If you’ve tried cannabis — particularly a variety with high levels of THC — you’ve probably experienced one of its most common side effects: “the munchies.”
You may have an irresistible urge to snack on something delicious. And once you open that bag of chips, you might find it tastes way better than it did before — which can lead to some serious snacking.
Hunger Hormones and Enhanced Smell
The munchies can be explained by looking at how cannabis activates our endocannabinoid system, an internal body system which help regulates many basic functions such as sleep, mood, memory, immune response, and, you guessed it — hunger.
Cannabis, and THC in particular, is able to stimulate our appetite primarily by activating one of the two primary endocannabinoid receptors — CB1. That sets off a chain reaction of effects in the brain which can lead to hunger and increased feeding.
One of these effects is the release of ghrelin, a hormone that is usually secreted when the stomach is empty. This triggers the feeling of hunger and lets the brain know it’s time to find more food. In experiments with rats, THC-rich cannabis use led to ghrelin release even when the stomach was already full, which led to more feeding.
The munchie effect may also be encouraged through an enhancement in our sense of smell and taste. Researchers noted in mice studies that when CB1 was stimulated, it increased odor detection abilities. Mice treated with cannabis had a temporary enhancement in their sense of smell, which increased their feeding behavior.
It may be that for humans, as well, marijuana can enhance our perception of food and thus increase cravings. Other studies also indicate that stimulating CB1 can make food taste better, making eating more enjoyable and food more palatable.
The Munchies as Medicine
For some patients, such as those with HIV, cancer, or anorexia, increased appetite can be a big help with the healing process. These conditions, or their treatments, can cause a lack of appetite and other changes, making it difficult to maintain a healthy weight or absorb important nutrients and vitamins. Marijuana can help by inducing the munchies.
For example, studies on patients with HIV have found that using cannabis can help increase food intake and weight gain. But this may only be in the short term, as other studies have found that repeated dosing could result in a tolerance to these effects.
Both human and mice studies shown benefit for increased appetite and weight gain in anorexia, helping with recovery. Patients with cancer have also benefited from the munchies when it comes to gaining or maintaining a healthy weight. So, the munchies isn’t just an added perk that makes your food taste great. It can actually be a very medicinally powerful tool for healing when patients have difficulty with appetite and weight gain.
Cannabis for Weight Loss?
You might think that the research above means cannabis use necessarily causes weight gain. But interestingly, scientists have noticed the paradoxical result that while cannabis use does tend to increase caloric intake, cannabis users have lower weight and less obesity than the general population. This has even led some researchers to suggest it could be used as a treatment for obesity. (CBD is thought to have appetite suppressant characteristics, and researchers are looking at it as a possible tool to treat obesity and diabetes.)
The paradoxical result may have something to do with how THC affects our gut. A study on obese mice eating a high fat diet found that those treated with THC did not gain weight, while those who weren’t using THC did. Interestingly, the THC-treated mice had a change in their gut microbiota. Instead of having a gut microbiota like normal obese mice, the guts of the THC treated obese mice transformed to look more like those of healthy mice.
So, there is no need to worry about the munchies causing weight gain in the long term. Cannabis can drive healthy changes to weight in both directions: helping to restore a healthy weight to those with low appetite, and helping regulate weight for others.