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Why Does Marijuana Cause The Munchies?

By on November 22, 2012

Summary (click to view)

  • Appetite is one of many daily functions influenced by the endocannabinoid system
  • The “munchies” is caused by THC overloading the endocannabinoid system
  • THC acts on certain parts of the brain to increase both the ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ of food
  • The “munchies” can be used to treat certain sicknesses
  • – It is a well known fact that marijuana stimulates hunger, usually resulting in the ferocious consumption of potato chips and other snack foods – a phenomenon known as the “munchies”. But what is it about marijuana that causes its user to seek and consume junk food with such an appetite non-existent in a sober state of mind?

    The answer lies in THC – one of the many active chemicals in marijuana – and its interaction with the endocannabinoid system.

    “Munchies” and the Endocannabinoid System

    The endocannabinoid system is made up of the body’s own cannabinoids – chemicals similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – and the receptors that they bind to in order to elicit their effects. This system exists in every human being and influences many of our day to day activities – appetite being just one of these. Indeed, we all have a natural balance of cannabinoids suspended in our bloodstream that control our daily appetite and food-seeking behaviour.

    But when an individual uses marijuana, this balance is disrupted by the sudden increase in cannabinoids, such as THC, that enter our body. THC overloads the cannabinoid receptors in our brain, resulting in intense cravings for food as well as increasing the pleasure that we experience while eating.

    Scientists have documented these effects through numerous studies and now have a pretty good idea of how it works. By acting on different parts of the brain, THC has been found to not only increase appetite (the ‘wanting’ of food), but also the pleasure associated with food intake (the ‘liking’ of food). On top of this, animal studies have shown the intake of THC to result in a preference for sweet and fatty foods. This explains why, after marijuana intake, unhealthy snack foods are often craved.

    As it turns out, the endocannabinoid system is not unique to only humans or even mammals for that matter. Scientists have discovered creatures as simple as the Hydra – a tiny freshwater creature – to possess and rely on the endocannabinoid system for feeding behaviours as well.

    Can “Munchies” Be Used to Treat Disorders?

    Ever since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and its effects on appetite, scientists have been investigating its medical potential in a wide variety of disorders.

    Medical marijuana is already being prescribed as a hunger stimulant for patients with reduced appetites, such as cancer patients who are unable to eat due to nausea from chemotherapy treatments as well as HIV patients suffering from what is known as ‘wasting syndrome’.

    Scientists have also discovered that by targeting the endocannabinoid system, an opposite effect can also be achieved. That is, hunger can be suppressed by the administration of receptor ‘antagonists’ – molecules which prevent the binding between cannabinoids and their receptors. This method of intervention has been described as one of the most promising routes of treatment for obesity and pharmaceutical companies already have various products in development.