Cannabeginners: CBN Explained

Is CBN really the best cannabinoid for sleep?

While often referred to as the “most potent cannabinoid for sleep,” the reality of cannabinol (CBN) is much more complex. This brief explainer will give you information you need to know to separate the facts from marketing fiction about the first cannabinoid to ever be identified and isolated.

How Is CBN Made?

Let’s go into a brief cannabis chemistry lesson to better understand how CBN is made. In the living plant, CBN is a very rare cannabinoid, present only in trace amounts. Once the plant is harvested and begins to dry and cure, a conversion clock is started, turning all the THCa into THC, and further turning THC into CBN. This conversion is caused by a chemical process known as decarboxylation, a process all edible makers know well. Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction where a carbon atom is removed from the carbon chain attached to the THCa molecule releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and causing that THCa to become THC; the released CO2 is why the steam coming off a batch of cannabutter smells so strongly. 

You can further decarboxylate THC into CBN through the same/a similar process of applying heat. Beyond using heat, decarboxylation can be caused by exposure to UV light (the sun), exposure to oxygen, or just the passage of time. 

How Does CBN Interact With Your Body?

Research has shown that the cannabinoid is a weak psychoactive compound, presumably more psychoactive than CBD but less than THC, and there are anecdotal reports of people feeling “high” from using CBN. The cannabinoid has “been consistently reported to be a weak CB1 agonist,” meaning it could result in feelings of “highness,” just like THC (but to a lesser degree). Results have been mixed in regards to how strong of an effect CBN has at the CB2 receptor. Beyond the endocannabinoid system, like CBD, CBN interacts with different TRP channels, and is a “potent agonist of TRPA1 and antagonist of TPRM8 channels.”

CBN and Sleep: A Mixed Bag

Many articles, going back nearly a decade, including former articles by this author, note the sedating effects of CBN, but they all cite the same source, Steephill Labs. Unfortunately, Steephill “is in the process of restructuring its business” and their website is down, but after digging into the Internet Archive, it is clear that sourcing them was questionable in the first place, as their website did not cite a study to back up their claims. I cited them in my 2014 article as research on CBN was very limited at the time, and since then, more research has been done, and it casts some doubt on CBN as a sleep aid.

According to a 2021 literature review “research investigating the effects of CBN is dated and limited,” furthermore, “Studies specifically assessing subjective effects associated with sleep, such as sedation or fatigue, are rare.” The study authors concluded that, “There is insufficient published evidence to support sleep-related claims.” This study came on the heels of a 2020 study looking at CBN’s impacts on Zebrafish larvae, which “showed that CBN acts both as a stimulant and a sedative.”

Let’s briefly look at some of that “dated and limited” research, most of which came out in the 1970s and 1980s, before modern testing and surveying methods were developed. In one 1975 study, a very small handful of volunteers were given placebos or doses of cannabinoids, then given a survey to measure their reaction to drugs. They found that “volunteers reported feeling drugged, drunk, dizzy, and drowsy under the delta9-THC condition, but not under the CBN condition,” meaning CBN did not produce feelings of drowsiness on its own. When used with THC, they found that CBN made the drowsing effects of THC more intense. Another 1975 study, appears to contradict those findings, noting “The combination of THC with CBN produced no detectable changes in the quality, intensity, or duration of the effects of THC alone.” Clearly, even that dated research didn’t uniformly say the cannabinoid was beneficial for sleep. 

What This Cannabinoid Can Be Used For

Now that we have addressed the elephant in the room — that CBN may not be as beneficial for sleep as many of us have heard — let’s discuss the research that is less conflicted. It is important to note that much of the research on CBN, like many studies on cannabinoids, was done on animals not people, and it goes without saying, that people are not the same as animals (though there are *some* similarities).

Research has shown that the cannabinoid: can delay the onset of ALS by “more than two weeks,” shows potent activity against a variety of MRSA strains, has analgesic (pain relieving) properties similar to THC, can stimulate appetite to a lesser degree than THC, can help combat the growth of cancer cells, and can be beneficial to sufferers of psoriasis

CBN is a poorly studied and relatively rare cannabinoid that is seeing more interest and research in recent years, much of it showing some medical benefits for a wide range of conditions. The benefits of CBN seem to have a lot of overlap with THC, which makes some sense considering CBN is derived from THC, but without the same level of psychoactivity. That means the cannabinoid could be useful for people who want to use THC but with less of a high. 

  1. It would be nice to have an author who understands basic organic chemistry (that’s carbon molecule chemistry & not the ‘artificial chemical free’ newer use of the word organic) when discussing it.
    The author is WRONG when he he stated:
    “Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction where a carbon atom is removed from the carbon chain attached to the THCa molecule releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and causing that THCa to become THC”
    The carboxylic acid group of THCa is NOT a carbon chain, but has a single carbon atom (as part of the COOH group). THC and THCa do have a five carbon alkyl chain on another part of their molecules that has nothing to do with the decarboxylation process (which does release the carboxyl group as CO2).
    The author is also WRONG when he stated:
    “You can further decarboxylate THC into CBN”
    THC is actually oxidized into CBN (which removes hydrogen atoms & adds electrons to one of its rings) and this has nothing to do with decarboxylation (which is the removal of a carboxyl, COOH, group).
    It is also worth noting an early (but EXCELLENT) human study comparing THC, CBD and CBN published in the leading journal Experientia in 1973:
    Experientia 29/11 15.11.1973 pages 1368-1369
    M. Perez-Reyes, Martha C. Timmons, K. H. Davis and E. M. Wall
    A Comparison of the Pharmacological Activity in Man of Intravenously Administered Tetrahydrocannabinol, Cannabinol and Cannabidiol
    “21 normal, paid male volunteers were i.v. infused…Subjects were initially i.v. infused with a drug-free solution (normal saline), and at some unspecified time, it was replaced with the preparation containing THC, CBN or CBD. The replacement of the solution (was) without the subjects awareness…The subjects were instructed to report the moment they felt the action of the drug, that is the initial perception of a marihuana-like effects, and to ask for the termination of the infusion as soon as they felt they had arrived at their desired level of ‘high’. The volunteers were encouraged to receive the largest amount of the drug they could comfortably tolerate…the initial perception of drug effect by the subjects occurred with a small amount of THC, a large amount for CBN and CBD did not produce a noticeable effect. This is also true for the amount of cannabinoid necessary to accelerate the heart beat over 25% of the basal rate. The total dose of THC tolerated by the subjects was relatively small and produced in every instance intense psychological and physiological effects. Thus, subjects invariably reported never having been so ‘high’ before by smoking either marihuana or hashish. In contrast, the total dose of CBN infused was large, and the subjects never asked for the infusion to be terminated. At the end of the experiment they reported their experience as mild and enjoyable, and they stated that they had been ‘higher’ previously with either the smoking of marihuana or hashish. CBD at the dose infused did not produce any psychological or physiological effects. In conclusion, contrary to the results obtained in the Rhesus monkey, we have found that CBN is capable of producing a marihuana-like ‘high’ although the doses necessary for it are several orders of magnitude larger than those of THC. This finding indicates the need for caution in extrapolating results obtained in animal experimentation to man.”

    1. Hey Brad,

      I appreciate the lengthy scientific explanation of decarboxylation, which was both beyond the scope of this article (far too technical for beginners) and also beyond the abilities of my word limit. I am not an organic chemist, I am just a journalist, and it is always nice to get a friendly fact check to help explain what I didn’t have the ability to get into in the article itself.

  2. Also worth noting is the WRONG statement:
    “that people are not the same as animals (though there are *some* similarities).”
    In fact people are animals (unless your religion negates your belief in the facts of science).
    Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
    Order: Primates
    Suborder: Haplorhini
    Infraorder: Simiiformes
    Family: Hominidae
    Subfamily: Homininae
    Tribe: Hominini
    Genus: Homo
    Species: H. sapiens

    1. Thanks for that fact check, I could have been more accurate by saying something like “animal studies do not inherently carry over to humans, as our body is not the same as the animals used in scientific studies.” We definitely are animals, but many studies have shown that animal studies are not perfect representations of how substances effect humans.

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