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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.
Recent consumer surveys indicate that the vast majority of North Americans are unable to define terms such as terpene, cannabinoid, and endocannabinoid system. Despite this, these two families of molecules—in tandem with the network within the human body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS)—provide a wide range of wellness attributes and medicinal efficacies.
This article provides those who are new to cannabis with a proper mental framework and logical launch point for all future understanding of the business and biochemistry of the cannabis/marijuana/hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) herbal plant species.
Understanding Cannabis: Three Molecules
Understanding Cannabis. The three primary types of molecules produced by cannabis are:
For the record, the plant produces many more types of molecules than merely these (including sometimes flavorful esters, acetates, alcohols, ketones, and others).
As their name implies, cannabinoids are exclusive to cannabis, meaning that no other plant species on earth produces them. The cannabis genome (DNA set) contains roughly 150 cannabinoids that have been discovered to date. The first cannabinoid discovered was CBN, which was investigated by a group of British chemists in 1896.
The most common and popular cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While THC produces psychoactivity in consumers, CBD is void of this "high" (although it does deliver significant anxiety reduction in many patients, which some thought leaders have elected to define as psychotropic or psychoactive). All cannabinoids are made in the nearly microscopic trichome glands that appear on the flowers, or buds, of mature female marijuana plants.
It should be noted that a few botanical species other than cannabis produce a small number of cannabinoids, including CBD. Learn more with our 2022 Study: Non-cannabis CBD Sources.
Terpenes, what some scientists believe to be the most common type of molecule on earth, are aroma and flavor agents tasked with the evolutionary function of protecting the cannabis plant from pests and predators while simultaneously making it appealing to pollinators like humans and insects (who are attracted to its fragrance). The cannabis genome contains about 200 terpenes, a minor subset of which manifests in an individual plant.
Unlike cannabinoids, no terpene is exclusive to cannabis. In nature, more than 20,000 plant species (including cannabis) produce more than 40,000 varieties of terpenes. The most common terpene in nature is pinene (which is also produced by cannabis), while the most common terpene in cannabis is myrcene (also found in the hops used to brew beer, which are botanical cousins of cannabis).
In nature, more than 20,000 plant species (including cannabis) produce more than 40,000 varieties of terpenes.
Like cannabinoids, all terpenes are produced by the trichome glands of the flowers of the female plants. In 2022, scientists published a research study that identified the eight most common terpenes in North American cultivars of marijuana. The study's authors dubbed these important molecules Super Class terpenes.
Flavonoids are special molecules produced by cannabis and tens of thousands of other plant species that lend pigment and color to the fruits, vegetables, grains, and flowers that make them. This pigment serves the same function as the aroma released by terpenes: To protect the plants that produce them by dissuading pests and predators while also attracting pollinators such as humans and friendly insects.
Many cannabis industry professionals assume that flavonoids convey flavor based on their name. However, this urban legend is patently false. All flavor conveyed by cannabis and hemp is delivered by terpenes—along with a few other special molecules, such as esters and ketones.
Say it with us: Flavonoids deliver pigment, not flavor.
Flavonoids differ from both cannabinoids and terpenes in that they are not made by the trichomes of the plant. Tens of thousands of plant species produce more than 6,000 types of flavonoids. About 20 flavonoids, which have demonstrated pronounced anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties in a number of peer-reviewed research studies, are contained in the cannabis genome.
About 20 flavonoids, which have demonstrated pronounced anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties in a number of peer-reviewed research studies, are contained in the cannabis genome.
Of these, a few are exclusive to cannabis, including a subfamily called cannflavins that includes Cannflavin A, Cannflavin B, and Cannflavin C. The other flavonoids produced by cannabis, however, are not exclusive to the controversial herb and are made by many other plant species. In terms of exclusivity to cannabis, flavonoids are an interesting hybrid of cannabinoids and terpenes.
Understanding Cannabis. The human endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an intricate network of millions of cellular receptors (called neurotransmitters) discovered as recently as the early 1990s. The ECS performs two major functions:
Binding with cannabinoids and terpenes from cannabis and hemp to produce biochemical changes in humans (which, in theory, result in health and wellness improvements).
Interestingly, scientists have uncovered evidence suggesting that 2-AG mimics CBD and THC functions very similarly to anandamide. Those intrigued by this dynamic should also consider that most scientists believe that the cannabis plant evolved long before humans (homo sapiens). Thus, perhaps the human-produced endocannabinoids 2-AG and anandamide are actually mimicking the CBD and THC produced by cannabis, respectively.
The two major receptor types are CB1 and CB2. CB1 is located mostly in the brain and CNS, but also found in all other areas of the body (only in much lower densities).
The ECS involves microscopic cellular receptors located throughout the brain, central nervous system (CNS), and what scientists call "the periphery" (all areas of the body outside the brain and CNS). The two major receptor types are CB1 and CB2. CB1 is located mostly in the brain and CNS, but also found in all other areas of the body (only in much lower densities).
CB2 receptors are found mostly in the organs, tissues, and glands of the periphery, but in considerably lower densities in the brain and CNS. However, it should be noted that other receptor types have been identified that have yet to be formally classified as ECS receptors, including GPR 55 and GPR 119, among others.
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