Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
The reason why you get the munchies when you use cannabis isn’t a question that’s easily answered. It occurs through a complex interaction between the body’s natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) and exogenous cannabinoids like THC.
Anyone who’s had the munchies knows how powerful the experience can be, from the cravings to the flavors and the all-encompassing enjoyment you get from smashing salty and sugary snacks. Luckily, as cannabis research expands, we are starting to understand the connection between cannabis and hunger better.
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How Normal Hunger Signals Work
We may feel hunger in the gut, but it’s controlled in the brain. Many complex chemical signals are wired back and forth between your brain and body. It all starts in the hypothalamus, which regulates the chemical signals that activate when you smell, taste, and see.
Just thinking about food excites and activates the neurotransmitters in your brain associated with food. There are two sets of neurons in the hypothalamus: those promoting hunger and those suppressing it.
Hormones are also involved in the hunger process; they’re released when food breaks down during digestion. Protein breaks down into amino acids, fat into fatty acids, and carbohydratesinto glucose. This process regulates hormone production and tells the brain when you’re full or need more fuel. Ghrelin and leptin are hormones circulating through the blood and communicate with hunger, generating and suppressing neurons produced in the hypothalamus.
When your blood sugar level drops and you get hungry, ghrelin increases in the blood, stimulating the hunger-promoting neurons in the hypothalamus. When you feel full, leptin levels increase in the blood and stimulate the hunger-suppressing neuron in the hypothalamus. So when ghrelin levels are high, you feel hungry, and when leptin levels are high, you feel satiated and stop eating.
How Cannabis Affects Hunger
The reason why cannabis is so effective at hijacking your hunger pangs is because of how cannabis interacts with the body’s natural systems that operate the hunger experience. In experiments with fasted mice, the endocannabinoid system uses the olfactory system to increase food intake by increasing odor detection.
The ECS is a widespread neuromodulatory system that plays an essential role in the central nervous system, according to the National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI). The ECS is composed of endogenous cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. The ECS has intrinsic effects on our body’s natural systems but also allows exogenous cannabinoids like THC to bind with our cannabinoid receptors and have an incredible host of different effects.
A team of neuroscientists led by Edgar Soria-Gómez and Giovanni Marsicano showed this in a study with mice. The mice exposed to THC were much more attracted to smelly banana and almond oils than mice without THC. The scientists discovered that when these mice fasted and became hungry, their olfactory bulbs produced endocannabinoids. This means that mice who are naturally hungry and mice who have their appetite stimulated by THC are being persuaded by the same biological functions.
THC replicates the natural feeling of hunger effectively because ECS is already involved in the hunger process. In short, THC doesn’t necessarily make you hungry. Still, it stimulates the olfactory bulb in the brain and exceedingly increases the positive sensations from eating sweet and salty snacks. This is a necessary clarification because the same experiment was repeated with genetically engineered mice with no cannabinoid receptors. When they were given THC, there was no increase in their appetite or sense of smell.
THC also prevents you from feeling full by hindering the chemical signals that tell the brain you’re full. This hypothalamic pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons signal that the stomach is full, and THC suppresses these chemical signals from communicating to the brain.THC makes food smell and taste better and makes you feel less full, making it even harder to curb a snack attack.
Controlling Hunger While Using Cannabis
The chemical mechanisms at play here are incredibly complex, but what’s simple is that if you smoke, you will more than likely feel hungry. There is a connection between the amount of THC you consume and how hungry you get. THC is a chemical trickster that cons your brain by making food seem irresistible when it comes to hunger.
This is why THC is used to help patients increase their appetite and gain weight. People going through chemotherapy and patients with eating disorders have used cannabis to increase their appetite and gain crucial weight that helps them battle their diseases.
However, many people who smoke cannabis don’t want to gain weight because of their munchy habits. Common sense might suggest that regular cannabis users get munchies all the time, which leads to unwanted weight gain, but that isn’t necessarily true. A three-year study from the NCBI found an inverse relationship between cannabis use and obesity and cannabis-body mass index (BMI) increase association.
The NCBI also provides an abundance of data breaking down and discussing all of the proposed theories as to why the rate of obesity tends to be lower in cannabis users compared to non-users.
One main reason is that cannabinoids like CBD can help regulate insulin levels. The data show that cannabis can be an effective weight-loss tool compared to other pharmaceutical or surgical methods. It also helps protect users against obesity-related chronic illnesses and reduces deaths related to pharmaceutical-related overdose.
What to Eat When You Have the Munchies
So if you’re a regular cannabis user and the munchies will inevitably creep up on you, there are ways to mitigate the intense cravings for sweet and salty food. One way is to meal prep around your smoking routine — this way, you have a delicious and healthy meal waiting for you when the pizza cravings set in while watching that Domino’s commercial for the third time.
Knowing that your cravings will likely center around sweet and salty flavors can give you some clues on the kinds of healthy snacks to keep on hand. Trail mix is great because you get a great blend of sweet and salty flavors while avoiding heavily processed things. Nuts are great for satiating a snack attack because they contain nourishing fatty acids.
Other excellent options for munchy food prep are burrito bowls, rice bowls, and wraps. These are incredibly filling options with versatile recipes and can be manipulated to satisfy various dietary needs. Combinations of beautifully seasoned beans, rice, veggies, and protein provide the body with a nourishing alternative to any boxed junk food you will find in the grocery store.
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