What are Flavonoids?

Cannabinoids, terpenes and… flavonoids? While the first two are known as major molecules found in the cannabis plant, there's another prevalent one that not much is known about. Read this article to find out what they are what they do.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

When it comes to learning about the nitty gritty of cannabis, such as the molecules it's composed of, cannabinoids and terpenes often steal the limelight. Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are associated with both the psychological and physiological effects of cannabis, while terpenes are responsible for the plant's flavours and aroma.

But these aren't the only functional molecules in cannabis. For example, 10% of cannabis' chemical composition is made up of compounds known as flavonoids. In fact, there are 20 different known flavonoids that exist within the cannabis plant.

But what exactly are they? We decided to find out.

Related Article

What is a Cannabinoid?

What is a flavonoid?

Flavonoids belong to a group of chemicals called phytonutrients, which is just a fancy word for nutrients that come from plants. These flavonoids are not just unique to the cannabis plant, they can be found throughout nature, with an abundance found in fruits and vegetables. So abundant are they that scientists have so far identified 6000 different flavonoids that belong to 12 categories.

Flavonoids get their name from the Latin word 'flavus', which is used to describe the colour yellow as it appears in nature. This may seem like an odd descriptor for a chemical compound but it actually has something to do with their primary function – providing colour pigmentation to plants. Yellow pigments on the petals and leaves of flowers are the most prominent display of flavonoids in nature and this is mainly done to attract pollinating insects.

Yellow isn't the only colour flavonoids produce though. Many fruits and vegetables that are non-green owe their colourful appearances to the presence of flavonoids. Take berries for example, which can appear in a variety of striking colours such as red, blue and purple depending on their pH levels and a flavonoid called anthocyanin. This flavonoid, along with another called anthoxanthin, is also responsible for the purple, blue and pink pigments found on the buds of many popular cannabis strains.

What else do they do?

Despite their name, flavonoids do not contribute to the flavour or aroma of plants (although some are said to have a bitter taste). These are both largely associated with terpenes. But if colour pigmentation wasn't impressive enough, you'll be glad to know that flavonoids have a whole range of other functions. 

As they are a part of one of the most abundant nutrient families in plants, flavonoids are dispersed throughout the whole plant and can be found in leaves, flowers, roots and seeds. By interacting with themselves and other phytochemicals, they can significantly contribute to the nutritional value and cultivation of the plants which they inhabit. Being found in all parts of the plant indicates that flavonoids play an important role in seed development and the growth process.

They not only help to regulate the cell cycle progression of plants, they also exhibit defensive mechanisms. Flavonoids are able to stimulate antioxidant activity throughout the plant, which prevents damage from free radicals and other environmental dangers such as fungi, bacteria and insects. The pigments they produce also protect against harmful UV rays in areas where the plant is still experiencing growth.

As their effects on plant-life are well understood, new studies are researching the effects these compounds can produce once inside the body. Just like with plants, the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of flavonoids can also be of benefit to humans and animals. 

Similar to cannabinoids, flavonoids can also influence metabolic processes (i.e. absorption, digestion, and biotransformation). Some flavonoids have also displayed cardio-protective and neuro-protective properties however further research is needed in order to understand how significant these health benefits actually are.

In regards to cannabis, the way flavonoids contribute to the plant's psychological and physiological effects is still unclear. It is thought that flavonoids contribute to the 'entourage effect' – a way of describing how cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and other chemical components of the cannabis plant work together synergistically to produce the effects. As mentioned earlier, flavonoids do not directly contribute to a cannabis strain's flavour or aroma, however through their synergy with terpenes, they may still have some influence in these characteristics but to what extent is still unknown.

Flavonoids in cannabis

Currently, we know of 20 different flavonoids present in cannabis, which are known as 'cannflavins'. Prohibition has unfortunately slowed research in this area but cannabis science, although still in its infancy, is making advancements and we could soon discover many more.

Here are some examples of these cannflavins and their known effects:

Cannflavin A, B & C

While most flavonoids in cannabis can be found in other plants, these three cannflavins are all specific to cannabis. Cannflavins A and B are better understood than Cannflavin C and they produce potent anti-inflammatory effects. They also display analgesic properties, with Cannflavin B potentially being a more effective painkiller than THC and CBD.

Orientin & Luteolin

These two cannflavins possess powerful antioxidant effects. Orientin also has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, analgesic, anti-cancer and neuroprotective capabilities. Outside of cannabis, it can be found in tea (especially Rooibos), açai palm and black bamboo leaves. Luteolin has cardioprotective (heart and blood vessels) properties and can be found in green capsicums, celery, parsley and chamomile tea.

Vitexin & Isovitexin

Both of these cannflavins have similar properties to Orientin, producing antioxidant, analgesic, anti-cancer and neuroprotective effects. They may also be capable of preventing neural loss, which could be of major benefit in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. They can be found in passion flowers, hawthorn, black bamboo leaves and pearl millet.

Apigenin

This cannflavin is known as a non-toxic sedative that stimulates some anxiolytic activity. It has also displayed some potential in cancer treatment thanks to its anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties in treating renal damage caused by the immunosuppressant Cyclosporin A. It can be found in celery, parsley and chamomile tea.

Kaempferol

This cannflavin is currently being studied for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. There is research to suggest that Kaempferol also exhibits antidepressant effects. It can be found in most vegetables and fruits, as well as aloe vera and rosemary.

Quercetin

Quercetin is probably the most famous and abundant flavonoid in nature, being found in most vascular plants, such as fruits, vegetables and teas. It has antioxidant, anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects, with recent studies looking into how this flavonoid can be useful in the treatment of fibromyalgia.

Although progress is being made in this field, our understanding of the flavonoids in cannabis is still quite poor. Currently, the research is limited but there is an increasing number of new studies that suggest cannflavins have numerous health benefits like the flavonoids found in other plants.

Further research is imperative in order to understand their contribution to the effects of cannabis. This information could potentially be utilised in the treatment of diseases and other health conditions.

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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