Medical cannabis has been used for millennia. But it’s only in the last few decades that scientists have shone a light on the compounds that make cannabis so unique. The most important are cannabinoids, compounds that interact with our bodies.
You might be familiar with THC and CBD, the two most common cannabinoids. But what is CBN?
Cannabinol (CBN) is less well-understood than THC and CBD. And while it’s increasingly popular among researchers, there’s also lots of misinformation about its effects. So let’s set the record straight.
What Is Cannabinol (CBN)?
There are over 100 cannabinoids that have been found in cannabis strains. Each cannabinoid has a different chemical structure and interacts with our bodies differently. CBN was the first cannabinoid discovered, in 1899, long before its more famous cousin, THC.
CBN has a similar structure to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and it’s formed when THC starts to break down when exposed to heat or light, which means you’ll find higher concentrations of CBN in older cannabis flower. Very few strains of cannabis contain naturally high levels of CBN when fresh.
Is CBN Intoxicating?
Before we dive into the effects of CBN, there’s an important caveat: Compared to THC and CBD, there is very little high-quality clinical research on CBN.
Lots of evidence is anecdotal or based on studies in animals like rats. Ideally, we’ll see far more future research on minor cannabinoids like CBN.
CBN doesn’t have the same intoxicating effects as THC — it’s been reported to have “¼ of the potency” of THC.1 A dose of pure CBN won’t lead to strong euphoria or altered perception. The effects of CBN are more similar to CBD: subtle and non-intoxicating.
But, CBN and THC could interact, leading to increased intoxicating effects. Researchers are still figuring this all out. In most cannabis strains, CBN is present alongside THC and CBD, and the possible entourage effect could lead to a slight uptick in intoxication.
How Does CBN Work?
Our bodies contain a system of receptors called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Surprisingly, this system was only discovered in the 1980s! We now know the ECS plays a vital role in our immune and nervous systems.
There are two main types of receptors in the ECS: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are most common in the nervous system, while CB2 receptors are more common in the immune system.
THC mainly binds to CB1 receptors, and CBN and CBD loosely interact with the CB2 receptors. This helps to explain why THC is psychoactive while CBN and CBD are not.
What Does the Research Say About CBN?
CBN binds to our CB2 receptors, but what does that mean for medical cannabis patients? The interactions can be complicated, but some research is starting to show what usefulness CBN might have.
CBN is sometimes recommended to treat insomnia, but the science isn’t proven. A study from 1975 found CBN only increased drowsiness when THC was present. With just CBN, the volunteers didn’t report sleepiness.
A more recent study on rats found no apparent effect of CBN on drowsiness or lethargy. There’s little evidence that CBN alone can help treat insomnia, although it could be beneficial alongside other cannabinoids.
Chronic pain is a common reason patients seek medicinal cannabis. A study in 2016 found that CBN can reduce the symptoms of arthritis in rats, although no studies have yet been done in humans. There’s also evidence that CBN can reduce the intraocular pressure that causes glaucoma, and this is also true for THC but not for CBD.
Patients who need to stimulate their appetite often use medicinal cannabis (for example, cancer patients). However, one downside is that while THC can increase appetite, some patients don’t or can’t tolerate the psychoactive effects.
There’s promising evidence that CBN could stimulate appetite instead of using THC. A study found that CBN (but not CBD) increased appetite in rats, although more research is needed to understand how it works in humans.
Some studies suggest CBN could have other uses, including antibacterial treatment and potentially delaying the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Likely, we don’t yet understand the full potential of CBN for our health.
Is CBN Safe?
The good news is that while we may not yet fully understand the benefits of CBN, we can be confident that it’s safe and widely reported in research to be non-toxic and well-tolerated.
In general, medicinal cannabis is considered a safe medicine. It does have some known side effects, which can be unpleasant (e.g. nausea or paranoia) but not dangerous. And typically, these side effects occur with large doses of THC.
According to the TGA, THC and CBD are only toxic to humans when ingested in substantial quantities.2 And CBN is at such low levels in most cannabis that it’s unlikely to lead to serious side effects.
Of course, ensuring you’re using the right type and dose of medicinal cannabis is still essential. The best way to know is to work with a qualified medical professional who can recommend the right products and doses for your conditions and needs.
Different Cannabinoids and Your Medical Cannabis Prescription
CBN is a cannabinoid that works in medical cannabis to deliver symptom relief. But it’s one of many. Cannabis is an incredible plant, with many naturally occurring compounds that work together in exciting ways.
That’s why it’s best to book a consultation with a doctor at a medical cannabis clinic or your local GP, who will be able to assess your conditions and symptoms and work out whether medical cannabis could potentially benefit you.