The cannabis plant houses hundreds of organic compounds that work together to create the recreational and therapeutic effects for which it is renowned. Cannabinoids make up a significant chunk of those chemical compounds. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most well-researched cannabinoids; THC is known for its psychoactive effect while CBD is lauded for its medicinal properties. However, as THC and CBD are only two of the approximately 80 cannabinoids present in cannabis, scientists have become increasingly interested in the others.
Cannabinol (CBN) is one of these cannabinoids. When cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) is exposed to heat or UV light, enzymes in the plant convert CBGA into cannabichromene carboxylic acid (CBCA), cannabidiol carboxylic acid (CBDA), or tetrahydrocannabinol carbolic acid (THCA). When exposed to heat, THCA converts to the psychoactive THC, but extended air exposure can cause THC to oxidize and convert into CBNA. When decarboxylated, or exposed to UV light or heat, CBNA converts to CBN.
The Therapeutic Properties of CBN
CBN’s most well-known benefit is its sedative effect; it’s what makes cannabis an effective sleep aid for those who suffer from sleep disorders including sleep apnea and insomnia. One 1995 study showed that CBN was able to prolong sleep in mice. A 2008 study showed that CBN’s antibacterial properties made it an effective treatment against MRSA when applied topically.
Its ability to stimulate the expression of calcitonin gene-related peptides from sensory nerves allows CBN to reduce pain sensitivity. The mechanism by which CBN reduces pain does not involve the CB1 or CB2 receptors the way that CBD does. This means that CBN and CBD may work synergistically to reduce pain through multiple channels.
CBN’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a possible treatment for a range of conditions triggered by chronic inflammation including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, and Crohn’s disease. In addition to these, CBN has also been regarded as an appetite stimulant, making it a possible treatment for anorexia and cachexia. It may also improve the appetite in cancer and HIV patients.
The paucity of research on the properties of CBN and their effects means that there is a lot that we don’t know about the compound. But that’s not because researchers and scientists are sitting on their hands oblivious to its potential efficacy. It’s because cannabis’ current legal status as a Schedule 1 drug, or a federally illegal substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse, make it exceedingly difficult for scientists to study. And according to the DEA, the only way cannabis will be rescheduled is if research can show that it is medically viable and safe medicine. But the DEA’s schedule is why it isn’t researched. But research is how to reschedule. But, but, but. And the legal paradox takes the win.
The Entourage Effect
Now that you know what CBN is, you might get all “Big Pharma-y” and try to synthesize “pure” CBN or do everything in your power to isolate CBN from all of the other compounds within the cannabis plant. But if you did that, you would be missing the point.
The compounds that comprise the cannabis plant work synergistically to produce what is known as the “entourage effect,” or the cascade of therapeutic outcomes that make cannabis medicine for such a wide range of conditions.
For example, one 2015 Israeli study found that whole plant cannabidiol (CBD) is superior to “pure” CBD. Single molecule CBD loses its medicinal efficacy at a certain point, and it is really only effective at a very small dose range. The researchers who conducted the study gave a CBD rich, whole plant extract to one group of mice and pure CBD to another group. The mice that were given the whole plant CBD extract experienced far better results than the mice that received pure CBD.
Another example of the entourage effect is the relationship between THC and CBD. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for getting users high. Most of the time, that high is desired and enjoyable. However, some cannabis users prefer a minimal high, using cannabis as medicine more than a recreational outlet. Strains with high CBD content but low THC provide these consumers with the therapeutic effect they are looking for because CBD is a natural suppressant of THC. Actually, pure THC can make people feel pretty terrible. The psychoactive effects of Marinol, a synthetic version of THC prescribed to people suffering from weight loss in AIDS patients and nausea from chemotherapy, are far more potent than those from whole plant products. And without CBD or the other natural compounds, that potency can have undesirable symptoms including irritability, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, confusion, clumsiness, mood swings, and dizziness.
Another type of compound inherent in the cannabis plant is terpenes. Terpenes are the chemical compounds responsible for each plant’s flavor and smell.
Ethan B. Russo, a scientist captivated by the entourage effect and the consequences of missing out on it, conducted a study in which he determined that the naturally occurring synergy between the cannabinoids and terpenoids in cannabis has the capacity to assuage the symptoms of anxiety, addiction, depression, inflammation, pain, epilepsy, fungal infections, bacterial infections, and cancer.
Here’s what this all means
Cannabis needs to be rescheduled so that researchers can more easily study the compounds within this plant because they are awesome. You can’t overdose on cannabis. It is an organic substance and can be consumed in very healthy ways. Moreover, its side effects are minimal and go away once the high subsides unlike the adverse reactions from synthetic drugs that have become the fourth leading cause of death in this country. Whole plant cannabis not only has the ability to save lives (as many synthetic drugs do) but to make those saved lives worth living.