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What Is Cannabinol (CBN) and How Does it Compare to CBD?

By Sherry Christiansen

Medically reviewed by Dr. George Gavrilos, Dr. Steven Salzman

Image of hemp flower and CBN molecule

Key Takeaways

  1. Cannabinol (CBN) is one of over 100 cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa L. plant 
  2. CBN is like CBD in many ways, but it originates from Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) so it’s more like THC in molecular structure.
  3. CBN activates CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system.
  4. Preliminary studies showing that CBN may provide many health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antitumor effects, are gaining momentum.
  5. Researchers are calling for more human studies to definitively show the benefits of CBN.

What Is Cannabinol (CBN) and How Does it Compare to CBD?

The Cannabis sativa L. Plant has several cannabinoids. Most people have heard of CBD, but CBN is not nearly as well known, nor has it been as widely studied. However, there are some preliminary studies suggesting CBN has many health benefits, such as its sleep promoting attributes. But what is CBN and how is it related to other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant?

What is CBN?

Most people have heard of CBD, but CBN is less familiar; CBD is the most prevalent cannabinoid found in the hemp plant where CBD originates. CBN is the result of the breakdown of another well known cannabinoid, called delta-9- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). By exposing THC to heat; the CBN production process can be facilitated, making it occur faster. 2 Because CBN originates from THC, it has mild psychoactive effects, but its euphoric effects are not nearly as strong as those induced by the use of THC.

Although hemp has a relatively low concentration of THC, during the extraction process, concentrated cannabinoids from hemp flowers can be used to extract hemp-derived THC, which can be converted to CBN.

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CBN and the Endocannabinoid System

Like THC, CBN acts on the CB1 endocannabinoid receptors as a partial antagonist, but CBN has a higher affinity for the CB2 receptor. 3 

CBN binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors at a significantly lower affinity than THC; this means that CBN, like THC, is considered a psychoactive compound, but its effect (i.e., making a person feel euphoric or high) is much milder. Some people may not even notice CBN’s psychoactive effect (i.e., the property that makes a person get high). 3 This may be because although CBN and THC both attach to CB1 receptors, but CBN interacts with CB1 receptors at a much lower rate of intensity.3 Learn more about endocannabinoid receptors here.

What are the primary differences between CBD and CBN?

There are several differences between CBD and CBN, including: 4

  • CBD and CBN are both cannabinoids, but they are derived from different molecules. 
  • CBD and CBN are thought to have similar benefits; they both interact with the endocannabinoid system.
  • CBD and CBN are similar in that they produce little to no psychoactive properties of THC.
  • There is no way to cultivate a strain of cannabis or hemp with high-CBN levels; the process of CBN product occurs naturally within the plant depending on various factors such as its exposure to light or heat, as well as the level of THC present in the flowers of the plant.
  • Much of the research on CBN is considered preliminary. There is significantly less research data available on CBN compared to CBD. 

Potential Benefits of CBN

Like CBD, there are thought to be many potential health benefits of CBN and because of a surge in interest in the impact of phytocannabinoids on health and wellness, research is beginning to gain momentum.  

An Older Study on Sleep Promotion

Research on the effects of CBN on sleep is beginning to gain momentum; but for now, much of the study data involves preliminary research. One small, older study involved five study participants; the study showed that CBN has a potential to act as a sedative.5

Participants were given a combination of delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBN and the study authors concluded that those who took a combination of THC and CBN reported stronger sedative effects than the study participants who only took THC.5

More studies are needed to show enough evidence that CBN is effective in promoting sleep. To substantiate anecdotal claims, randomized controlled trials are needed.6   

A 2019 Study of Analgesic Properties 

A 2019 animal study published in Archives of Oral Biology found that a combination of CBD and CBN had an analgesic effect in animals, lowering myofascial pain (i.e., irritation in the fascia surrounding the muscle) in rats.7 Myofascial pain is similar to fibromyalgia and other chronic pain disorders. 

The rat study involved administration of 1 mg/ml of CBN, combined with 1mg/ml CBD. When CBN was combined with CBD, the result was longer lasting pain reduction than either CBD or CBN given alone. 7

The study authors concluded, “These results suggest that peripheral application of these non-psychoactive cannabinoids may provide analgesic relief for chronic muscle pain disorders such as temporomandibular disorders and fibromyalgia without central side effects.” 7 

A 2005 Study on Neuroprotective Properties

A 2005 animal study discovered that CBN delayed the onset of a condition commonly known as ALS. ALS is formally called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; it is a rare neurological disorder that affects the nerve cells. The study provides substantial evidence that CBN could be used to treat neurological disorders such as ALS, but researchers are calling for more human studies to definitively back these claims.8

A 2016 Review Study on Anti-inflammatory Properties

Cannabinoids, such as those in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) as well as phytocannabinoids, like CBN, act very differently on inflammation than some anti-inflammatory medications—such as NSAIDS. NSAIDS are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Motrin (ibuprofen). Learn more about the ECS, cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids here

A 2016 review study reported that cannabinoids are free of common adverse effects associated with NSAIDS. The study authors identified several phytocannabinoids, including CBN, that are strong candidates for development of anti-inflammatory agents to treat chronic and acute inflammation.9 

A 2019 Cancer Treatment Study 

A 2019 study published by the Journal of the Association of Basic Medical Sciences (BJBMS), discovered potential antitumor activity of phytocannabinoids such as CBN, THC, CBD and CBL. The study authors report, “Cannabinoids were able to effectively modulate tumor growth in different in vitro and in vivo cancer models, however, these anticancer effects appear to be dependent on cancer type and drug dose.” 10  

Potential Side Effects of CBN

There are no known side effects of CBN, but ongoing research studies will continue to review its safety as well as its effectiveness.

Resources

  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need To Know https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cannabis-marijuana-and-cannabinoids-what-you-need-to-know   Updated November, 2019.
  2. Morales P, Hurst DP, Reggio PH. Molecular targets of the phytocannabinoids: a complex picture. In: Kinghorn AD, Falk H, Gibbons S, Kobayashi J, eds. Phytocannabinoids. Vol 103. Springer International Publishing; 2017:103-131. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_4 https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_4    
  3. De Petrocellis L, Ligresti A, Moriello AS, et al. Effects of cannabinoids and cannabinoid-enriched Cannabis extracts on TRP channels and endocannabinoid metabolic enzymes: Novel pharmacology of minor plant cannabinoids. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2011;163(7):1479-1494.doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.01166.x https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.01166.x 
  4. Morales P, Hurst DP, Reggio PH. Molecular targets of the phytocannabinoids: a complex picture. In: Kinghorn AD, Falk H, Gibbons S, Kobayashi J, eds. Phytocannabinoids. Vol 103. Springer International Publishing; 2017:103-131. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_4 https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_4
  1. Karniol IG, et al. Effects of delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol in man. doi:10.1159/000136944 https://doi.org/10.1159/000136944 1975
  2. Corroon J. Cannabinol and sleep: separating fact from fiction. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. Published online August 31, 2021:can.2021.0006.10.1089/can.2021.0006 https://doi.org/10.1089/can.2021.0006
  3. Wong H, Cairns BE. Cannabidiol, cannabinol and their combinations act as peripheral analgesics in a rat model of myofascial pain. Archives of Oral Biology. 2019;104:33-39. doi:10.1016/j.archoralbio.2019.05.028 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archoralbio.2019.05.028 
  4. Weydt P, Hong S, Witting A, Möller T, Stella N, Kliot M. Cannabinol delays symptom onset in SOD1 (G93a) transgenic mice without affecting survival. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. 2005;6(3):182-184.doi: 10.1080/14660820510030149 https://doi.org/10.1080/14660820510030149  
  5. Zurier RB, Burstein SH. Cannabinoids, inflammation, and fibrosis. FASEB j. 2016;30(11):3682-3689. doi:  10.1096/fj.201600646R https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.201600646R
  6. Dariš B, Tancer Verboten M, Knez Ž, Ferk P. Cannabinoids in cancer treatment: Therapeutic potential and legislation. Bosn J of Basic Med Sci. 2019;19(1):14-23.10.17305/bjbms.2018.3532 https://doi.org/10.17305/bjbms.2018.3532

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