It functions by reducing the formation of amyloid plaques and decreasing the levels of pro-inflammatory mediators.

Clinical studies have also demonstrated that it aids in fear control and prevention of its recurrence, which is the possible rationale for its anxiolytic effects.

Additionally, its role has been suggested in the management of bipolar disorder and several neurological conditions. With all these effects on the brain, extensive studies are presently going on to determine these actions and to specify a particular dosage. So, it is absolutely not safe to try out the drug by yourself in the hope of obtaining relief from any of the described conditions.

Hemp for the control of seizures

In addition to its several benefits on mental health, one of its major application is in the control of seizure activity. Seizures refer to sudden, uncontrolled movements, that are caused due to a change in the electrical functioning of the brain. Although the use of cannabis, marijuana or hemp is not legalised, this plant finds its applications in the management of seizures as approved by the FDA. In fact, it is one of the three approved uses of the plant.

As an oral solution, cannabis is used to treat seizure activity. This use was approved epidiolex in the year 2018. Significant anti-seizure activity has been found against epileptic seizures. Although the use has been approved, it is not safe to consume hemp as the benefit can only be derived from its medicinal form.

(Read more: Epilepsy management)

Hemp for cancer patients

Cancer refers to the uninhibited growth of cells in the body, which can be well-differentiated or highly atypical depending on the stage of cancer. It has the potential to spread to nearby and distant locations, and affect the functioning of the affected body systems.

Hemp has several applications in the field of cancer. It can be used for tumour control and is also helpful in the management of chronic pain and other symptoms experienced by those affected with cancer. The use of hemp can thus help in improving their quality of life. It controls cancerous growth by initiating the process of apoptosis (programmed cell death). Therefore, it may help to prolong the life of those affected.

One specific utilization of this has been in the case of glioblastoma multiforme, in which, it ceases cancer growth by promoting autophagy (destruction of cells).

By functioning in a similar manner and by having distinct actions, it has anti-cancer actions against various cell lines including those of melanoma, hepatic cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer.

Other than its possible role in the treatment and management of several types of cancer, cannabis has other benefits for those affected with cancer. The most important of these benefits is that it helps to manage chronic pain, which is a major complaint of cancer-affected individuals. Cannabis helps to reduce the intensity of pain as apparent by a decrease in the number of pain medications used by the individuals. A self-reported improvement in the quality of life was also reported by the users. The use of cannabis oil or vapourised herbal preparation has been found to be useful in this regard.

Not just pain control, hemp also has the potential to manage several other cancer-associated symptoms like nausea, vomiting and problems with sleep. It also helps to reduce the side effects associated with chemotherapy or other types of cancer treatments.  Its use in the management of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy has also been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). These benefits were noticeable after a 6-month duration of the study.

What’s more is that hemp has immunomodulatory actions, that is, it helps to improve your immune status and modifies the risk of added infections. Since those affected with cancer have a compromised immune status and an increased risk of infections and illnesses, an improvement in the immune status can significantly help to improve the quality of life years lived in good health. However, you must note that these are the benefits of medicinal cannabis and illicit use can cause more side effects than benefits.

Hemp for AIDS

AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is caused due to an infection with the HIV virus and is marked by a state of immunodeficiency. As with cancer, the immunocompromised status of HIV-affected individuals increases their risk of opportunistic infections.

Since hemp assists in improving the immune response, it is useful for individuals with HIV. The inclusion of hemp in correct amounts can help to increase the disease-free quality of life years. Due to this positive association, the use of cannabis in AIDS has been recognised by the FDA. Not only does its use assist in reducing the risk of opportunistic infections, but also caters to improve their health status. It helps to treat loss of weight and appetite in individuals affected with AIDS. As with other conditions, making an unprescribed use of hemp in AIDS can do more harm than good.

Although hemp is being recently recognised due to its potential benefits, most of the above-mentioned applications are still being studied to determine its therapeutical use. Even when these are well-established, these will only be associated with the medicinal use of this drug and the commonly-used edible form is bound to have side effects. Following are these side effects:

  • One of the most pronounced and well-known side effects of hemp is that it causes addiction and dependence. Millions of individuals making the use of hemp have reported dependence, which is due to illicit use of the agent in the form of bhang. Stopping the use of this agent has pronounced withdrawal symptoms in the form of irritability, sleeping difficulty, food cravings, anxiety and dysphoria (a state of unease and dissatisfaction).
  • Mild side effects include dizziness, dry mouth and an increased desire for sleep, which are even prevalent with its medicinal use for the treatment of cancer.
  • If the use of bhang is started during the years of adolescence, the side effects are even more pronounced as it affects the development and functioning of the brain due to impaired neuronal connectivity.
  • If begun in childhood, hemp hampers school performance as affects learning capacity and makes it challenging to achieve educational goals.
  • Excessive use has also been associated with an increased risk of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety but the exact relationship has not been determined.

Medicines / Products that contain Indian hemp

References

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  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Marijuana and Cannabinoids
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