CBN Could Be the THC Substitute to Help You Get Some Shut-Eye—But Does It Work?
Experts explain everything you need to know about this THC derivative.
While CBD has swept the nation, from seltzers to bath bombs to donuts, other cannabinoids, and their benefits are often overlooked: enter cannabinol (known as CBN), a THC-derived powerhouse that is said to provide more restful sleep, anti-inflammatory pain relief, and anticonvulsant properties.
What is CBN?
Cannabinol, or CBN, is a mildly psychoactive cannabinoid derived from oxidized or degraded THC. It’s been praised for its healing properties and hailed as a sleep aid. While it’s not a household name like CBD, CBN is found in many cannabis products specifically for sleep and is slowly gaining traction in weed shops.
Austin Flores, a budtender in a popular San Diego dispensary has noted that while customers rarely come in asking for CBN by name, they often come by in search of a sleep aid, leave with CBN, and return for more. “A lot of the time, it’s maybe elderly people or people newer to cannabis looking for something to help them with sleep.”
When found in dispensaries, CBN is almost always branded as a sleep-promoting product. Whether found in teas, tinctures, or edibles, the packaging is almost always dark blue, with moons, clouds, or other insignia signaling that the products are to be used when you’re winding down for the night.
What are the effects of CBN?
Though largely anecdotal, CBN seems to be accepted by those who are outside of the scientific community as a cannabinoid that will get you into bed, and keep you there. Users often report a calming effect, even for those who typically do not react well to THC. This is likely due to the degradation of terpenes that occurs when THC is oxidized. This degradation is what causes the calming effect that has attributed sleepiness to CBN. “Terpenes are very volatile, aromatic, and susceptible to degradation and get evaporated. THC gets oxidized, so this flower with CBN gives you a very smooth calm effect,” says Carolina Vazquez Mitchell, MS, veteran scientist and the founder and chief scientific officer of sleep-promoting cannabis products dreamt.
According to Vazquez Mitchell, “Some people discovered that when they smoke [cannabis/pure THC], they get so high and paranoid and can’t sleep. But if it’s a very old flower and it oxidizes, the terpene content lowers, so that lowers the effect of the cannabis. You feel less high.”
Is CBN legal?
CBN falls into a legal gray area. It is not listed as a scheduled controlled substance in any of the countries of the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs nor is it listed in their Convention on Psychotropic Substances. None of these countries are required, nor have they opted to control CBN. However, it is still federally illegal in the United States to prescribe or use cannabis extracts as an ingredient. CBN is derived directly from THC, and as of now, scientifically cannot be derived from legal hemp plants. That means that, short of making your own CBN oil, you’ll have to find CBN products in a medically or recreationally legal state. If scientists or growers eventually find a way to create CBN from hemp, skipping the illegal middleman of THC, CBN will become more easily accessible (and cheaper!).
How does CBN compare to CBD and THC?
In our bodies’ endocannabinoid systems, we have CB1 and CB2 receptors. The CB1 receptor deals with motor activity, pain perception, and other components of our central nervous system that are registered in the brain. The CB2 receptor deals with our peripheral nervous system and physical bodies. Our skin, pancreases, bones, and immune systems possess our CB2 receptors. THC and CBD mainly connect to the CB1 receptor. “Think of our CB1 receptor as a lock, and THC is the key,” says Vazquez Mitchell. “So when you use it, it comes and opens that lock and creates a reaction.” However, CBD doesn’t match that “keyhole” she adds. “It modifies that reaction between THC and the lock.”
“You can modify the interaction to make the binding stronger, or you can saturate it and add so much CBD that it makes the reaction weaker. So there’s a window where you are going to have the entourage effect. And if you go way above the dose, you don’t have the entourage effect.”
However, CBN doesn’t have as much affinity as THC to the CB1 receptor. If you use a lot of CBN, the CBN will block the THC from binding to the receptor and weaken the effect of THC, says Vazquez Mitchell. If you use a small amount, the THC molecules will just bind to the receptor, and the CBN molecules may or may not bind.
CBN mainly binds to our CB2 receptors, which deal more with the body than the brain, namely with cells that relate to our immune systems. Taking about 10 mg of CBN is roughly equivalent to taking 1 mg of THC, so a THC edible that’s 5 mg taken alongside 10 mg of CBN results in a total feeling of about 6 mg of THC. According to Vazquez Mitchell, “It’s like CBN is more like dimes, and THC is a dollar.” Using large amounts of CBN blocks the effect of THC, making users feel less high, which may account for the general understanding that CBN provides users with a more tranquil, less psychoactive sensation.
How much of a cannabis product should I use for sleep, and how do I use it?
Contrary to popular belief, CBD is a wake-promoting cannabinoid. When used alone, it can increase energy and focus, decrease inflammation, and promote general wellbeing. When used with THC for an entourage effect, it can help with sleep. According to dreamt, the sweet spot for sleep is a 2.5:1 ratio of THC to CBD. CBN products like gummies or shots often come pre-measured to create a harmonious balance of cannabinoids, although, again, CBN basically takes the edge off of THC to provide a less intense high.
The fastest-acting method of consumption is via inhalation, often from vaporizers. Tinctures also work fairly quickly. To get the quickest and most potent effects from a tincture, taking the dose sublingually and holding it under the tongue for at least 30 seconds is most efficient, with effects peaking after about half an hour. Edibles like gummies or chocolate take a little longer, as they must first pass through the digestive system before taking full effect. The general rule of thumb seems to be: take whatever your product depicts as one serving of CBN, and after noting your effects, adjust accordingly.
Does CBN work?
While the interactions with the CB2 receptor and immune cells are known, there hasn’t been much research published on CBN and its potential benefits for the immune system. Cannabis journalist Lindsay MaHarry has found that CBN has worked well enough for her, but also states that she very rarely has trouble falling asleep. “I use it if I need to use it, but I don’t use it every day. The Bloom Farms CBN tincture is really good, but the best product I’ve probably used was dreamt…[With CBN], I’ve noticed that you can be groggy in the morning, but that’s why you take it early. Anything that you take before midnight, you’re probably going to be okay in the morning.”
Growers and others in the cannabis community began to correlate that more subtle high with CBN. “The THC degrades into CBN. They tested the flower and found the CBN content in the flower that made them less anxious and paranoid despite smoking the same amount. They feel so relaxed and never get paranoid,” Vazquez Mitchell says.
But she has often stated that CBN is not a sleep panacea, and warns of conflating correlation with causation. Just because CBN is correlated with a more relaxing high doesn’t mean that it’s the cause of better sleep. Yet the fact that CBN has been the common denominator in a calmer and less psychoactive high for people has seemed to be enough to link CBN to nighttime cannabis products.
According to Vazquez Mitchell, this is mostly just branding. What matters when using cannabis products for sleep is dosage, and finding the right amount of THC (or THC alongside CBD, causing the entourage effect) to take for restfulness. “Scientists couldn’t prove that CBN itself was the cause of that smooth effect. If I take 2.5 mg of THC I’m very relaxed and want to go to sleep, but if I take 10 mg I want to dance. It’s a little bit like alcohol, where if you take a little bit you’re happy and if you take too much you’re depressed.”
This is because Vazquez Mitchell says Sleep is so complex, and we still don’t understand why some people have issues falling asleep and some people have none. “So if you really believe that CBN is going to help you, it’s going to help you. In my opinion, which is very scientific, it doesn’t work. Some people say ‘CBN saved my life and makes me very sleepy,’ well, great for you. Unfortunately, the science says otherwise.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that CBN has no use! CBN’s interactions with the CB2 receptor, peripheral nervous system, and immune cells have been noted by other experts. So far there hasn’t been much research published on CBN and its potential benefits for the immune system, but some scientists believe that thanks to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and a heightened awareness of infectious diseases, more research may be done on CBN and immunity.
If you’re sensitive to THC and are having persistent sleep issues, CBN may be worth a shot. Cannabis products tend to be much less habit-forming and have fewer negative side effects than benzodiazepines and prescription sleep products. Starting with an inexpensive product like CBN tea, or even by smoking aged flower that has oxidized will produce a lighter, more functional effect that could possibly be incorporated into your nighttime routine. This has seemed to help some users, but finding the sweet spot of a 2.5:1 ratio of THC to CBD may be the most effective route to restfulness. A low-dose product alongside proper sleep hygiene and a healthy lifestyle may be the key to resetting your body clock and establishing a good sleep schedule, along with wakefulness throughout the day.