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Cannabis is an intricate plant that consists of hundreds of currently identified chemical entities, each existing in one of three primary categories: cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.
Cannabinoids are a distinct class of chemical compounds produced within the cannabis plant. They interact with and influence highly-specialized cannabinoid receptors within the body’s endogenous (or internal) endocannabinoid system (ECS). Researchers have isolated and identified the molecular structure of well over 100 individual cannabinoids to date.
To further complicate matters, the term “cannabinoid” has multiple classifications. Phytocannabinoids (phyto- referring to a relation to plants), for example, are molecules synthesized by plants. The most well-known phytocannabinoids are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (delta–nine–tetrahydrocannabinol).
Alternatively, endocannabinoids (endo- meaning internal) are cannabis-like molecules produced naturally within one’s endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids behave similarly to phytocannabinoids and are pivotal to various therapeutic functions within the human body. Anandamide, for example, is aptly referred to as the “bliss molecule” for its joyful-like effects.
Terpenes are a diverse class of organic compounds produced by cannabis, conifers, and certain insects. They create unique odors that are believed to help protect plants from herbivores and other environmental stressors. Cannabis, for instance, boasts an often pungent fragrance that is widely dependent upon its unique terpene profile. Myrcene is among its most commonly produced terpenes, which accredits cannabis with an earthy or herbal aroma.
The potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis-produced terpenes remain widely under-studied, as is the synergistic relationship they share with cannabinoids, flavonoids, and other plant-based compounds. More in-depth, terpene-specific research is warranted to learn if and how terpenes could be applied medicinally.
Flavonoids exist throughout nature and are not specific to the cannabis plant. Researchers have identified thousands in various fruits, plants, and vegetables. Certain flavonoids exist only in cannabis, however, and frequently are referred to as “cannflavins.” Flavonoids help provide plants and flowers with color pigmentation and, in part, odor and taste. They additionally help defend against environmental stressors such as pests and disease.
Flavonoids are another widely under-studied area of cannabis research, and the full extent of their potential therapeutic value remains unknown. Some studies, for example, suggest that the anti-inflammatory effects of certain cannflavins are more potent than those of aspirin. Several other flavonoids found within certain strains of cannabis have additionally demonstrated potential antifungal and antioxidant applications, as well.