CBD vs CBN: What’s the Difference?

Sophia Delphi May 18, 2022 - 8 min read
Fact Checked
CBN and CBD chemical structure comparison

You probably don’t remember when you first learned about THC. It may even have been before you first tried weed. Chances are good, though, that you hadn’t heard much — or anything at all — about CBD until the last few years.

CBD had been researched fairly extensively, but it didn’t attract much public attention until 2013. That’s when CNN reported that the use of high-CBD cannabis had virtually eliminated the rare epileptic seizures being suffered by a young patient named Charlotte.

The legalization of medical-use CBD in many states quickly followed, and it became a huge deal with the passage of the 2018 Farm Law that legalized some forms of hemp.

That’s CBD. But when did you first learn about CBN?

We just detected silence and blank stares, so you probably don’t know much about it or have never even heard of it.

Let’s fix that.

Cannabinoids That Are in Weed

THC is the headliner. CBD is the supporting player who’s become well-known. But those are just two of more than 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.

All of weed’s cannabinoids are able to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) once they’re ingested. The ECS is the signaling system that regulates and controls many of the body’s essential functions. Neurotransmitters carry messages through the central nervous system; they’re sent and received by ECS receptors located throughout the body.

THC is the cannabinoid that provides most of marijuana’s psychoactive effects, as well as many of its medicinal and health benefits. Almost all of the others are believed responsible for some portion of weed’s medical properties, although the properties and effects of most cannabinoids aren’t yet clearly understood.

THC, CBD, and CBN are the three most abundant cannabinoids in the marijuana plant. Virtually everyone knows what THC does, at least in general terms. CBD and CBN, however, get less attention — so that’s where we’ll focus.

A Quick Note About Cannabinoids and Its Precursors

For the sake of complete accuracy, we should mention that THC, CBD, and several other cannabinoids aren’t “really” contained in weed.

Their precursor acids, like THCA and CBDA, are the compounds found in raw cannabis. THCA and CBDA only become THC and CBD when they’re activated by heat, which happens when weed is smoked or vaped.

The precursors do provide some medical benefits if they’re not activated. But it makes more sense to discuss THC and CBD instead of THCA and CBDA; those are the cannabinoids that most people use weed for, and they’re the terms that most people are familiar with.

Let’s move on to talk about CBD and CBN.

What Exactly Is CBD?

Yes, it’s the stuff they sell in the stores that have popped up in virtually every strip mall in America these days. But we want to dig a little deeper than that.

CBD, which is shorthand for cannabidiol, is the second-most prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis plants, and it occurs naturally. CBD doesn’t get you high, although it may help boost THC’s effectiveness through what’s called the “entourage effect.” The same can be said for all of weed’s other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.

There’s a flip side, though. Researchers writing in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that CBD may also work to counterbalance some of THC’s more troubling psychoactive effects like severe anxiety and paranoia, essentially “taming” the high.

That mellowing effect of CBD may explain some of the health benefits associated with the cannabinoid, like anti-inflammatory effects and the relief of anxiety and insomnia.

Other potential uses for CBD include the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and pain relief. There are even early studies showing that CBD may slow the growth of cancer cells.

And the FDA has already acknowledged CBD’s ability to control seizures by approving a prescription cannabidiol medication to treat several forms of epilepsy.

The government doesn’t currently regulate CBD. Over-the-counter products are available online and at pharmacies, health food stores, and dedicated CBD outlets.

What Is CBN and How It Works

Scientists examining cannabis first identified CBN in 1896, and it was the first cannabinoid they were able to isolate. Since they hadn’t yet figured out THC, they thought that CBN was the intoxicating compound in weed.

They later realized, of course, that it wasn’t. And further research discovered something else quite interesting about CBN: it’s not naturally present in weed. It’s a byproduct of THC, created as a plant’s THC oxidizes and degenerates. In other words, the older the flower, the more CBD it will contain.

That’s why you can find high-CBD strains of weed on the market, but not high-CBN strains. Plants can’t be bred to contain high levels of CBN.

So exactly what does this cannabinoid do?

CBN (cannabinol) interacts with the body’s ECS just like THC and CBD, but at much lower levels. That may explain why it has no psychoactive effects on its own. However, the British Journal of Pharmacology study we mentioned earlier found that the combination of THC and high levels of CBN may also “tame the high,” producing more sedating effects.

Cannabinol appears to provide its own medical benefits as well. They include anti-inflammatory properties, appetite stimulation, and pain relief when used together with CBD. There are also claims that CBN is an effective sleep aid, but that research wasn’t peer-reviewed and has been challenged.

Despite the limited proof of CBN’s standalone health benefits, it can still be purchased online and at many CBD stores.

CBD and CBN, Which Should You Choose?

If you’re considering the purchase of a CBD or CBN product, CBD is more likely to provide the benefits that vendors promise.

It’s been more extensively studied, so claims that with enough dose, CBD can help with anxiety and depression, inflammation, insomnia, neuroprotection, and pain relief can be easily justified. And even the U.S. government has approved prescription-level CBD for the treatment of seizures.

CBN research is in its infancy, so evidence for its benefits like pain relief, better sleep, and treatment of inflammation is more tenuous. CBN may work for you, but you’re probably better off going with more highly-investigated CBD.

Of course, you can always just pack a bowl or roll a joint — and you’ll be experiencing the effects of both CBD and CBN in their natural forms.

CBD vs. CBN: FAQ

Q: Are CBD and CBN legal for sale everywhere?
A: They are right now. The Farm Bill passed a few years ago legalized the sale of hemp products as long as they contain less than 0.3% THC, so isolated cannabinoids like CBD and CBN are legal under federal law. States may have slightly stricter regulations, though, so be sure to check before you buy — and it’s probably only a matter of time before the federal government revisits the entire subject of hemp, cannabis, and their extracts.

Q: Why is CBN more expensive than CBD?
A: Cannabis plants only produce high levels of CBN as they age, so it’s much harder and costlier to find and extract enough of the cannabinoid to create consumer products.

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