The munchies; that mad dash for the sweet stuff after blazing a bowl (or two or three), has finally been broken down by science. Finally freed from the strictures of cannabis prohibition, straights in white lab coats are finally asking, “Why does weed make you hungry?”
The many wonders of weed are proving beneficial, factually. So, rather than anecdotal evidence weed may benefit sick people through stimulated appetites, we now know the why and how now.
Weed’s effects on food sensations have implications way beyond the dispensary too. So, hang on with 420DC and check out why your cravings become uncontrollable when high and how that can benefit the future.
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Weed affects appetite
Marijuana has been a mystery as to how it works for too long. Why does it relieve pain? Why does weed make you hungry? How does pot affect perception?
Now that cannabis is a cash crop, it’s become the most quickly studied plant of all time and doctors are wondering how that can affect the future.
Still, the stoner binge is now mainstream information, a common trope in TV and movies.
Why does weed make you hungry? Ask Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, devouring an entire pie after her first Jamaican baked good. Harold and Kumar go to White Castle is the master mega-munchie movie of all time. You can even go back to 1980 farce, 9-to-5, when Dolly, Lilly and Jane cleared out the fridge after one joint.
Harvard gets high
Today’s stars of weed lore are the scientists verifying what cannabis aficionados already knew. The dedication of neurobiologists like Harvard’s Tamas Horvath are yielding fascinating finds.
The 2015 study he lead, published in Nature Neuroscience, detailed their surprise at the data. The neurons they thought responsible for shutting down eating were in suddenly being activated and promoting hunger, even when one is full.
“It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead,” Horvath said in the study’s press release. “Cannabis ‘tricks’ your brain into thinking that it’s starving.
How the brain handles appetite
Brains produce cannabinoids similar to the ones produced in cannabis. These are lipids that control appetite, mood, memory and pain perception. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) latches onto the same receptors in the brain mimicking the same chemicals.
A switch is flipped when THC is present in the brain’s hypothalamus which regulates hormone production. Instead of sending chemical signals for being full, neurons send the message the body is starving instead.
Cannabinoid (CB) receptors are on the brain’s olfactory bulb, the region that makes food smell and taste more intense as well as regulate how much we eat.
How weed affects the brain
We know cannabinoids, of which there are at least 113 known in cannabis, latch onto CB receptors. Now scientists believe these special receptors may be the conduits to appetite suppression and stimulation.
When CB receptors are activated by the cannabinoid dronabinol, or Marinol, which does not have the same spectrum of cannabinoids as weed, CB receptors prompt the release of hunger-promoting hormones.
Research is still ongoing though as the exact mechanisms are still unknown. Scientists are hopeful that suppressing hunger-causing hormones may help with weight loss methods.
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Your brain on drugs
Horvath’s team found pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), which had been thought to promote the feeling of being full, produces a range of different biologically active peptide hormones ready for action when signaled by the body.
POMC also promotes appetite Horvath’s team discovered. Whether stimulated or suppressed hunger signals are sent are regulated by a protein in the cell’s mitochondria (structures that regulate the cell’s energy levels).
When cannabis activates a CB receptor, the mitochondrial protein induces POMC to switch from secreting the substance that suppresses gorging to energizing it.
Normal hunger triggers
The brain’s CB receptors have been targets for weight loss without success. It’s complicated, but basically the cannabinoids they tried to suppress were also responsible for mood and their being turned off led to issues of depression.
Hunger is triggered when the body senses an excess or decrease in energy stores. With a deficit, the hormone ghrelin is released which helps release dopamine, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter.
If there’s excess, the hormone leptin is released which inhibits hunger and counteracts the effects of the ‘bliss molecule’ anandamide. The less leptin your body produces, the hungrier it feels, signaling to your brain that you’re literally starving.
While scientists are still determining exactly how the brain suppresses and encourages hunger.
How does weed make you hungry?
Since THC targets the CB receptors in the brain’s olfactory bulbs, it heightens the senses of taste and smell which ultimately affects appetite. But why is it the case that weed makes you hungry?
When chewing, air is usually forced through the nasal passages which carries food’s scent meaning more complex food flavors. When high, your sense of smell enhances the flavor of food, making it taste better.
Because the body thinks that it’s starving, your brain will seek the highest calorie foods to boost energy. THC increases hunger by acting on the cannabinoid receptors.
What is weed prescribed for?
THC increases the appetite by attaching to CB receptors and enhances the taste of sucrose (sugar). Interestingly, THC does not have the same effect on bitter or salty items, possibly because already salt-heavy and bitter snacks would be inedible with more added, unlike sugar.
The 2015 Harvard study specifically looked at cann\abnis use to stimulate appetite as medicine. The study concludes that a majority of respondents experienced greater hunger, even with serious conditions such as wasting syndrome often caused by chemotherapy and anorexia.
In 2011, another study verified that medical cannabis is a beneficial option to cancer patients. Qualifying candidates for medical marijuana were given THC pills for 18 days. The result showed 73% of those respondents experienced an increased appreciation of food and 64% experienced a spike in appetite.
Weed for cancer patients
Cannabis delivers a significant life improvement to cancer patients with food appreciation and stimulated hunger. Advanced cancer patients who suffer from wasting syndrome suffer from a severe lack of appetite and they burn through calories much faster.
It’s important to note that not everyone will experience the munchies with cannabis. If someone has fewer cannabinoid receptors or endocannabinoids in the olfactory bulb of the brain, they may be less likely to feel hungry with weed.
Cannabis and weight gain
And using marijuana doesn’t guarantee weight gain either. There are some studies that show the opposite is true. A 2019 study published in the Instrumental Journal of Epidemiology details a three-year study to find if cannabis users were more likely to gain weight.
Researchers were surprised with inverse findings. Marijuana users are statistically less likely to suffer from obesity. Regular weed users may ingest more calories, but overall there is a lower body fat percentage among stoners.
If the munchies do come calling and you overindulge in sweets too often there are some ways to avoid being unhealthy. Stocking healthy snacks before getting high is effective. You can also seek out weed with lower THC and higher cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV).
Why does weed make you hungry?
That ravenous, insatiable hunger with the cute name, ‘munchies,’ now has scientific proof based in fact. Avoiding this starvation mode means switching to strains with less THC. Otherwise, a majority of pot users will crave the sweetest, tastiest, most unhealthy food possible.
In addition to stimulating hunger, weed enhances the taste and flavor of food too, spiking cravings to the point of pigging out completely. And it feels good too because the body releases large amounts of dopamine when the munchies hit so you enjoy those enhanced sensations.
Your body believes you are hungry because the brain has been tricked to release the hunger hormone ghrelin when THC latches onto anandamide receptors. So beware of false signals from your brain after burning a bowl because chances are, your brain will crave the sweet stuff.