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As soon as my head hits the pillow on stressful nights, my brain becomes a windy race track, thoughts zooming by at 100 mph, commanding my attention. I wanted it to stop.
So for months I tried various cannabis products promising better sleep, hoping that one of them could serve as a red light and stop the buzzy traffic, at least until morning.
The products I used all included CBN, one of the hundreds of compounds found in cannabis. While CBD and THC are the plant’s most famous three-letter shorthands, wellness brands and pharmaceutical companies are hunting for the next cannabinoid with medicinal and money-making potential. Cannabis companies hope CBN, which has a reputation as a sleep aid (although one not supported by scientific research), may be one of them.
While I had some success, none of the products I tried with CBN, formally known as cannabinol, worked exactly as I wanted. When they did work, I slept hard, but my deep sleep often ended with groggy mornings. When they didn’t work, I continued to toss and turn. Whether a CBN product will help you get a better night’s sleep depends on what else is in that product, your tolerance for groggy mornings, and how willing you are to experiment.
What is CBN, and why is it associated with sleep anyway?
People in the cannabis industry have been whispering about CBN for years. And scientific research on it, although limited and rarely related to sleep, goes back to the 1970s. The compound comes from . Over time, exposure to light and oxygen will convert THC into CBN. You can also use chemical processes to turn CBD, hemp’s golden goose, into CBN, but it’s a more complicated process.
Whether a CBN product will help you get a better night’s sleep depends on what else is in that product…and how willing you are to experiment.
Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist who popularized , the idea that various parts of the cannabis plant work synergistically together to cause certain effects, explains it like this: Let’s say someone has cannabis that’s been sitting in a drawer for three years and decides to smoke it. If they’re looking to get high, they’re going to be disappointed with the outcome.
“So the person may feel sleepy or sad, but they’re not going to be high, and they’re not going to be cleaning the garage after doing this,” said Dr. Russo, who once advised the first company to get a CBD drug for epilepsy approved by the FDA, but has since founded a cannabis research firm called Credo Science.
Those effects don’t just come from the THC-turned-CBN, he said. Aromatic compounds that give plants and foods a particular smell and taste, known as terpenes, also play a part. Terpenes are in mangoes, peppermint, lemongrass, and yes, cannabis. In addition to their aromatic qualities, some terpenes tend to be energizing while others are sedating. Over time, the energizing ones dissipate from old weed while the relaxing ones stick around as they’re heavier, more stable molecular compounds. While THC is generally known to make you feel high, CBN isn’t as psychoactive on its own as THC, Dr. Russo said.
“If someone uses pure CBN, they’re not going to find it particularly sedating,” said Dr. Russo, who doesn’t take much stock in the compound’s new cache as a sleep aid.
What do the studies say?
Researchers have studied CBN’s effects on many mice and rats over the years, but few humans. They’ve found it seems to make , when combined with CBD, reduce , and a lab-altered version significantly for mice already on a powerful sedative. One Canadian pharmaceutical company is in clinical trials to test if a CBN cream can treat . Like other parts of the cannabis plant, scientists are also studying its potential.
In one of the few studies that compares THC and CBN, completed , scientists gave five men oral THC and CBN and found that while THC made the volunteers feel “drugged, drunk, dizzy, or drowsy,” the same feelings weren’t associated with CBN. CBN appeared to slightly amplify the effects of THC, but it wasn’t a significant change. The experience of lab rats and five men, of course, aren’t enough to make sweeping judgments about CBN, but that and anecdotes are all we got at the moment.
For all the talk about CBN’s sedative qualities, the scientific research isn’t there to back it up. Even with its well-known counterparts CBD and THC, which have been tested more often for possible sleep effects, scientists still say more research should be done to better guide consumers.
Formal research on CBN, and other cannabinoids, has been hampered for decades due to politics stigmatizing cannabis. As marijuana legalization expands, more research is underway, but the spotlight has mostly been on THC and CBD. New questions are being asked about the hundreds of other cannabinoids, but it’s still early days.
Steep Hill, a cannabis science and tech company, stoked a lot of the hype around CBN online when it likened CBN to the powerful sedative diazepam. Steep Hill later scrubbed that description from its website, noting, “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.”
A Steep Hill representative said its science team was unavailable to clarify which trials the update was referring to as it was moving facilities.
So did the CBN products make me sleepy?
None of the products I tried were pure CBN, which as Dr. Russo contends, won’t make you sleepy.
For example, Bloom Farms’ Dream tincture has both CBD and CBN, but it’s heavy on the CBD. Bloom Farms experimented with various ratios before landing on a 5:1 mix, said Sally Nichols, the California company’s president of CBD. Bloom Farms’ goal was to find a product that made users sleepy, and this ratio was “the sweet spot,” Nichols said. Bloom Farms provided samples to small populations of customers of 50 or fewer and got input from doctors with experience prescribing cannabis as it tinkered with the ratio.
Researchers CBD to be relaxing in high doses, but energizing . Frustratingly, what is considered a high or low dosage, may vary from person to person. At 1,000 mg CBD in each 30 ml bottle, Dream has the second-highest amount of CBD in Bloom Farms’ line of tinctures.
Bloom Farms recommends starting with a 1/4 ml serving under the tongue, which is about 8 mg CBD and 2 mg CBN in each dose. This is not a lot. Researchers testing the effectiveness of CBD to treat anxiety and sleeplessness have given volunteers anywhere from 25 mg to 900 mg, with negligible to significant effect.
I took the 10 mg serving for about a week roughly 45 minutes before my normal bed time in late August, as massive fires burned in Northern California, coronavirus deaths reached record highs, and campaigning for the election was in full force. It tasted woodsy and oily, but not bad; I felt a fleeting rush of calm within the first few moments. My mind still raced as my head hit the pillow, though, but after about an hour I fell asleep. I doubled the dosage soon after and had some great, deep sleep. Unfortunately, I continually woke up groggy and with a dry mouth. By week four of my one-month experiment, I was back to struggling to fall asleep. I took it randomly over the next few months, finding that sometimes it made me drowsy and sometimes it didn’t.
Dr. Junella Chin, an integrative cannabis physician in New York who’s recommended Bloom Farms’ Dream to her own patients, said it’s possible for your body to stop reacting to natural supplements or medications over time. She compared it to over-the-counter allergy medications. A brand may work for you one season, but next year it provides no relief and you have to try another. “Your body does adjust to it,” she said, noting that if switching products doesn’t help, “just take a break.”
I also tested two brands from Sunderstorm, its Nano5 Tranquility Sleep Formula sublingual and Kanha Tranquility gummies.
The Nano5 promises rapid effects. It uses small balls of fat, a tiny fraction of the size of a human cell, to deliver the formula. The pharmaceutical industry has used quick-acting s like this for decades, but it’s fairly unique in the cannabis space.
“It gets into the bloodstream very, very rapidly,” said Cameron Clarke, CEO and cofounder of the California company.
Within minutes of dropping the suggested 1/2 ml of the cloudy, yellow liquid under my tongue my eyes felt droopy. I was asleep soon after, my mind quiet. The Nano5, which is supposed to be a “citrus flavor,” was bitter with a faint mint aftertaste. It lightly burned as I held it under my tongue for the advised 90 seconds.
The Nano5, which ranges from $80 to $105 for its 30 ml bottle depending on the dispensary, seems to include everything and the kitchen sink.
The recommended 1/2 ml serving has roughly 2.5 mg each of CBD, CBN, and THC. In addition to the cannabinoids, it also has twice as much 5-HTP, a supplement that may , a hormone that , and 1/2 mg melatonin. The formula has additional terpenes known for their sedative qualities, myrcene and linalool, thrown in.
The Kanha gummies, which have a berry flavor and are one of the better-tasting edibles I’ve tried, take effect in about 90 minutes, according to the packaging, and include 5 mg each of CBD, CBN, and THC. They also have 1 mg of melatonin. For me, they started working within 30 to 45 minutes, so faster than expected.
“It gives you a little something, a little kicker,” Clarke said of the melatonin. When asked whether Sunderstorm followed any scientific research before deciding to add melatonin to the mix, he said it was more about trial and error.
“A lot of it is us just testing what we think can work.”
“I wish we had the science to back this up. As a product company we’re trying to develop products as quickly as we can to address a market need particularly with Covid anxiety and sleep issues that people have. A lot of it is us just testing what we think can work,” he said. (A similar strategy plays out across the wellness space.)
Dr. Chin doesn’t recommend mixing cannabinoids and melatonin because it may make you feel groggy in the morning. However, she noted that if a natural sleep aid isn’t as effective as one would like, adding 1 mg of melatonin to the mix is generally fine.
All three products made me feel groggy, which, for me, isn’t a typical reaction after consuming a similar amount of weed. The gummies, which cost $20 to $25, were the only ones that gave me a typical high feeling. On my first night of testing, I ate two (the package recommends one to three). Unfortunately, my mind continued to race before bed. I eventually fell asleep, but I woke around 3 a.m. feeling dizzy and nauseous. Luckily, that didn’t happen again, but I still had groggy mornings after future tests that did help me sleep.
What’s the next big cannabinoid
Don’t expect CBN to be the end of the road for cannabis experimentation, even if scientists later find it’s not exactly the sleep miracle many believe it to be.
“These first few cannabinoids are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Jonathan Vaught, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. The CEO of Front Range Biosciences, a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company in Colorado, rattled off an alphabet soup of cannabinoids consumers may start to see for sale, especially as marijuana legalization expands: CBG, CBDV, and THCV. Preliminary research, again on mice, shows CBG seems to treat and . Bloom Farms recently released its own CBD-CBG product for customers generally interested in “gut health,” as Nichols described it. Extract Labs has had one on the market since last year. I tried it back then but felt no effects, although I generally don’t have stomach issues.
The “V” in CBDV and THCV stands for varin, which basically means they’re slightly different than their well-known counterparts. The varins may get absorbed differently, perhaps tweaking some outcomes, Dr. Vaught said.
“People anecdotally say when you have high THCV in your product, it decreases the tendency to get the munchies,” Dr. Vaught explained, emphasizing the anecdotally. “Whereas if you have plain THC in your product you may get the munchies.”
On the medical front, the U.S. Department of Defense has spent $1.3 million on a New York-based clinical trial testing CBDV on autism patients.
We may see various ratios of these minor cannabinoids pop up in new products as the cannabis industry seeks to squeeze more green out of its green crops.
“In the longer term, we may be able to create a regulatory framework that allows us to truly monetize a lot of the parts of this plant,” Dr. Vaught remarked.
What to know if you want to try CBN
If you still want to try CBN, there are several things to keep in mind. Firstly, its legality is a gray area. The thinking goes if CBN is made from hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC — which is possible but more difficult — it may be allowed in states where hemp is legal. If it’s made from cannabis with a higher THC level, it may only be legal in medicinal and recreational states. Future legislation or court decisions are needed to clear up the haze, according to legal news site Above the Law.
Secondly, expect to pay up. CBN is expensive to produce, which means CBN products are pricey. So are CBD products for that matter.
“It takes mother nature a long time to degrade THC into CBN,” Sunderstorm’s Clarke said, and processes to speed it up aren’t cheap. On top of that, only 10 to 20 percent of the THC in a plant degrades into CBN, he said.
Dr. Chin, who has been recommending CBN to sleepless patients during the pandemic, suggests taking it slow. Start with a low dosage and move up. Like with other cannabis products, do your research on brands and make sure they third-party test and the plant is organically grown, she added. Ask to see certificates of analyses, which respected brands will provide, if not made available on their website or via QR code. You’ll want to check for pesticides, heavy metals, and microbials. This is where you can also nerd out on a product’s terpene makeup.
She warned not to mix sleep aids with alcohol, or you risk feeling dizzy and groggy when you wake up. It may also decrease your alcohol tolerance and is dangerous.
Dr. Russo wonders why one would want to buy a CBN product to fall asleep when the scientific literature isn’t compelling.
You may be paying a lot for the same experience you can get with a $10 bottle of melatonin. Melatonin has its own side effects, dizziness and nausea, and is best for short-term use, according to the Mayo Clinic, an academic medical center.
In the end, I mostly stopped using the CBN products after a few months. Every now and then I’ll eat a Kanha gummy. When I have a particularly frazzle-brained evening, I’ll lie on my back and listen to a meditation app for 10 minutes. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t. (Sound familiar?) A colleague recently started at night — mouth breathing is apparently bad for sleep — and says the quirky technique leaves him feeling more refreshed in the mornings.
Maybe I’ll try that next. The hunt for a better night’s sleep continues.