If you are a fan of cannabis, you undoubtedly know about the most popular cannabinoid, THC. Lately, its non-psychoactive cousin, CBD, is also gaining a lot of attention.
However, cannabis produces over 100 cannabinoids, including cannabinol or CBN. These other minor cannabinoids also interact with the endocannabinoid system and may have unique benefits to offer
Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
Table of Contents
- What is Cannabinol (CBN)?
- How Does CBN Work in the Body?
- History of CBN
- CBN vs CBD
- Benefits of CBN
- Popular Myths About CBN
- Legal Issues
- How to Find CBN in Cannabis Products
- Final Thoughts
The medical information on this page was reviewed by Ankush Patel, MD
What is Cannabinol (CBN)?
Found mostly in aged samples, CBN (cannabinol) is a mildly psychoactive cannabinoid found in trace amounts in cannabis. Even though it is slightly psychoactive, it doesn’t produce the same psychoactive effects as THC, and doesn’t get you high.
- Chemical Formula: C21H26O2
- CBN is insoluble in water, but, like other cannabinoids, it is soluble in both methanol and ethanol.
- It is often found in tinctures and vaporizes at 185 °C or 365 °F.
With medical marijuana legal in at least 33 states and recreational cannabis becoming legal in many places as well, more and more people are interested in the benefits this plant has to offer. Unique in its composition, cannabis has special medicinal benefits due to the blend of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other chemical compounds.
One reason cannabinoids are becoming more popular is due to the rise in the use of Cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is one of the main non-psychotropic compounds that occurs naturally in cannabis, and, in recent years, more CBD products have come to market.
As CBD has gained ground, other cannabinoids are also getting some time in the sun—including cannabinol (CBN). So what exactly is cannabinol, how does it work, and what does it do? Does CBN have any benefits?
Cannabinoids typically derive from either cannabigerol (CBG) or cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). CBN forms as the breakdown product of THC, which occurs over some time, i.e. on aged cannabis plants as opposed to those that have recently flowered. This breakdown is due to natural processes that cause the decomposition of THC, such as exposure to light and air causing oxidative processes.
How Does CBN Work in the Body?
There are cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body that are part of the endocannabinoid system. These receptors are involved in various functions, including the immune system, memory, pain perception, and sleep.
Cannabinoids are like messenger compounds that bind with cannabinoid receptors and other receptors as well. When cannabinoids bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, this signals them into service.
Although humans have many cannabinoid receptors in their bodies, the two most studied are endocannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and endocannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). CB1 is more significant to the central nervous system, and CB2 primarily impacts the immune system.
CBN is structurally different from THC. However, both CBN and THC activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors.
The first major study of CBN is from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 1999. That study tested how cannabis loses potency over time, and it found that the sample fell to about half of its starting potency in four years.
The part of that research most relevant to CBN found that the sample converted more CBN as the THC oxidized, and during the first two years, the most THC degradation took place. This time coincided with improper storage of the sample, allowing the researchers to connect plant vulnerability, storage conditions, THC degradation, and the THC-CBN conversion process.
In essence, the work found that as cannabis degrades over time it becomes more CBN-heavy, and there is a relationship between storage time and the concentration ratio of CBN to THC which relates to the age and storage conditions of a cannabis sample.
But if THC is degrading as CBN is produced, doesn’t this mean that naturally there isn’t much CBN in cannabis? Yes, while THC might comprise up to 30 percent of a cannabis plant, and other cannabinoids such as CBD might also represent a larger percentage, CBN is usually hovering around 0.5 to 1 percent.
Furthermore, as cannabis is aging, it may be trading in some of its psychoactive properties in favor of other benefits, although there is much that remains unknown about most cannabinoids.
History of CBN
CBN was the first plant cannabinoid or phytocannabinoid scientists isolated—in 1896 from a red oil cannabis extract. In 1932 R.S. Cahn elucidated CBN’s chemical structure, and this enabled two different groups of researchers to synthesize and officially discover CBN in the 1940s.
This is probably why people believed that CBN was the psychoactive component in cannabis for over twenty years, until scientists isolated THC in 1964. At this point, researchers could see that CBN was actually a degraded, oxidized version of THC that did not intoxicate users.
The next step was to isolate CBN as a compound for study to determine its specific medicinal properties. A 1976 study explored the sedating effects of CBN, both alone and together with THC. The study showed results that indicated that CBN did not seem to show sedating effects by itself. However, when used in conjunction with oral THC administration, subjects reported experiencing higher levels of sedation than with THC alone. In other words, it is the entourage effect or the combination of various compounds that produces a sedating effect, not CBN itself.
CBN vs CBD
CBD has recently taken not just the cannabis world, but the entire wellness world, by storm. Known now as a healing yet non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD is often compared to THC. But how do CBN and CBD compare?
The first major difference is that CBN, which is a THC by-product, is mildly psychoactive. Another major difference is that CBD and CBN interact with the human endocannabinoid system differently.
Whereas CBN produces a small, but weak effect on CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD has little effect on these receptors at all. Instead of interacting directly with the cannabinoid receptors, CBD exerts its effects indirectly by acting on other receptors, enzymes, and hormones throughout the body.
CBD oils typically come in either full spectrum or broad spectrum form. Broad spectrum usually contains CBN, and full spectrum always does. The difference is THC; full spectrum CBD products have all of the terpenes and cannabinoids that are generally extracted from the cannabis plant, including some negligible amount of THC.
Full spectrum CBD oil is popular among consumers because of the entourage effect. Research indicates that the benefits of the cannabinoids are enhanced together—including CBN. The THC in full spectrum hemp products is very minor, and cannot produce noticeable psychoactive effects. Broad spectrum CBD oils keep cannabinoids such as CBN but remove any trace of THC—this may reduce some of the entourage effect, but it is ideal for those who cannot afford any trace of THC in their system.
Benefits of CBN
There is a lot more CBN mythology out there than there is facts. However, we will present what has been supported by research.
A study conducted on rats and provided promising results that CBN is an effective analgesic or pain reliever for chronic muscle pain disorders such as TMJ and fibromyalgia. While the research was not conducted on humans, the information may eventually be applied to humans in future studies.
In a 2020 study, researchers show that CBN inhibits proliferation of cancer cells and regulates expression of cannabinoid receptors in different cell lines. The team found that CBN induces cancer cell death, and the data support the medicinal potential of CBN as part of anti-cancer therapy.
Researchers found that CBN increased both the time and quantity of feeding in rats. They proposed CBN might have potential as a non-intoxicating version of the THC munchies.
CBN is among several major cannabinoids with “potent activity” against a variety of strains of bacteria, according to the research. Together, these cannabinoids have demonstrated potent activity against several different methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains.
Popular Myths About CBN
Did you notice that we didn’t mention that CBN is a sedative? That’s because the research just doesn’t support that claim—but that hasn’t stopped the myths from propagating. Here’s the deal.
Back in the 1970s, one small study did investigate CBN and sedation, yet none of the respondents reported that CBN sedated them. So why is this rumor so persistent? There are two possibilities.
First, older cannabis, which also tends to be higher in CBN, can often create sedative effects. However, these effects are not caused specifically by the CBN. It is more likely that THC and CBN together cause a synergistic sedative effect.
It is also likely that other factors, such as the evaporation of monoterpenoids, are causing the effect. When cannabis ages, monoterpenoids evaporate, and oxygenated sesquiterpenoids, which are the more sedating terpenes, remain.
The holistic effect from these older samples is, therefore, likely to be more sedating—but not because of CBN or any other factor alone. Still, although CBN itself might not sedate you per se, it’s not a ridiculous idea to seek out CBN-rich medical cannabis strains—or just aged cannabis—if you’re hoping to get a good night of sleep.
The schedules of the 1961 United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs do not list CBN, nor do those set out by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. This means that the countries who have signed these international drug control treaties do not need to control or restrict CBN under international law. For the most part, its status varies from place to place if it is recognized at all.
Here in the US, federal and state laws concerning cannabis and hemp products are confusing at best and contradictory or punitive at worst. In the United States, CBN is not listed as a controlled substance. For a detailed discussion of the legality of CBD and THC, see our post here.
How to Find CBN Products
If you’re curious about CBN products, you’re in good company. Many people are hoping to gain the benefits of full spectrum cannabis extracts, and they are exploring how cannabinoids work in the body.
This is especially true if you don’t want to experience the high of THC, but would like to reap some of the other benefits of cannabinoids.
However, you’re probably not going to be able to roll into the local dispensary and ask about their many CBN-rich cultivars, or CBN tinctures on offer. These products mostly don’t exist; the research isn’t there yet.
Some brands are offering CBN tinctures and other products, but you won’t find the same range of products as you would when looking for CBD.
Certain cannabis strains are higher in CBN than others. Although most strains of cannabis contain less than 1 percent of CBN at first, a few strains such Bruce Banner, GSC, or Kosher Kush are aged for longer, which can bring out the CBN. And some strains are known to have more CBN content, including Animal Cookies, Purple Sour Diesel, and Pineapple Chunk.
Another tip for getting more of the calming effects from a higher CBN strain: consume it as an edible or orally as a tincture instead of smoking or vaping it. Ingesting cannabinoids tends to change their effects somewhat, making for a longer-lasting experience.
Final Thoughts on CBN
Cannabis has a fascinating chemical makeup that varies—not just from strain to strain, but even from plant to plant. Although THC and CBD typically take charge of the host of chemical compounds that make up any one plant, other terpenes and cannabinoids such as CBN and its cousins CBG and CBC play more of a role than we currently understand.
The effects of cannabinol and other cannabis compounds are just beginning to be explored in more depth.