Cannabis Terpenes and Flavonoids: Are They Important?

Feb 2, 2022

Researchers have discovered 483 unique compounds in the cannabis plant, including the popular cannabinoids THC and CBD. However, there's more to these bountiful plants such as flavonoids and terpenes.

These compounds are the key determiners of weed's smell, taste, and colour. They also are central to the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of cannabis.

What exactly are flavonoids and terpenes? And how do they benefit us?

What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants. They give plants their aromas, flavour, and even their colour.

Terpenes give cannabis its scent and flavour. They are what gives each strain its unique smell and taste. These aromatic essential oils found in cannabis (and other plants) enhance their therapeutic benefits.

Of the 20,000 known terpenes in nature, about 100 exist in cannabis.

What Do They Do?

Plants use terpenes to protect themselves from predators and harsh weather and attract pollinators.

How terpenes affect us is still not clearly understood. But cannabis researchers and consumers alike are looking into terpenes as a way to classify cannabis products and their effects.

The main hypothesis is that the dominant terpenes of a strain work synergistically with the present cannabinoid content to produce the effects associated with different strains.

This helps explain why two different strains with the same THC or CBD level produce different experiences.

Common Types of Terpenes in Cannabis:

  1. Myrcene
    Myrcene is common in indica strains with strong sedative effects. It works as a muscle relaxant hence may help manage muscle spasms, sleep, pain, etc. [1].

  2. Alpha-pinene
    It has been reported to help combat respiratory conditions and reduce inflammation in the lungs [2].

  3. Linalool
    It has a characteristic lavender scent with a hint of spiciness.

    It may help combat stress-induced changes [3]. Stress causes a weak immune system as it changes the distribution of white blood cells.

    The change causes a decrease in the levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes. Linalool helps prevent the reducing levels of these important white blood cells components.

    It may also help with muscle relaxation [4]. It’s said to reduce the activity of acetylcholine (a brain chemical) that's responsible for muscle movement and contraction.

  4. Humulene
    Humulene may interact with phytocannabinoids to help terminate cancer cells [5].

    It's also anti-bacterial [6]. It helps combat the golden staph bacterium. This bacterium is present in our bodies and can catalyst various illnesses.

  5. Limonene
    It's a terpene found in citrus fruits such as lemons. It's used synthetically in insect repellents and cosmetics for its strong aroma.

    It's known for its anti-inflammatory benefits for conditions like osteoarthritis and ulcerative colitis[7][8].

    It's also an antioxidant [9]. Antioxidants help reduce unstable molecules in cells known as free radicals that cause cell damage.

What Are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are phytonutrients that can be found in nearly all fruits and flowers. They are responsible for giving plants their pigmentation (or colour). They also contribute to the aroma and flavour of cannabis.

There are 20 flavonoids unique to the cannabis plant.

Cannaflavins are cannabis-specific flavonoids that have been linked to a variety of therapeutic benefits, including antioxidant effects.

However, cannaflavins remain understudied, and more research into their medicinal benefits is needed.
All the same, there are some types of cannaflavins whose health benefits have been highlighted.

Common Types of Flavonoids in Cannabis

  • Kaempferol - It's a powerful antioxidant also found in vegetables and fruits. It helps increase the body's antioxidant defence against free radicals, promoting cancer development [10].

  • Cannflavin A and Cannflavin B - These are flavonoids exclusive to cannabis with powerful anti-inflammatory effects [11].

    They may also have anti-cancer properties with medical benefits in pancreatic cancer treatment [12]

  • Quercetin- It's an abundant flavonoid found in citrus fruits, coffee, red wine, and onions. It’s shown to reduce inflammation, a condition linked to many health problems like heart and kidney disease [13] [14]. It may also be antioxidant- qualities that may give it cancer-fighting properties [15].

  • Silymarin- It’s a power-packed flavonoid with various health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and cardioprotective properties [16].

How Do Terpenes and Flavonoids Compare to Cannabinoids (THC and CBD)?

There are over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis plant. However, the two most abundant and most studied are CBD and THC.

THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive compound that causes a "high," while CBD is also a psychoactive compound but not intoxicating. Both compounds are responsible for the medicinal benefits of cannabis, but THC is also associated with recreational use.

It is considered within the scientific community that all the compounds in cannabis work together to give cannabis its unique medicinal properties.

How Do These Compounds Work Together? (The Entourage Effect)

People take CBD and THC in various ways, and they can be consumed separately or together. However, research suggests taking cannabinoids together with smaller organic compounds like terpenes and flavonoids is more effective.

This effectiveness is due to the interaction between cannabinoids and phytochemicals called the “Entourage effect.”

The "Entourage effect" is the theory that all compounds in cannabis, when taken together, work together (or synergistically) to cause better therapeutic effects than when taken alone.

2018 research proposed that certain flavonoids and terpenes could improve CBD's therapeutic potential [17]. The research revealed that these compounds could improve brain health and cognition above CBD's solitary ability to treat cognitive impairment.

Cannabis is good for helping with sleep. The addition of terpenoids with pain-relieving, anti-anxiety, or sedative effects enhances symptom reduction allowing for better sleep as opposed to a mere hypnotic effect. Some terpenoids with these effects include linalool, caryophyllene, and myrcene [18].

Another study revealed that patients with social anxiety might benefit from a dose of pure CBD. However, there would be a higher clinical efficacy of CBD extract for anxiety and cognitive impairment if anxiolytic (or anxiety-relieving) limonene and linalool could be added [19].

For the case of addiction, CBD has shown anti-addiction therapeutic benefits. It has been shown to help treat cravings and addiction relapse for heroin and tobacco smoking [20][21].

Terpenoids could provide adjunctive support to CBD’s anti-addiction benefits. A clinical trial had cigarette smokers inhale black pepper vapor, which reduced nicotine craving significantly [22]. The dose simulated the act of cigarette smoking without the presence or actual burning of nicotine.

The success of black pepper was attributed to its terpene profile. It included myrcene via sedation, pinene for increased alertness, and caryophyllene via CB2 activation and a presumed mechanism of action in addiction treatment [23].

CB2 receptors are important components of the cannabinoid system. THC activates CB2 receptors to perform their role in regulating immune signalling and inflammatory responses in the body [24].

The cannabinoids and terpenes in medicinal cannabis work in tandem: THC activates the CB2 receptors while CBD works to reduce the intoxicating effects of THC.

Overall, with research on terpenes and flavonoids at infancy, there's still a lot of untapped medical potential. But with more studies being carried out, we will better understand the therapeutic benefits of these compounds.

References

  1. Central Effects Of Citral, Myrcene And Limonene, Constituents Of Essential Oil Chemotypes From Lippia Alba (Mill.) N.e. Brown - PubMed. (2002, December 1). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12587690/.

  2. Therapeutic Potential Of Α- And Β-Pinene: A Miracle Gift Of Nature. (2019, November 1). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6920849/.

  3. Stress Repression in Restrained Rats by (R)-(−)-Linalool Inhalation and Gene Expression Profiling of Their Whole Blood Cells Akio Nakamura, Satoshi Fujiwara, Ichiro Matsumoto, and Keiko Abe Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2009 57 (12), 5480-5485
    DOI: 10.1021/jf900420g

  4. Linalool Modifies the Nicotinic Receptor-ion Channel Kinetics At the Mouse Neuromuscular Junction - PubMed. (2000, August 1). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10887049/.

  5. Β‐caryophyllene And Β‐caryophyllene Oxide—natural Compounds Of Anticancer And Analgesic Properties. (2016, October 1). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5083753/.

  6. Composition and antibacterial activity of Abies balsamea essential oil Pichette, Aé.; Larouche, P-Luc.; Lebrun, M.; Legault, J. Phytotherapy Research: Ptr 20(5): 371-373, 2006 https://eurekamag.com/research/004/410/004410092.php

  7. Evaluation Of the Anti-inflammatory, Anti-catabolic And Pro-anabolic Effects Of E-caryophyllene, Myrcene And Limonene In a Cell Model Of Osteoarthritis - PubMed. (2015, March 5). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25622554/.

Author: Dr. Teresa Towpik

Medihuanna Founder

Dr. Teresa Towpik has been a General Practitioner in Australia since 1993 and an advocate of medicinal cannabis since the law was amended and cannabis was legalized for medicinal use. In 2016 she founded Medihuanna with the goal to educate medical practitioners to safely treat patients with medicinal cannabis. Since then, she has been studying the therapeutic properties of cannabis, how it works, and the potential applications in General Practice, especially in the management of chronic debilitating pain.

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