CBN vs CBD: the differences and the science behind it

You've probably heard of CBD a lot and now CBN and wondered about the difference between them. Cannabinol (CBN) and cannabidiol (CBD) are cannabinoids naturally produced by the cannabis plant. And while they are both non-intoxicating, they both produce a range of other effects when consumed.

According to our current understanding of these naturally occurring chemical compounds, there are fundamental differences in how these cannabis compounds are produced and in the chemical makeup of these cannabinoids. These differences between CBD and CBN produce very distinct effects on the human body.

Understanding how these cannabinoids work can help you more precisely craft your cannabis consumption to give you the experience you're looking for.

Cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system

Cannabinoids like CBN and CBD are a class of chemicals naturally produced by the cannabis plant. Some produce highs while others are non-intoxicating. When consumed, these chemicals interact with the human body's endocannabinoid system. The interactions between cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system are what produce the range of effects that people experience when they consume marijuana.

To date, researchers have identified and isolated well over 100 unique cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. It is generally believed that each individual cannabinoid has its own unique effect on the body, determined by the specific ways any given cannabinoid interacts with a consumer's endocannabinoid system.

Interestingly, many researchers also believe that cannabinoids tend to produce the most potent and powerful effects when they are consumed together in combination, rather than as isolated compounds. This tendency for cannabinoids such as CBD and CBN to be more potent when consumed together is called the “entourage effect.”

Bottom line: While it can be helpful to understand the difference between CBN vs CBD, if you want to tap into the full range of effects and health benefits of cannabis, it may ultimately be better to consume it as a whole rather than as isolated parts.

Understanding CBN and how it's produced

Cannabinol was the first naturally occurring cannabinoid to be isolated in its pure form. Scientists first isolated CBN as far back as 1896. People originally thought CBN was the compound that creates the distinctive cannabis high, but later research found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is actually the cannabinoid that produces marijuana's intoxicating effects.

At that point, our understanding of cannabinoids in general — and CBN in particular — began to morph. It was soon discovered that CBN is actually a by-product of THC content, produced when THC oxidizes. Basically, as THC is exposed to heat and light, it breaks down into CBN.

This means that the level of CBN found in a cannabis flower or concentrate is not determined by genetic factors, but rather by environmental factors. Old buds, flower that has not been stored away from light or in airtight containers, and cannabis extracts that are left unrefrigerated or in direct light will begin to oxidize. As a result, they will tend to have higher levels of CBN when compared to fresher products or products that have been stored properly.

Because CBN is produced through the oxidation process rather than through genetics, there are currently no high-CBN cannabis strains available on the market. If you really wanted to consume high levels of CBN, the best way to obtain it would be to simply allow the plant's THC to oxidize. 

Old cannabis or cannabis extracts left unrefrigerated or in the light will have higher levels of CBN.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Effects of CBN: this cannabinoid will not get you high

Compared to other cannabis components and products, we know relatively little about CBN. What we do know suggests that CBN on its own does not produce intoxicating effects. Rather, the sensation of being high is produced when THC interacts with the cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Specifically, THC makes you feel high when it binds to and activates the CB1 receptors in your body.

Similar to THC, CBN also binds to your body's CB1 receptors. However, CBN interacts with these receptors with only around one-tenth the strength of THC. This is one of the primary reasons that the CBN cannabinoid does not give you the sensation of being high.

Potential benefits of CBN

While there is not nearly as much research into CBN as there is for other cannabinoids, the limited evidence available suggests that CBN may have a number of health and wellness benefits.

For example, a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that THC in combination with CBN may produce a more sedated, “couch-locked” body high. This may be why older cannabis products or those exposed to a lot of heat and sunlight, such as Moroccan hashish, are said to produce more pronounced relaxing effects than other forms of marijuana. 

Scientists have also discovered that CBN demonstrates anti-inflammatory and anti-convulsant properties, even when consumed all on its own. Similarly, CBN may also act as an appetite stimulant in rats and could act as a pain reliever when combined with CBD.

There is sparse research supporting the claim that CBN acts as a sleep aid.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

CBN has also shown potential as a treatment for sleep disorders, pain relief, and inflammation, among other medical benefits. For instance, in an analysis shared by Steep Hill Labs in 2017, researchers found that a 2.5-to-5 milligram dose of CBN was as effective as a 5-to-10 milligram dose of the pharmaceutical sedative diazepam. This claim should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Bottom line: There is not very much evidence supporting the claim that CBN acts as a sleep aid. In fact, rather than arising from CBN levels, the sedative properties of aged cannabis may actually come from terpenes with low molecular weight, which tend to remain on cannabis as it ages and as THC oxidizes.

Challenges to CBN research

Since it's not yet possible to breed cannabis plants that produce high levels of CBN, researchers need to synthesize this cannabinoid in order to properly study it. This, along with the standard legal challenges that come along with cannabis research, have hindered further scientific explorations into the possible benefits of this cannabinoid. 

With that said, the sparse evidence that does exist suggests that this relatively unknown cannabinoid may yield a handful of health and wellness benefits.

Bottom line: More research is needed to make any surefire claims about CBN's effects on the human body and its potential benefits.

What is CBD and what does it do?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that is most common in hemp plants. In fact, following THC, CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis plants. As such, it has received a decent amount of research, especially when comparing CBN and CBD research.

One of the simplest ways to think about CBD and its role in cannabis is as the counterbalance to THC. In many ways, the THC-CBD interaction helps create most of marijuana's effects. While THC produces the bulk of marijuana's intoxicating effects, CBD produces the bulk of marijuana's potential health and wellness benefits.

In fact, cannabidiol is widely believed to have a regulatory effect, counteracting the potentially adverse effects of THC, such as anxiety and paranoia. Several studies support the finding that high doses of THC can cause anxiety or paranoia in otherwise healthy users and individuals with a predisposition for mental illness. However, the presence of CBD tends to mellow out these effects, producing a more manageable (and oftentimes more enjoyable) high.

It is not clear exactly why this entourage effect occurs or precisely what amount of CBD is needed to reduce the adverse effects of THC. But, as with so many other cannabinoids, it appears that the combination of THC and CBD produces more pronounced and more pleasant effects than consuming either of these cannabinoids in isolation.

Potential health benefits of CBD

Because CBD is a relatively well-researched chemical compound, we know a bit more about this cannabinoid than we do other cannabinoids, such as CBN. 

Research to date supports CBD for the possible treatment of the following:

  • Chronic pain
  • Seizures
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Inflammation
  • Reducing the risk of stroke
  • Cognitive impairment in individuals afflicted with loss of brain function due to late-stage scarring of the liver
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Many consumers turn to CBD for its reported anti-pain, anti-inflammatory, and anti-anxiety properties. Additionally, many medical cannabis patients rely on CBD to produce much of the medicinal properties of cannabis.

CBD's unique legal status

In the United States, everything related to cannabis — from growing and producing, to purchasing and consuming, to research, and seemingly any other activity — continues to be plagued by marijuana's status as an illegal substance.

However, CBD has recently moved onto a very unique legal standing. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, marijuana plants containing less than 0.3% THC are federally categorized as “industrial hemp” plants rather than regular cannabis, regardless of how much CBD these plants may contain.

CBD oil dropper
CBD product that comes from a plant with less than 0.3% THC is officially classified as a legal hemp plant.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Basically, as long as a CBD product comes from a plant with less than 0.3% THC, it is officially classified as a legal hemp plant. This quickly unleashed an avalanche of hemp-derived CBD products rolling out into the health and wellness market. Many of these products have gone mainstream, moving beyond the cannabis industry. As a result, it's now relatively easy to find hemp-based CBD products on retail shelves across the country.

However, it's also important to note that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has technically not approved CBD as a drug, wellness product, or food and beverage additive. Similarly, the FDA still does not allow companies to explicitly market CBD or CBD products as a dietary supplement. Currently, the only FDA-approved drug containing CBD is called Epidiolex, which is used to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome.

Frequently asked questions

Is CBN the same as CBD?

No, CBN and CBD are not the same. While they are both cannabinoids, they are two very different and distinct chemical compounds, with their own distinctive properties. CBD is produced directly by the cannabis plant where it is fairly abundant. CBN is much less abundant and is produced as THC oxidizes. 

CBD vs CBN: Which is better for sleep?

Current cannabinoid research indicates that while CBD and CBN may both provide some aid for sleeping, it appears that when comparing the difference between CBN vs CBD, CBN tends to be a better sleep aid. In general, the presence of CBN in combination with THC is believed to have a gently sedative effect that may help some consumers sleep better.

Why is CBN so expensive?

CBN products are expensive because they are harder to isolate. There are two main reasons for this. First, CBN is not produced directly by the cannabis plant and as a result, CBN content is generally not as high as other compounds. Second, to make CBN products, producers need to synthesize the compound, a process that can be more laborious than simply isolating other cannabinoids and compounds that are naturally produced by marijuana plants.

What is CBN good for?

While much more research is needed, early evidence and general perceptions of the CBN cannabinoid suggest it could serve as a sleep aid, appetite stimulant, anti-inflammatory, and anticonvulsant.

Major contributions from Dr. Adie Rae.

Was this article helpful? Give Feedback

has been subscribed!

The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on December 2, 2022.