CBN vs. CBD: what's the difference?

Judging by the acronyms alone, CBN and cannabidiol (CBD), two cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, seem pretty similar to each other. But these cannabis components are in fact two distinct cannabis compounds with completely different effects and origins. While both CBN and CBD share some similar medicinal properties, they vary significantly when it comes to how they're produced and how they interact with the body.

What does CBN stand for and what does it do?

CBN stands for cannabinol. CBN was the first naturally occurring cannabinoid to be isolated in its pure form back in 1896. People originally thought it was responsible for the cannabis high, but later found out that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) produces for the intoxicating effects of cannabis. It was discovered that CBN is actually an oxidation product of THC; that is, THC will slowly turn into CBN when exposed to heat and light

Old cannabis or cannabis extracts left unrefrigerated or in the light will have higher levels of CBN. Levels of CBN in cannabis are not controlled by genetic factors, but by environmental factors. Currently, there are no high CBN strains available on the market, so the optimal way to obtain it is by oxidizing THC and CBD. 

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

CBN on its own does not produce intoxicating effects, however, to the best of our knowledge, the effects of this cannabinoid have not been fully researched in human subjects. THC produces its effects on the body by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which are located in the central nervous system and throughout the body. Specifically, it produces the high by binding to the CB1 receptors and activating them. 

CBN binds to CB1 receptors as well, but with only around one-tenth the strength of THC. Cannabis medicines are able to treat a variety of conditions using a “strength in numbers” approach, because cannabis has a lot of components in it. These small components influence the major components in what's known as the entourage effect. While many strains available in a dispensary have high levels of THC, each strain produces a different high due to the differing levels of other cannabinoids and terpenes, collectively the entourage. 

Potential benefits of CBN

While more research into the effects of CBN are needed to make any surefire claims, existing evidence has shown that this relatively unknown cannabinoid could yield a vast array of benefits. 

A 2011 study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, found that the combination of THC with CBN has demonstrated the ability to produce a more sedated, couch lock high in human subjects. Older cannabis products or those exposed to a lot of heat and sunlight, such as Moroccan hashish, are said to be better for relaxing than others because of their higher CBN content. 

Researchers also discovered that CBN demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anti-convulsant properties on its own. CBN may also act as an appetite stimulant in rats, and could act as a pain reliever when combined with CBD. 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, and this has hindered further research into the benefits of this cannabinoid. 

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. 

However, this study was not published in a peer-reviewed journal and, moreover, there is sparse research supporting the claim that CBN acts as a sleep aid. It's possible that the sedative properties of aged cannabis may come from terpenes with low molecular weight, which tend to remain on cannabis for long periods of time, rather than the amount of CBN that strain has developed over time.

What does CBD do?

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 the cannabis plant. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, marijuana plants containing less than 0.3% THC were federally legalized as industrial hemp in the United States, unfurling an avalanche of hemp-derived CBD products upon the health and wellness market. 

In states without recreational or medical marijuana legalization, hemp-derived CBD products are legal so long as they contain no THC or trace amounts below the federal limit of 0.3%. However, it's important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow CBD to be sold as a dietary supplement or used as an ingredient in edibles and drinks. Currently, the only FDA-approved drug containing CBD is called Epidiolex, which for treatment of seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome.

Due to the many potential positive effects of CBD, it has gained a lot of attention in the medical community as well as the consumer market. Research supports CBD for the treatment of chronic pain, seizures, and nausea. CBD has also been identified as a powerful agent against the antibiotic-resistant bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as well as effective in reducing the risk of stroke and improving cognitive abilities in individuals afflicted with loss of brain function due to late-stage scarring of the liver. 

CBD oil dropper
Research supports CBD for the treatment of chronic pain, seizures, and nausea.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

In the presence of THC, CBD appears to have a regulatory effect on the adverse effects of THC, such as anxiety and paranoia. Several studies support that high doses of THC can cause anxiety or paranoia in otherwise healthy users and individuals with a predisposition for mental illness. It is not clear exactly why this entourage effect occurs or at what amount of CBD is needed to reduce the adverse effects of THC. 

How do CBD and CBN differ?

Cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), are fundamentally two different molecules that have two separate origins. While industrial hemp plants and high-CBD marijuana strains have been high levels of CBD, the level of CBN in a cannabis flower or concentrate depends on the amount of heat and light it has been exposed to, and how old it is. Again, this is because CBN is a byproduct of the action of light and heat on THC, in technical terms, a product of oxidation or degradation. 

Despite the fundamental difference in the origin of these two components, they do share a lot of similarities in their purported medicinal effects. Neither produces an intoxicating high on its own, but they both affect the high when combined with THC. However, the presence of CBD tones down some of the negative effects of THC, like paranoia or anxiety, and the presence of CBN produces a gently sedative high that may be beneficial for people wanting to use cannabis for better sleep. 

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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 August 13, 2020.