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Welcome to our new Understanding Series. This collection of science-based articles cites dozens of peer-reviewed studies to educate students about the foundational elements of marijuana and hemp. Topics covered include molecular players such as cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids and the collection of neurotransmitters with which they interact called the endocannabinoid system.
Flavonoids are a third category of wellness molecule produced by the cannabis plant—beyond psychotropic cannabinoids and fragrant terpenes (to learn more about these molecules, see our Understanding Cannabis—A Proper Mental Framework article.
What are Flavonoids?
Understanding Flavonoids. Most cannabis consumers are familiar with cannabinoids and, more specifically, the two commercially dominant examples produced by the cannabis/hemp plant, tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). However, the herb produces two other families of wellness molecules beyond the set of roughly 120 cannabinoids discovered to date: Terpenes and flavonoids.
The functional distinction between these two families of phytomolecules is clear. Terpenes employ aroma to protect hemp and cannabis plants from pests and predators while simultaneously attracting pollinators (insects or human cultivators). Likewise, flavonoids perform the same basic evolutionary function, but do so with plentiful pigment rather than abundant aroma.
Modern peer-reviewed research has revealed that both terpenes and flavonoids possess value in the treatment of literally hundreds of disease states and adverse health conditions. All three families of chemical compounds produced by cannabis have exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This makes these phytomolecules potential therapeutic agents in the treatment of common diseases such as cancer, arthritis, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of eating and sleeping disorders.
Understanding Flavonoids: Overview
Understanding Flavonoids. Flavonoids, sometimes called bioflavonoids or bioflavins, are the third major family of wellness molecules produced by the Cannabis sativa L. plant. The lack of attention to flavonoids by hemp and cannabis industry professionals and the scientific community has inspired some thought leaders to label them "the red headed stepchildren of phytomolecules."
Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant chemicals found in a large number of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. These special compounds are responsible for the sometimes vivid colors of the plants that produce them. Perhaps of greater value to humans, they also have demonstrated significant medicinal efficacy—most notably anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Like terpenes, flavonoids are produced by thousands of plants beyond cannabis. Tens of thousands of plant species make more than 6,000 types of flavonoids.
Like terpenes, flavonoids are produced by thousands of plant types in nature beyond cannabis. In fact, tens of thousands of plant species collectively make more than 6,000 types of flavonoids. Of these, about 20 appear in the cannabis/marijuana/hemp genome (DNA).
Flavonoids: Colors & History
Flavonoid pigments produce a wide range of diverse colors, including yellows, blues, and reds and the wide range of those found between these colors.
Flavonoid experiments were first documented in 1664 by Robert Boyle in his book Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours. The first flavonoid was identified by Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian biochemist, in 1930.
Flavonoid experiments were first documented in 1664 by Robert Boyle. The first flavonoid was identified by Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian biochemist, in 1930.
There are a dozen basic cannabis flavonoids found to some degree in the majority of cannabis cultivars. Cannflavins include cannflavin A, cannflavin B, and cannflavin C. Cannflavins were first discovered in London in 1986 by researcher Marilyn Barrett at the University of London, who identified cannflavin A and cannflavin B.
Flavonoids Lend Pigment
Understanding Flavonoids. Literally interpreted, the root of the word flavonoid, flavus, means "yellow" (it is sometimes translated as "organic/natural yellow"). Despite the understandably common misinterpretation of the root term's meaning as "flavor" in modern English, flavonoids serve the pigment-driven evolutionary function of attracting pollinators and dissuading pests for the plants that produce them (flavor, for the most part, is provided by terpenes, esters, and similar molecules).
In this respect, flavonoids are the visual equivalent of the aroma produced by terpenes. Both serve as sensory siren songs for pollinating insects (of critical value to the propagation of the species) while simultaneously warning predators to stay away and seek their meal elsewhere.
The Butterfly Effect
Understanding Flavonoids. Interesting, flavonoids provide the color for not only thousands of plants in nature, but also some of the insects that feed on them. In fact, one of the most photographically coveted insects in nature, the butterfly, maintains an intimate relationship with flavonoids and the plants that produce them.
According to a 1994 article by Nicolas Wade entitled "How Nature Makes a Butterfly Wing" that appeared in The New York Times, flavonoids are responsible for the sometimes vibrant dyes in the wings of butterflies.
"In the pupil stage, the patterned wing cells develop a rainbow of tones as each crafts a scale of a single hue," wrote Wade. It seems that butterflies are among insect species that are incapable of producing flavonoids. "The rich palette of dyes in butterflies' wings are all derived from...flavonoids, which the insects cannot make themselves and must sequester from their food plants," he continued.
Understanding Flavonoids: Conclusions
Understanding Flavonoids. This free article merely scratches the surface of the topic of flavonoids, and—more precisely—cannabis-derived flavonoids. Modern research has revealed pronounced anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties in a number of flavonoids and cannflavins.
"While cannabinoids and terpenes get all of the marketing dollars in the cannabis industry, flavonoids—like a wallflower at a dance—sit humbly in the background."
In addition to adding alluring pigments to the plants that produce them, flavonoids may serve a much more sophisticated role. The anti-cancer characteristics of this class of molecule alone warrants additional preclinical and clinical studies to reveal if cancer patients and their caregivers should consider flavonoid therapy.
While cannabinoids and terpenes get all of the marketing dollars in the cannabis industry, flavonoids—like a wallflower at a dance—sit humbly in the background, offering ongoing opportunities for not only researchers and health care providers, but also the cannabis and hemp industries and the prospect of novel products from the herb.
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