The Kernel of Truth | Why Cannabis Causes The Munchies
In popular culture, there’s a common image displayed when a person smokes or ingests cannabis. With glazed eyes and a slight grin, the stoned user gleefully reaches into their food pantry and gorges on whatever snacks are available. The concept of cannabis users indulging in what’s lovingly referred to as “the munchies” is a standard stereotype. Even though many “stoner” stereotypes are far from reality, this particular one is scientifically-backed as truth.
Although the psychological effects of cannabis vary based upon many variables (dosage, cannabis strain, etc.), the vast majority of users notice an uptick in hunger. This symptom of cannabis usage is not only the source of many hilarious stories, but also a medicinal benefit; especially for those suffering from lack of appetite due to medical treatments or ailments.
But why does cannabis give users the munchies? Until recently, the scientific community was unable to fully answer this question. However, as our understanding of the human endocannabinoid system grows so does our understanding of how this plant truly influences brain activity.
Opening the Pantry | How Cannabis Triggers Hunger
As you may be aware, the two primary cannabinoids found in marijuana – THC and CBD – are responsible for the bulk of its psychoactive and physiological benefits. Within the realm of stimulating hunger, it appears cannabis triggers appetite through two primary functions:
- Elevation of Dopamine Transmission
- CB-1 Receptor Site Activation
Of course, the biological reasons for these responses is far more complex. First, let’s take a look at how cannabis enhances dopamine transmission and the relation this has on hunger triggers.
The Real Scoop on Dope | Cannabis and Dopamine Responses
Early research into the connection between cannabis and hunger found that cannabinoid receptor stimulation increases the flavor, or palatability, of food (1). This is where things get interesting. When you consume food that’s highly palatable, dopamine production is simultaneously increased. In a study published by the journal Neuropharmacology, researchers found a direct connection between THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).
Researchers found CB-1 activation caused by THC significantly increases the palatability, or satisfaction, of foods. This, in turn, stimulated a greater release of dopamine. Therefore, users will experience a greater “joy” or “satisfaction” when eating. After repeated experience, the areas within the brain that respond to dopamine adapt to this change. Basically, after this experience, your brain recalls the extra dose of dopamine stimulated by consuming foods after ingesting THC. Because of this, upon ingesting THC, your brain swiftly remembers the level of palatability caused by THC – as well as the increase in dopamine – thus, you’re struck with hunger (2).
The Hidden Reason for The Munchies | POMC Activation
Throughout your brain are specialized cannabinoid receptors, known as CB-1. Although these receptors are responsible for a host of bodily responses, CB-1 receptor sites play a critical role in the overall regulation of food intake.
When activated, CB-1 receptors stimulate POMC (Hypothalamic Pro-Opiomelanocortin) neurons. Through a complex biological and chemical symphony, the activation of these neurons via CB-1 stimulation, directly triggers your hunger (3). Yet, these findings are completely opposite of what the medical community traditionally believed regarding POMC neurons.
POMC neurons have long been believed to be the chemical signals that prevent you from overeating. However, in the study published by the journal, Nature, researchers found when POMC is stimulated by CB-1 receptor activation, these neurons release a different set of chemicals that actually promote hunger instead of chemicals that make you feel full (4).