Beyond Cannabinoids: Flavonoids, Terpenes & Terpenoids Of Cannabis
Some strains are sedating, some energizing, some take your spirit to the land of euphoria, some are perfectly apt as a natural painkiller, some spill a bucket of inspiration in your head and some provide a bit of all of the above. But it’s not only the cannabinoids that are responsible for these different effects - lesser known molecules known as flavonoids and terpenoids play a huge role in the overall aroma and effect of a strain.
Often, the overall quality of a strain is measured by its THC content, and of course, a few tokes of some fine weed with a good load of THC will get you high. But it reveals an approach overly focused on one single compound - THC in this case. This same fixation can be found across the pharmacological landscape, it is the obsession with the „active ingredient“. Wether it’s THC or vitamin C - much of the work over the last century has been about isolating the active compound and stripping it from its natural environment. And there are good reasons for this; it allows for more precise dosage and standardization of quality. Research is easier with just one compound, cutting out the noise of complex natural systems. And lastly, isolation of active compounds allows for processes to be turned profitable, which is much more difficult with natural preparations.
Everyone agrees that good bud is more than just a THC level. At this point, cannabinoids have become well known and CBD became the second most important „active ingredient“. But what this approach hides, is that a good smoke is much more about an intricate balance between all ingredients, rather than a single percentage of an isolated compound. This is particularly true in the case of a very complex plant like cannabis, which produces well over 220 compounds. About 85 of those are cannabinoids, and another 120 are so called terpenes and some 20 are flavonoids.
What are Flavonoids?
The unique smell and flavor of a cannabis strain is produced in part by its flavonoids, the aromatic molecules. Some flavonoids, like quercetin, luteolin and kaempferol, naturally appear in many different plants. But flavonoids that are unique to cannabis are called cannaflavins, and they don’t just smell good, they are pharmacologically active. For example, cannaflavin A has been found to to reduce inflammation by inhibiting the inflammatory molecule PGE-2, and it does this 30 times more effectively than aspirin.
Similar to CBD, flavonoids also modulate the effects of THC. Through complex biochemical mechanisms, flavonoids interact on many different sites in the body. Some interact with estrogen receptors, others act as potent antioxidants or inhibit enzymatic processes.
What are Terpenes and Terpenoids?
Terpenes appear naturally and abundantly in humans, plants and animals, often to deter parasites. Similarly to flavonoids, terpenes also emit a strong smell and flavor. Terpenes are volatile molecules that evaporate easily and contribute to the aroma of the buds. Research has discovered that terpenes are psychoactive and contribute to the overall effect of a strain. They show a wide range of effects, including sedation, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, and many more. Perhaps surprisingly, up to 30% of cannabis smoke is composed of terpenes and terpenoids.
The difference between terpenes and terpenoids is that terpenes are simple hydrocarbons, while terpenoids consist of additional functional groups. In nature, simple hydrocarbons like terpenes are often the building blocks for larger and more complex molecules, such as steroids, pigments and vitamins. In cannabis, terpenes and THC share a biochemical precursor, geranyl pyrophosphate, which is developed in the resin glands of the plant and then evolves into the cannabinoids and terpenes.
Just like many other strong-smelling flowers and plants, cannabis develops those terpenes to attract beneficial insects and to repel predators. Many factors, including the climate, weather, maturity level of the plant, the used fertilizers, the soil type the plant grows in and even the time of day have influence on a plant's development of terpenes.
The great variety of aromas in cannabis strains is already impressive, but the most fascinating property of terpenes is their ability to interact with the other active compounds in the plant. Terpenes can modify how much THC passes through the blood-brain barrier. But their influence reaches even as far as to regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, altering their rate of production and decomposition, their movement and availability to receptors.
While well over 100 different terpenes and terpenoids have been identified in cannabis, we are summarizing below some of the most prominent ones. Here a short list of terpenes, their aroma and medicinal benefits.
Aroma: Spicy, menthol, camphor
Effects: Sedative, calming
Medical value: Used in traditional Chinese medicine as moxa, also to reduce stress.
Also found in: Cinnamon, galanga, and wormwood
Strains high in Borneol: The church, Diamond Girl, Green-o-matic
Aroma: Sweet, cedar, pungent
Medical value: In aromatherapy used to dry excess fluids, tears, running noses, excess menstrual flow and perspiration
Also found in: Cedar, pine, rosemary
Strains high in Carene: El Niño, Lemon Skunk, King’s Kush
Aroma: Spicy, warm, sweet, woody
Medical value: anti-inflammatory and analgesic. In high doses a calcium and potassium ion channel blocker. One of the compounds that contributes to the spiciness of black pepper.
Also found in: Black pepper, hops, lavender, rosemary, cloves, oregano.
Strains high in Caryophyllene: Arjans Haze #2, Super Silver Haze, Nevilles Haze
Aroma: Spicy, minty, camphor
Effects: Centering, balancing and stimulating
Medical value: Used as a cough suppressant. Antibacterial, used in mouthwash and body powder.
Also found in: Rosemary, sage, wormwood, basil, tea tree, camphor laurel
Strains high in Eucalyptol: Kings Kush, ChemDawg, Bubba Kush
Aroma: Sour, citrus (lemon, orange, grapefruit)
Effects: Uplifting, refreshing
Medical value: Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-carcinogenic, enhances the mood
Also found in: Citrus fruits, rosemary, peppermint
Strains high in limonene: OG Kush, Damn Sour, Diamond Girl, Super Lemon Haze, Jack the Ripper, Lemon Skunk
Aroma: Sweet, flowery, citrus, candy like
Effects: Uplifting and sedating
Medical value: Helps with anxiety, elevates the mood
Also found in: Over 200 plants produce linalool; Lavender, mints, rosewood, citrus fruits, birch trees, and even some fungi.
Strains high in linalool: Amnesia Haze, Grape Ape, G-13, Lavender, Deep Purple, LA Confidential
Aroma: Sweet, fruity, green vegetative, tropical, earthy
Effects: Sedation and relaxation
Medical value: Antimicrobial, antiseptic, analgesic, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, elevates the mood.
Myrcene is also found in: Mango, hops, lemon grass, thyme, guava, East Indian bay tree, verbena and mercia
Strains high in myrcene: White Rhino, Sweet Mango Auto, K. Train, El Niño, Skunk #1, White Widow
Effects: Mental Focus, alertness, aids memory, counteracts some of the effects of THC
Medical value: Bronchodilator, helps with asthma, acts antiseptic, antibiotic, insect repellant
Also found in: Pine needles, rosemary, basil, parsley, dill
Strains high in pinene: Trainwreck, Cheese, ChemDawg, Super Critical, Jack Herer, Bubba Kush, Super Silver Haze
Aroma: Sweet, floral, citrus, lilac
Effects: Strongly physically relaxing, responsible for the couchlock?
Medical value: Unknown
Also found in: Apple blossoms, orange
Strains high in Terpineol: Money Maker, White Rhino, Superbud