Marijuana use is growing quickly in the United States. Because of the recent explosion in popularity and legalization, many people are now using marijuana for the first time. In this case, many people will suddenly be finding themselves craving food, most people know this as the munchies. The “marijuana munchies” has become one of the most well-known side effects of marijuana, but few people know what causes it. In this post, we will look at what it is, what causes it, and how it can be used to help some people.
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What are the Munchies?
“The munchies” is a common side effect of marijuana use. It is the feeling of an increase in appetite after consuming marijuana and has been happening for about as long as marijuana has been used.
But What Causes the Munchies?
This is where things get interesting. There are over one hundred known cannabinoids that have been derived from marijuana. These cannabinoids have far-reaching effects in the body. Some can slow the immune system, some can change how your brain perceives things, and others can make you feel like you could eat a horse.
All these effects are thanks to the cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system, which can be found throughout the body. The endocannabinoid system is comprised of the cannabinoids your body naturally produces (endocannabinoids) and the cannabinoid receptors. There are two types of receptors, CB1 and CB2, which are generally found in the brain and peripheral tissues respectively.
The most famous of the cannabinoids are CBD and THC. Though they are both cannabinoids, they do very different things. CBD has been shown to reduce pain , anxiety , and even some cancer symptoms . CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it will not get you high in any dosage. THC, on the other hand, is very psychoactive. It can change your mood, behavior, and perceptions. Another important difference is that ingesting CBD will not cause the munchies, but THC will.
This is due to a few of the effects THC causes, one of which was recently found in 2014. This study showed that the endocannabinoid system may help modulate food intake . It was found that cannabinoids that activated the CB1 receptors “increased odor detection and food intake”. It is worth noting that this is an animal study, but the cognitive and neurological similarities between mice and humans make them a good first step before human trials.
Other studies have also investigated why food tastes so good when high. One study showed that it may be due to the release of dopamine in certain brain regions . In rats given THC, the dopamine response to sugar was higher than those without THC. This means that when you are high, eating food causes a stronger burst of dopamine compared to when you are sober.
There is also a third explanation, and it lies outside of the way you perceive food. Some research shows that cannabinoids may influence the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is known as the “hunger hormone”, and for good reason. Ghrelin helps influence your appetite, when levels are high, you feel hungry. The endocannabinoid system has been shown to influence appetite in the past , and recent studies suggest that ingesting marijuana may increase ghrelin levels .
Combining these three views, the current view is that the munchies are a combination of THC increasing ghrelin levels, odor detection, and dopamine response to food. So, if you are high, you will be hungrier, food will smell stronger, and sweet foods will taste better.
How Can This Help People?
So, marijuana can make people hungry, how does that help anyone other than restaurant owners? Well, many patients currently undergoing cancer or AIDS treatment have started to use marijuana as an appetite stimulant.
When a patient has AIDS, they are at risk of developing AIDS wasting syndrome. Wasting syndrome is defined as the involuntary weight loss of ten percent or more of a patient’s base body weight. Wasting syndrome also usually includes severe diarrhea and/or chronic weakness. In these cases, it is extremely important to keep the patient eating, and using high THC marijuana is one way of doing so. In fact, the FDA has approved the drug dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC, for this exact purpose.
A similar problem happens in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Patients undergoing chemotherapy are at increased risk of unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition. Some patients also suffer from CINV, or chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting. In these cases, it is again important to keep a patient’s appetite high.
Some patients may also develop anorexia, though this is still poorly understood and under-documented. In some cases, this has been treated using dronabinol, though this is still not an approved use case.
“The munchies” is still not completely understood scientifically. The most complete viewpoint of its cause seems to be a combination of marijuana influencing ghrelin levels, making you hungry, making food smell stronger, and increasing dopamine levels when eating. These effects, while largely harmless by themselves, are now being used clinically to help prevent cancer and AIDS-related wasting syndrome. There are even FDA approved drugs for treating these conditions based on marijuana.