.The Science Behind Munchies

“Get some … Graham crackers with the marshmallows. Little marshmallows with little chocolate bars and we’ll make some s’mores man. Celery, grape jelly, Captain Crunch with the little crunch berries, pizzas, we need two big pizzas, everything on ‘em, water, a whole lotta water and…….Funyuns.” 

Don’t, ever, forget the Funyuns.

Any pothead growing up in the 90s will no doubt remember—and probably relate to—Jim Breuer’s post-bong-rip wishlist during the legendary munchies scene in the now-cult-classic movie Half Baked. The film features four 20-something slackers—characters played by Dave Chappelle, Guillermo Diaz, Jim Breuer and Harland Williams—living together and living to smoke Mary Jane.

Sadly, Williams’ character Kenny never returns heroically with the oh-so-important Captain Crunch, peanut butter or Funyuns. He ends up feeding every item on the carb, salt and fat-rich shopping list to a police horse that subsequently dies. It’s unclear whether Brian, Breuer’s character, is more distraught about his buddy being thrown into jail with a million-dollar bail figure, or missing out on the s’mores he was so desperately craving.

Half Baked may slightly exaggerate certain aspects of cannabis culture, but there is no denying one thing: the “munchies” are very very real. But why? Why, after sparking up a massive J or taking a few drags on a vape pen do we experience often-overwhelming urges for carb-rich and sweet and salty foods?

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It turns out, there’s a bit of science behind it.

Researchers have recently unearthed a number of concrete reasons for why cannabis makes people so ravenously hungry. Most of our cannabis related food cravings can be blamed on marijuana’s cannabinoids, specifically tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When THC travels into the deep regions of the human brain, it nestles into and stimulates the endocannabinoid system, an important area that regulates a person’s energy balance and feeding behavior.

In short, cannabis plays a trick on people’s minds—fooling their central feeding system and making them feel hungry even when they are full. THC is a tricky little bugger. It interacts with receptors in our brains that regulate important things like smell, taste, pain and emotions.

Most folks don’t realize that our brains produce a long list of their very own cannabinoids – lipids that help to moderate mood, pain reception, memory, and appetite. Sort of like a tick, THC attaches to the cannabinoid receptors in our brain—mimicking the same chemicals and effectively fooling the brain. The area of our brain that tells human beings to stop overeating effectively mutates—morphing into the driving force behind our often-insatiable hunger.

The hormone ghrelin, which has long been known to stimulate hunger, is another important byproduct of THC. As is dopamine, which is released by THC and enhances the pleasure of eating. Dopamine makes eating food more of an adventure and more enjoyable in general. It also lowers people’s inhibitions by influencing the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. This means that people are more likely to make unhealthy and sub-par food choices after consuming or smoking cannabis. Funyuns, anyone?

As THC pulses throughout the brain, it starts to interact with the cannabinoid receptors in a person’s olfactory bulb. Smell and taste become far more intense and sensitive, and food looks, smells, and tastes great! Aromas are far more potent after consuming cannabis, and every single basic taste—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory)—more noticeable and pronounced. This is a big reason why food can be oh so pleasurable after smoking weed, and why people crave and eat more in general.

It turns out that overweight and obese people have more of a munchie response than the skinny- minnies out there. THC interacts with and activates the dopamine systems of obese men and women to a much greater degree than the non-obese population, steering them to a variety of sweet and salty options and “junk food.” Marijuana edibles can add another complicated wrinkle to the mix, compounding THC’s impact on weight and appetite. Rich foods like brownies, cookies, and cakes contain a massive amount of calories themselves. By causing significant drops and increases in blood sugar levels, the THC in edibles can increase cravings for even more unhealthy options in a salty, fatty cycle.

So the majority of cannabis users out there are super-obese, right? Surprisingly, no. A handful of studies actually indicate that heavy users of cannabis are leaner – with a lower body mass index- than the general population. Cannabis may lead to weight gain in those who are low weight, but it doesn’t seem to affect those who are overweight or normal weight the same way.

Cannabis science is relatively young, but there is no doubt that the drug can have therapeutic benefits. Appetite stimulation does have a medical upside. Many elderly patients and those who suffer from HIV or cancer rely on cannabis to stimulate their appetites and keep them healthy. Researchers are beginning to uncover the ways that cannabis increases appetite, and they may be close to developing ways to reduce a person’s appetite as well. With almost 100 cannabinoids in a single plant, the psychoactive and therapeutic effects of many of cannabis’s components remain a mystery.

There’s no question about it. This year’s cannabinoid darling is cannabidiol (CBD). The Food and Drug Administration recently approved CBD to treat pain, depression, anxiety, and nausea – and the cannabinoid is literally everywhere. No, CBD won’t get you high. But what about cannabidiol’s effect on appetite and the legendary munchies?

Turns out, CBD has little to no role in the munchies process. It can, however, do many other groovy things. CBD will calm a person’s digestive tract and nervous system – reducing nausea and making a person want to eat slightly more. CBD is also a known and proven pain reliever, and researchers say that feeling less pain can boost a person’s appetite. Treats, beverages, and other edibles containing CBD won’t get you buzzed or lead to the munchies, but one should still use caution. Don’t consume an entire six pack of CBD beer or an entire bag of CBD brownies, unless you want a CBD belly. 

Read the flip-through edition of the Cannabis Chronicle magazine. 


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