Is CBN The New Ambien?

CBD is currently in the spotlight, but did you know there are over 100 different cannabinoids in the hemp plant? It’s true. And most of them display unique health benefits that have doctors and researchers pretty excited. One compound in particular, called cannabinol (or CBN), is getting a lot of attention. And not always in a good way!  

girl laying in bed after taking CBN to sleep

Some say CBN is the cannabinoid that shows the most promise for sleep, while others say CBN is just “old TCH” and that its benefits for sleep are nothing more than hype based on low-quality research. Here’s exactly what that means: 

What is cannabinol?

Unlike most other cannabinoids, CBN is not found naturally in raw cannabis. Instead, it’s created when THC degrades (hence the “old THC” statement above). This happens when cannabis is not properly stored and exposed to oxygen. CBN was the first cannabinoid ever isolated. In the 1930s when it was discovered, scientists actually thought CBN was responsible for the intoxicating effects of cannabis. That was quickly disproven — CBN is, in fact, non-intoxicating — when THC was isolated. 

CBN has been getting a lot of attention, particularly for the role it could play in treating insomnia. And it’s no surprise people are so excited about this benefit in particular. A study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine showed that 25% of Americans develop insomnia every single year. Over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications can have unwanted side effects and be dependence-forming, which means a lot of people could benefit from an all-natural sleep remedy like CBN. 

What does the research (really) say about CBN and sleep? 

So, does CBN put you to sleep? A few years ago, many cannabis experts would have answered this question with “yes.” In fact, Steep Hill Labs, a well-respected cannabis testing and analytics company had some pretty serious claims about the powers of CBN on their website. “Of all the cannabinoids, CBN appears to be the most sedative. Not only is it sedative, it takes very little to do the job. The consumption of 2.5mg to 5mg of CBN has the same level of sedation as a mild pharmaceutical sedative, with a relaxed body sensation similar to 5mg to 10mg of diazepam,” they wrote. 

They got this info from a frequently cited study on CBN, which was published in the journal Pharmacology in 1975. The results showed that CBN on its own did not produce drowsiness but that the combination of CBN and THC had stronger sleep-promoting properties than THC alone. The authors concluded that “volunteers reported feeling more drugged, drunk, dizzy, and drowsy [with the THC-CBN combo] than under the delta9-THC condition alone.”

The results of this study are a — *hint* — that CBN is good for sleep, but the methodology of this study has also been widely questioned. For starters, it only included 5 test subjects. Oh, and in case it didn’t fully register, it’s from 1975. In fact, most of the research that’s been done on CBN is from the 70s and 80s; the science on this compound is in desperate need of an update. 

When all this was brought to light, many people changed their tune on CBN. In fact, the Steep Hill Labs website adjusted their website to say, “Initially, it was reported that CBN was a promising adjunct in the treatment of insomnia, but with the advent of a few small trials, sedative qualities have not been observed. Further study is required.”

What are the real benefits of CBN?

On the Leafly podcast, Dr. Ethan Russo  explained  that while CBN gets credit for the sedating effects of aged cannabis, it’s more likely due to the loss of compounds called monoterpenoids and the retention of sesquiterpenoids, which can cause drowsiness. 

CBN might not be the answer to one-fourth of our counties sleep problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial at all. CBN has displayed anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and neuroprotective properties. It may also be able to increase the sedating effects of cannabis by the entourage effect. As Dr. Perry Solomon, a physician and medical cannabis expert, explained: “If you have something with a high CBN by itself it’s probably not going to cause more sleepiness, but combine it with some THC and people will feel more relaxed and go to sleep easier.” 

Written by Gretchen Lidicker

Senior Health Editor & CBD Expert or Contributing Health Editor and CBD Expert. Gretchen is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She’s been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.

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