Why Are the Flavonoids in Cannabis Important?
We’ve written about the cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis, but what about the taste? Does the flavor of cannabis contribute to its effects? The answer is simply, “Yes”. Flavonoids are hugely important plant pigments responsible for flavor and color. Flavonoids essentially help the plant to reproduce.
There are over 6,000 different types of flavonoids in the plant world, which are broken down into 12 separate categories: anthocyanins; flavanones; flavanonols; flavans; isoflavonoids; isoflavones; isoflavanes; isoflavandiols; isoflavenes; coumestans; and pterocarpans. The three main groups are flavonoids, isoflavonoids and neoflavonoids.
Foodstuffs high in flavonoids include parsley, onions, garlic, berries, black tea, green tea, oolong tea, bananas, wine, cocoa, buckwheat, sea-buckthorns and a whole host of herbs and spices. The flavonoids found in these and many other plants have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Flavonoids could be of use for the treatment of chronic pain, cancer, neuroinflammatory diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and many other conditions besides. Turmeric latte, anyone?
What Do Flavonoids in the Cannabis Plant Do? What’s Their Function?
Flavonoids are important for a number of a plant’s functions, including UV filtration, symbiotic nitrogen fixation, acting as chemical messengers, physiological regulators and cell cycle inhibitors. Flavonoids are essential for the plant’s survival and reproduction. This concept is explored in further detail in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World, which looks at potatoes, tulips, apples and cannabis.
Flavonoids, Evolution and Beyond
In Michael Pollan’s book (and video documentary), potatoes represent our control over nature and the ability to produce a dense form of nutrition, tulips attract us for their beauty, apples for their sweetness, and cannabis for its intoxicating properties. Cannabis growers could reasonably argue that their favoured plant represents all four attributes. Moreover, humankind’s love for cannabis goes beyond just intoxication, but also medication and the desire to feel better.
Cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenoids interact together to produce unique physiological effects, and at different concentrations and dosages can be used for a number of ailments via interaction with our own endocannabinoid system (ECS). This suggests that part of the cannabis plant’s evolutionary success is down to its appeal to humans, i.e. cannabis plants make themselves sexy to us and many other mammals (burrowing mammals like the roots, birds the nutrition-packed seeds).
Then, if we look at the commercial hemp plant as well, which is grown for its seeds (food), oil (cooking) and fiber (materials, construction), we can certainly see why so many cultures across the world bred Cannabis sativa. It has a plethora of uses, all of which are attractive. Another addition to cannabis as medication is cannabis as function, with cannabis being the Swiss Army Knife of the plant world, enabling us to achieve a number of variable and complex tasks. The variability of cannabis is enhanced by the fact that it is a sexually dimorphic plant as well.
It is fair to say that part of the cannabis plant’s evolutionary success is very much down to the fact that we like the way it smells and tastes. The 220 terpenes and the 20 or so flavonoids discovered so far in the cannabis plant produce medical effects for us, and in return we save and breed plants for their unique smell and flavor profiles, as well as its functional uses as a source of nutrition and material.
Green tea is full of flavonoids. Author: LisaAmy. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Panda_Tea_Green_Tea.jpg. CC BY 3.0.
The Flavonoids in Cannabis
Cannflavins A, B and C
Cannflavins are produced exclusively by the cannabis plant, and belong to the flavone class of flavonoid. Flavones have been shown to be:
- Anticancer properties in several animal models. Cannflavins act on the inflammatory pathway of prostaglandins (lipids with hormone-like effects), meaning they have anti-inflammatory effects.
Cannflavin A is of particular interest and has been the most studied of the cannaflavins. Cannflavin A may interact with CBD and THC, and may inhibit the COX-2 enzyme and reduce inflammation.
Beta-Sitosterol is a white, waxy flavonoid with a chemical structure that is similar to cholesterol, but can actually lower cholesterol levels. This could be used in combination with THCV for the treatment of obesity and coronary heart disease. Beta-sitosterol is often found in avocados and nuts, and some claim it has a yoghurt-like smell/taste.
Kaempferol has a yellow color and can be found in kale, beans, tea, spinach and broccoli. Kaempferol has a bitter flavor, and could be useful for the treatment of cancer. Kaempferol:
- Modulates apoptosis (cell death or suicide)
- Angiogenesis (formation of new blood cells)
- Metastasis (the development of secondary malignant growths at a distance from a primary site of cancer).
Kaempferol also affects the human body’s antioxidant effects against free radicals.
Quercetin is a flavonoid found in almost all vascular plants (particularly capers, kale, apples and red onions), providing anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic (i.e. they can prevent changes in DNA sequences), antiviral, antifungal and antioxidant effects. Quercetin may also improve mental and physical performance. Quercetin has a bitter flavor, and is commonly used as an ingredient in foods and beverages.
Orientin is a particularly potent antioxidant, with antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. It is common in both cannabis and tea plants such as rooibos. Orientin has been described as having a sharp or bitter taste.
Luteolin is found in celery, thyme, green peppers, and chamomile tea. As with orientin, luteolin has a powerful antioxidant and anti-cancer effect, but is perhaps less bitter and more fruity and sweet in flavor.
Vitexin and Isovitexin
Vitexin is found in passion flower, chasteberry, hawthorn and pearl millet. Vitexin is an:
- Anti-cancer flavonoid
- Antinociceptive (pain-blocking)
- Neuroprotective effects.
There is a lot of interest in vitexin for its anti-Alzheimer effects. Isovitexin has a similar chemical structure and pharmacological properties as vitexin.
Apigenin acts on GABA receptors, providing muscle relaxing, sedative and anxiolytic effects. Apigenin can also lower blood pressure. Apigenin is active as an antioxidant and has anti-mutagenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral effects. Apigenin is found in abundance in chamomile tea, which is one reason why chamomile is so helpful for getting to sleep. Apigenin is also found in wheat sprouts, onions, oranges and parsley. Apigenin has a bitter flavor.
Apigenin is especially useful for organ transplant patients, in particular for those who have suffered from renal injury and are in need of a kidney transplant. Apigenin could therefore combine with CBD for helping treat kidney transplant patients, and could theoretically reduce the need for powerful immunosuppressant drugs. More research into this area is needed.
As the name suggests, galangin is found in the root spice galangal. Galangal is related to ginger and turmeric. Unlike ginger, though, galangal has a sharper, citrus, pine flavor, and is often used in Thai and Indian cuisines and medicine.
Naringin occurs in citrus fruits, and is especially found in grapefruit, where it contributes to its bitter flavor. As with CBD, naringin inhibits some drug-metabolizing cytochrome P450 enzymes, including CYP3A4 and CYP1A2. Furanocoumarin is another flavonoid that has similar properties as naringin.
“Naringin modulates signalling pathways and interacts with signalling molecules and thus has a wide range of pharmacological activities, including anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer activities, as well as effects on bone regeneration, metabolic syndrome, oxidative stress, genetic damage and central nervous system (CNS) diseases.” https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13880209.2016.1216131
Naringin is an interesting flavonoid with the following properties:
- Bone-regeneration – useful for arthritis and osteoporosis
- Metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension)
- Protection against DNA damage and the genes that code for the body’s essential amino acids and proteins
- Help treat conditions that affect the CNS, such as epilepsy, alzheimer’s, mtor neurone disease (MND), neurofibramitosis and Parkinson’s disease, amongst others
Rutin is another bitter flavonoid found in cannabis that is also present in citrus fruits, apples and grains like buckwheat. Rutin can prevent blood clots.
Hesperetin is another citrus-flavored flavonoid, but is more sweet than bitter. Hesperetin is found in sweet oranges and lemons. Hesperetin may be useful in the treatment of lethal cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat).
Taxifolin has an astringent flavor, and is associated with tannin-rich foods and products like vinegars aged in cherry wood, tea, wine, cocoa and milk thistle seeds. Taxifolin is a non-selective antagonist of the opioid receptors, and could be useful in the management of inflammation, tumors, microbial infections, oxidative stress, cardiovascular, and liver disorders.
Aromadendrene is a minty/woody tasting compound found in safflower, sweet marjoram, sweet bay, eucalyptus and spearmint. When aromadendrene and the terpene cineole interact, they promote powerful antibacterial effects There could also be an interaction with THC, which could contribute to its bronchodilatory effects (i.e. it opens up the throat and lungs to take in more oxygen).
Catechin is a flavan-3-ol and is an antioxidant with a slightly astringent (acidic) – but not bitter – taste. Catechin is found in peaches, green tea, vinegar and barley grain. Catechin could be useful in the treatment of diseases such as arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and obesity, infections, and in neurologic and oral health.
Why the Flavors of Cannabis and Flavonoids are Medicinal
Flavonoids have a huge number of therapeutic and medicinal benefits. Despite their benefits, flavonoids are very much understudied, much in the same way terpenes were relegated to the side in the past. However, it is important to realize that cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids work together to provide a number of medical benefits. Flavonoids are, therefore, a very important part of the entourage effect that deserve to be researched further.