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Cannabis phytochemistry - the plant chemistry of cannabis

Phytochemicals are biologically active chemical compounds

produced through primary or secondary metabolism in plants in order

to help the plant grow and/or protect itself from disease and pests.79 80

The term phytochemical includes both nutritional and non-nutritional

compounds found in a plant; however, the term is generally used

to refer to the non-essential nutrients and compounds in a plant.81

Essential nutrients are compounds the human body can’t make (or

makes, but doesn’t produce enough of) that are required for normal

human body functioning. When considering the entirety of the plant

(roots, stalk, leaves, seeds, and flowers), the phytochemical makeup

of cannabis is quite profound.

Essential Nutrients

The known categories of essential nutrients for humans are:

● Water

● Calories (energy) from protein, carbohydrate, or fat

● 8-10 essential amino acids

● Essential fatty acids

● 13 vitamins

● 16-20 minerals82

A fresh cannabis plant is eighty percent water. Cannabis calories

can be derived from protein, fats, and sugars. Cannabis seeds contain

around 30% oil and about 25% protein. Thirty-three different fatty

acids have been found in cannabis seed oil.83 Polyunsaturated fatty

acids account for 80% of cannabis seed oil. The proteins contained in

cannabis seeds (mainly edestin and albumin) are highly nutritional in

the form of easily digestible essential amino acids. 84 85 The cannabis

plant contains many sugars including thirteen monosaccharides, two

disaccharides, five polysaccharides, and sugar alcohols. In addition,

cannabis is a source for cyclitols. Fresh juice of the cannabis plant is

a good source of vitamins, nutrients, protein, oil and insoluble fiber.

Cannabis juice is rich in vitamin K, and eighteen elements have been

found in cannabis including essential minerals sodium, potassium,

calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc.86


All other biologically active chemical compounds produced

by plants are considered non-essential nutrient, or non-nutrient

phytochemicals. Despite their non-essential categorization, non-

nutrient phytochemicals have been found to provide protection for human health.87


Phytochemical cannabinoids are chemical compounds found

in cannabis that bind to receptors in the human body. There are currently over 100 known

cannabinoids, though most of them have yet to be independently

studied and fully characterized. Two of the better known cannabinoids

are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is

well known for the psychotropic/euphoric high it produces due to its

activity as a partial agonist of CB1 receptors.88 CBD is known for its

anti-inflammatory,89 anti-anxiety,90 and seizure-reducing properties91

with a reduced psychotropic effect. CBD is also a negative allosteric

modulator on CB1 receptors92 and a weak antagonist of CB2

receptors.93 CBD is not as psychoactive as THC but does have a

significant sedative effect at higher doses.

Other cannabinoids, while less studied, are also known to have

therapeutic effects. Cannabigerol (CBG) is known for its antibacterial,

anti-tumor, and sedative effects. Cannabinol (CBN) is the result of the

oxidative process that occurs when THC is exposed to oxygen and

heat; it can result from aging, exposure to sun, or overheating of THC

products. While individual cannabinoids have different properties,

their effect on the body is greater when different cannabinoids are

combined than when they are used in isolation.94 This synergistic

interaction is commonly referred to as the “entourage effect.”

Some examples of cannabinoids found in cannabis and

their associated benefits are:

● THC: generally the most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis,

causing the most psychotropic effects

○ analgesic, appetite stimulant, antiemetic, antispasmodic

● THCa: main constituent in raw cannabis converting to Δ9-

THC when heated (decarboxylated)

○ anti-inflammatory, anti epileptic, anti-proliferative

● THCv: minor cannabinoid found in only some strains of


○ anorectic, anti-epileptic, anti-diabetic, bone-stimulant

● CBN: mildly psychoactive cannabinoid that is produced from

the degradation of THC

○ analgesic, antispasmodic, anti-somnia

● CBD: rather than an “on/off” or “lock and key” receptor

mechanism, CBD modifies the receptiveness of

endocannabinoid receptors and also appears to interact

elsewhere in the body

○ analgesic, anti-inflammatory, appetite stimulant,

antiemetic, intestinal anti-prokinetic, anxiolytic,

antipsychotic, antiepileptic, antispasmodic,

immunosuppressive, anti-diabetic, neuroprotective,

antipsoriatic, anti-ischemic, antibacterial, anti￾proliferative, bone-stimulant

● CBDa: CBD’s form prior to decarboxylation

○ anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative

● CBDv: non-psychoactive cannabinoid similar in structure to


○ antiepileptic

● CBG: non-psychoactive cannabinoid

○ analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal,

anti-proliferative, bone-stimulant

● CBGa: CBG’s form prior to decarboxylation

○ anti-inflammatory

● CBC: second most prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis

produced through an enzymatic process converting CBGa to

CBCa, which then makes CBC when heated

○ analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti￾proliferative, bone-stimulant

● CBCa: CBC’s form prior to decarboxylation

○ anti-bacterial, anti-fungal


Terpenes are chemical compounds produced in plants that

contribute to the plants’ flavors and smells. Terpenes protect

cannabis from environmental stressors such as excess moisture,

mold, penetrating sun, and pests. Terpenes can also attract beneficials

(helpful insects such as ladybugs). Like cannabinoids, terpenes

interact with a multitude of receptors in the body.95 Many of the

benefits associated with essential oils are due to their high terpene

contents. Two common terpenes in cannabis are alpha-pinene and

D-linalool (also found in pine trees and lavender, respectively). Alpha￾pinene has demonstrated anti-inflammatory,96 bronchodilating,97 and

antibiotic98 properties. Of special interest to cannabis researchers

is alpha-pinene’s ability to inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine,

which mitigates the short-term memory degradation associated with

THC.99 D-linalool has been shown to have anticonvulsant,100 anxiety￾reducing,101 and sedative effects.102 D-linalool also seems to have

local anesthetic effects comparable to that of procaine and menthol,103

which would be relevant in topical applications of cannabis.

Some terpenes found in cannabis, with their aroma/

flavor, effect/medical value, and an example of each strain are:

● Myrcene: tropical and earthy; analgesic, anti-inflammatory,

and antibiotic (Pure Kush)

● Limonene: citrus; antifungal, antibacterial properties, and

anticarcinogenic (Super Lemon Haze)

● Pinene: pine; expectorant, bronchodilator, anti-inflammatory,

and local antiseptic (Jack Herer)

● Eucalyptol: mint; pain relief and improved concentration


● Terpineol: floral; sedative (White Rhino)

● Borneol: mint; combat fatigue, stress, and illness (Diamond


● Caryophyllene: pepper; anti-inflammatory and analgesic

(Super Silver Haze)

● Linalool: lavender; anti-anxiety and sedative (Grape Ape)


Flavonoids play a role in the color and aroma of flowers to

assist in attracting pollinators and are involved in seed and spore

germination.104 During growth, they help the plant filter light105

and protect them from mold, mildew, and pests.106 Flavonoids

are suspected to play an influential role in the effect that cannabis

produces but are currently the least studied of the compounds in

cannabis. They are a key area of investigation for scientists studying

the health effects of plant consumption and have been studied for their

antiviral,107 antibacterial,108 anti-inflammatory,109 neuroprotective and

regenerative,110 anti-oxidative,111 and anti-cancer effects.112 There is

significant need for additional studies on how flavonoids interact

with cannabinoids and terpenes.


Very little is known about the beneficial potential of other lesser

known cannabis phytochemicals such as alkanes, amines, phenols,

alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, acids, esters, and lactones. These

additional constituents further enhance and differentiate flavors and

aromas, and fruit and vegetable research is showing their contribution

to various health benefits.

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