What Is CBN, Exactly?

·11 min read
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Is-CBN-Really-a-Natural-Xanax-GettyImages-1276624551

Getty Images / Jo Imperio

The green boom is here to stay, and it looks like this health-centric trend is anything but a trend. More and more, mainstream culture has come to embrace cannabis, notably thanks to its health properties (which are being discovered seemingly by the hour — or so it feels like), its safety profile, and its versatility.

Though there's still roughly a century of research to catch up on (shoutout to prohibition, which outlawed cannabis, prohibiting research and shifting public perception on the actually potentially beneficial plant), several medical experts, scientists, and researchers are loudly backing the wonder plant. You may already be familiar with CBD and THC — two oft-discussed compounds found in cannabis — but the latest cannabinoid in the wellness industry spotlight deserves your attention, and that's CBN.

A Quick Cannabis 101

First, a quick refresher: Cannabis is a genus (or family) of plants, including both marijuana and hemp plants. Each cannabis plant contains 100+ components, including phytocannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and — you guessed it — cannabinol (CBN). (See also: What's the Difference Between CBD, THC, Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp?)

Meanwhile, over in the human body (more specifically, in the nervous system), there's something called an endocannabinoid system, which is designed to receive cannabinoids. The ECS contains molecules called endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes — all of which work together to regulate and control many of your body's critical functions (e.g. learning and memory, sleep, pain control, eating, among others), according to Harvard Health Publishing. This complex system also acts as a receptor for the chemicals contained in cannabis (think: cannabinoids such as THC, CBD, and CBN), thereby playing a role in cannabis' effects on the human body.

What Is CBN?

Odds are you're familiar with THC as the compound that gets you high and CBD as the one that doesn't. CBN is essentially "older THC" or, in more scientific terms, "the result of THC degradation or oxidation," according to Dasheeda Dawson, molecular biologist and author of How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry. Simply put: When the THC molecule ages, it can break down and become CBN.

So, if CBN's essentially a byproduct from THC, what does that mean about its legality? First thing's first: "CBN is not on the list of scheduled controlled substances in the United States," says Perry Solomon, M.D., a board-certified anesthesiologist and medical cannabis expert. And as long as the CBN in question is derived from a cannabis plant with no more than 0.3 percent THC, then it's legal, as put forth by the 2018 Farm Bill. But because marijuana with a higher percentage of THC is legal for medicinal and recreational use in some states across the nation, the 0.3-percent limit isn't in effect if you're in one of those locations.

CBN vs. THC

Unlike its predecessor, THC, CBN is believed to be only mildly psychoactive, according to research. Think of CBN like a mellowed-out THC; it won't have the intoxicating effects (e.g. the head high, altered mental state, intense relaxation) that THC does. One of the biggest similarities is that they both may contribute to appetite stimulation, though this is much more significant with THC, due to its higher potency. (Since THC is fresher than CBN, it has more intense effects.)

CBN vs. CBD

Arguably the most popular cannabinoid at the moment, CBD is best known for its ability to alleviate anxiety and inflammation without getting you high. (And that's not all — it also boasts a bountiful list of other benefits.) This soothing, anti-anxiety therapeutic, however, can be "too subtle" for some patients, Benjamin Caplan, M.D., board-certified physician and founder and chief medical officer of CED Clinic. CBN, on the other hand, is "commonly described as one of the more sedating cannabis compounds," says Dr. Caplan. Despite being positioned as a supercharged sedative of sorts, though, there's no scientific evidence that CBN is truly better for calming down than CBD. (Related: What Is CBG and How Is It Different from CBD?)

Before jumping into all the CBN benefits, however, it's important to note that research on this cannabinoid, in particular, is lacking (which is actually quite ironic being that CBN was the first cannabinoid to be identified by scientists). That being said, there's a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that can help explain CBN's potential perks and uses. So, let's begin...

CBN Benefits

The top properties of cannabinol (at least anecdotally) include sedation — similar to, say, melatonin — and anti-inflammation — akin to something such as ibuprofen. Human and animal studies (albeit preliminary) also suggest that the cannabinoid can be a particularly effective anticonvulsant (an agent that treats seizures), according to research.

Current research on CBN (including studies on CBN for sleep) is rather limited in the U.S., thanks to federal regulations, says Dawson. If you're feeling curious, Dawson says to look at the research from Israel, sometimes called "the mecca of cannabis research." Dr. Caplan also previously pointed out that U.S. research also tends to focus heavily on the harms of cannabis, as opposed to its benefits, which is less than helpful when trying to figure out how this plant can support human wellness.

Helps with Sleep

Dawson suffered from postpartum insomnia that held on for nearly two decades until she found CBN: "As a patient, I tried over-the-counter solutions like melatonin. I tried Ambien. It was honestly cannabis that finally was helpful. I put two and two together, and realized strains high in CBN were most effective." As of now, CBN's impact on insomnia is yet to be proven in the scientific community (largely thanks to government red tape and subsequent lack of funding). This doesn't mean it doesn't work — just that there's not much concrete evidence yet. (Related: What to Know About Taking Edibles for Better Sleep)

Dr. Caplan says CBN will probably help you get better sleep, "but not for the reasons most people think," he explains. "There doesn't seem to be some mysterious sedating powers of the chemical CBN, but rather, many cannabinoids are relaxing, either to calm active muscles, slow-down distracted thinking, or generally increase physical sensations of comfort. As a package, this becomes quite soothing, quieting, or 'sedating.' CBN seems to have the reputation of being the sedating compound within cannabis, and that may turn out to be fair, but we don't yet have reproducible, reliably convincing evidence to support the chemistry of CBN being effective."

Reduces Inflammation

While all cannabinoids seem to powerfully fight inflammation, cannabinol may be one of the best of the bunch in this department, says Dr. Caplan. "Experiments have demonstrated that CBN inhibits T-cell immune responses," he says, but the limited research in this field is roughly 20 years old. Reminder: T-cells are lymphocytes, aka white blood cells that protect your body from foreign invaders or pathogens, according to research. But they can also play a "key role" in chronic inflammation. Downregulating the proliferation of T-cells, in theory, may reduce inflammation.

And it's possible that because of this purported anti-inflammatory effect that "CBN may also have potential therapeutic use during cancer treatment," adds Dr. Caplan. "It's been shown that there's a correlation between inflammation and cancer," says Dr. Solomon. "And nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been shown to reduce varied cancer risk." So, although "the evidence is scant," according to Dr. Solomon, the thinking is as follows: If CBN is truly anti-inflammatory, then it might be able to act similarly to the aforementioned drugs, thereby treating cancer-related inflammation.

Might Be Able to Lessen Anxiety

Can CBN help with anxiety? Hard maybe. CBN doesn't seem to have the same strong link with anxiety that CBD does. That isn't to say that it can't help with some of the effects of anxiety, but the research is virtually nonexistent. Dr. Caplan, who created an entire library of cannabis research, pointed to just one study from 2001 with weak findings.

"CBN, as a compound, does not have the hard scientific evidence to suggest that it's as sedating as people everywhere seem to think it is," says Dr. Caplan. "The marketing of CBN as a sedating compound may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy." Meaning, it may just be due to the placebo effect (when a beneficial effect produced by a drug or treatment is not attributed to the properties of the treatment itself, but rather due to the patient's belief in that treatment). It's also possible that "the presence of CBN might diminish the overall strength of a given product, so people end up taking more of it, thus taking on a greater number of other relaxing compounds," he explains. After all, Dr. Solomon says that he's seen nothing that suggets CBN alone lessens anxiety.

Provides Powerful Antioxidants

And like the rest of the cannabinoids (including CBD and THC), CBN has antioxidant properties — essentially blocking any harm brought on by oxidation (caused by UV exposure, free radicals, etc.), which can "cause damage to your skin, eyes, and the very DNA in your cells (at times causing cancer)," says Dr. Caplan.

The Best Way to Consume CBN

So what's the best way to get a dose of CBN: a tincture, capsule, or a gummy? Dr. Caplan says that they're all about the same, and that "there is not one objectively more powerful method for consuming CBN to achieve the optimal effects."

But first, a quick head's up: A lot of the evidence that experts currently have, particularly with CBN, is anecdotal. That said, the risks of trying it are relatively low, especially if you start low and slow with your dosage to find what works for you, according to the experts here. ICYDK, the safety profile for cannabis, in general, is really good — meaning it has not been linked to any really adverse health outcomes. That said, it's also important to choose safe products by checking for a certificate of analysis (COA), which is proof that a third-party, independent lab tested the product you're about to buy and looked at things like potency and contaminants and pesticides. (More on that here: How to Buy Safe and Effective CBD Products)

Combine Your Cannabinoids

With that in mind, you may want to consider taking CBN with CBD or other cannabinoids. This could come down to what is called "the entourage effect" of cannabis, where the group of compounds work better together. Dr. Caplan says that taking CBN with THC (if you have legal access to it — check out Americans for Safe Access to confirm) "may offer some added benefit [over] simply taking CBN alone." (Related: 3 Reasons You Should Try CBD Even If You Have No Interest In Weed)

The entourage effect, Dawson explains, is like "a New York club." The people in line are the cannabinoids, and the bouncers are the receptors (the ones in your body that receive cannabinoids). "When molecules go to the receptor, they do so in a group," says Dawson, who shares that under a microscope, the molecules really do look like a birds-eye view of a New York club line, with a group trying to get in.

The more cannabinoids and terpenes (aromatic oils derived from plants, such as linalool from lavender and limonene from citrus, which are also found in cannabis) that are part of the entourage, the better chance they have to get into the club, says Dawson. For this reason, she suggests always opting for full-spectrum products over isolates, if you're able. Isolates are when specific compounds are, yes, isolated from other components of the plant. Meanwhile, full-spectrum is a whole plant extract, and nothing is added or removed from the plant's natural chemical composition. When there are multiple plant compounds present, it can help optimize potency, efficacy, and bioavailability (the ability to which a substance can be absorbed and used by the body), she says.

This means when you're shopping for a CBN supplement to look for "full-spectrum" on the label, and cross-reference what's being advertised with the COA, which will verify what's in your product.

Pair with CBD for Sleep

Because of the entourage effect, both experts recommend a combination of CBD and CBN for sleep — and several products on the market contain this potent combination. You can try Sleepy Bear Gummies (Buy It, $50, sleepybeargummies.com), which contain both cannabinoids and melatonin [author's note: I sleep SO well with these], or WYLD CBN CBD Elderberry Gummies (Buy It, $40, wyldcbd.com). Both products are THC-free (which means you won't risk intoxication, failing a drug test, or breaking a law if you're in a job or state that prohibits it). (And if you happen to have legal access to THC products where you live, you may consider adding that into your entourage for the best night's sleep ever.)