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Why Does Cannabis Give You the Munchies?

Cannabis and the irresistible urge to snack are forever linked, thanks to movies like Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. But this phenomenon is not just a stoner trope – it’s a real, and extremely common, result of consuming cannabis.

Why do you get the munchies?

Hunger and appetite are driven by a mix of physical and mental processes that scientists are still figuring out. However, the influence of cannabis on this process is believed to be driven by two main factors: the role of the central nervous system in hunger and the production of hunger hormones.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the phytocannabinoid that gives you the “high” feeling, plays an indirect role in influencing your nervous system, which is connected to appetite. THC stimulates the nervous system by interacting with the CB1 receptor of the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), which in turn influences appetite by affecting several areas of the brain1 associated with appetite and taste. And it’s not just the subjective experience of eating at work: THC can also promote the production of a hormone called ghrelin2 that stimulates appetite. 

These insights are relatively new. Until recently, researchers thought that cannabis stimulated hunger by heightening your senses3, including smell – and who doesn’t love the smell of hot pizza or a freshly-baked cookie? However, this theory didn’t explain why you would get the munchies when not in the presence of food. The central nervous system and ghrelin connections explain the spike in appetite without the presence of a juicy burger in front of you.

Do munchies have a therapeutic application?

The increased appetite associated with cannabis consumption may help with weight management in patients undergoing chemotherapy or living with conditions like HIV or wasting syndrome. These conditions, which are approved conditions in most states with a medical cannabis program, are commonly marked by a loss of appetite, rapid weight loss, or both. THC’s ability to influence appetite can help alleviate these symptoms. Consult your doctor to determine whether adding cannabis to an existing treatment plan is right for you.

How “the munchies” can make food taste better

The effect cannabis has on your senses makes eating a more rewarding experience. Why is that?

We know that THC heightens your sense of smell, and we know that it stimulates the production of ghrelin. But that oh-so-rewarding experience of the perfect bite to pacify the munchies comes from a different chemical: Dopamine. Eating after consuming cannabis delivers a rush of this satisfying neurotransmitter, which we in turn perceive as some of the best food we’ve ever tasted4.

Cannabis consumers leverage this to explore food in entirely new ways, driving a cultural revolution in cannabis dining. Cannabis dinners that pair a smokable cultivar with each course of a gourmet meal treat it just like pairing a fine wine with dinner: The two play off one another to reshape the eating experience and elevate it beyond snacking at home.

Does cannabis cause cravings for certain types of food?

Tart’s research demonstrated that cannabis consumers were more likely to crave sugars when experiencing the munchies, reaching for chocolate bars or cake over more nutrient-dense options. If you’re avoiding sugary snacks, try stocking your kitchen with some sweet fruit like watermelon or apples before your next session. 

Do you get the munchies every time you consume cannabis?

Even though it’s very common, the munchies aren’t guaranteed with every session. There are many factors that can influence whether someone experiences the munchies, including:

The ratio of THC to other phytocannabinoids

Because THC stimulates central nervous system activity and ghrelin production, high-THC products are the most likely to prompt the munchies. More balanced strains with an even THC:CBD ratio are more likely to keep the snacking in check, while high-CBD products are unlikely to cause the munchies at all. 

Terpenes and minor phytocannabinoids

Terpenes, the aromatic and flavorful compounds found in cannabis (and many other plants), can also influence appetite in one direction or another. For example, the terpene humulene has been observed to decrease appetite. Similarly, the minor phytocannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is thought to suppress appetite5. If you want to feel the effects of THC without going into a food frenzy, you may want to try products that contain elevated levels of these compounds.

Personal experience with cannabis

It’s important to remember that cannabis affects everyone differently. Even when researchers identify and examine an apparent pattern, the effects are rarely universal from person to person. Cannabis is complex and sessions are highly individualized, so one product that gives you the munchies may have no effect on another person’s appetite. The best way to know for sure is to start low and go slow: Try a little bit of cannabis and assess your appetite before trying more. 

The munchies mystery is far from uncovered

We know a lot more about the munchies today than we did a decade ago. Researchers are starting to connect the dots between the psychological and physical factors that trigger hunger, as well as how THC drives it. And while there’s no shortage of movie and TV lore about devouring a late-night meal after a session, this common cannabis effect is stimulating appetites for those who struggle to keep food down in a very real way.

Sources:

  1. https://www.marijuanadoctors.com/blog/munchies-according-to-science/
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180717094747.htm
  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/scientific-explanation-how-marijuana-causes-munchies-180949660/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705914/
  5. https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/what-is-thcv-and-what-are-the-benefits-of-this-cannabinoid

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