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Understanding the Munchies

By Rob Tait

Ever find that you’re a tad peckish soon after you’ve taken medical cannabis?

Of course you have. And, if you’ve ever wondered why that is, science is here to bring you the answer.

In a nutshell, the answer is that cannabis fools your brain into thinking you’re starving.

Recently, researchers studying mice at Yale University were able to show that “the neurons we thought were responsible for shutting down eating, were suddenly being activated and promoting hunger….” And, when you combine that effect with cannabis’ well-known tendency to heighten your senses to make everything you feel, smell, and taste more intense... it’s pretty much guaranteed to make you a very hungry human.

Four people around a table with munchies eating

Photo by Ali Inay

What’s more, it works even if you just pushed away from the dinner table.

Tamas Horvath, the study’s lead researcher, says the reason for this is that THC confuses the hypothalamus. Normally, when you have eaten enough, this part of the brain produces a chemical that tells you you’re full. When you’re high, however, the THC in your system sends neurons that trick your hypothalamus into signaling that you’re hungry – no matter how full your stomach really is.

According to Horvath, “even if you just had dinner and you smoke cannabis, all of a sudden these neurons that told you to stop eating become the drivers of hunger.”

But there’s more to the story than simply a hoodwinked hypothalamus.

Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reminds us that your mood also affects your appetite, saying the main psychoactive element in cannabis hits on “…some primitive areas of the brain, things that control appetite and emotions."

Picking up on that theme, is Massachusetts-based author and registered dietitian, Janice Bissex, who says "THC interacts with receptors in our brain that regulate emotions, pain and our sense of smell and taste. It can also promote the release of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates hunger." (CNN.com)

Young woman with glasses eating burger drink munchies

Photo by Angelos Michalopoulos

But wait…there’s more!

THC also opens the dopamine flood gates, adds Hultin. As with alcohol, this makes us less inhibited and, therefore, more likely to give in to cravings for things that while tasty, might not be the healthiest items in your cookie cupboard.

Put another way, cannabis tends to knock the angel off of your shoulder, the one telling you not to listen to the red-faced guy with the horns and tail on the other shoulder who is urging you to “Go for the Rocky Road! Yes… all of it!”

However, if you’re recovering from a serious illness and need help to maintain or put on weight, a little cannabis can literally be just what the doctor ordered.

Lack of appetite, brought on by chronic pain or nausea can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, in turn limiting a patient’s ability to heal. And although pharmaceutical medications are available to stimulate appetite, many come with serious side effects. Of course, there are more drugs that can be prescribed for those side effects, but wouldn’t it be great if you could make patients hungrier without giving them side effects and more pills?

That’s where Cannabis shows a lot of promise.

Woman in blouse with flat stomach anti-nausea gut health

Photo by Ryan Moreno

Clinical trials have shown that the cannabinoids in cannabis can help stimulate appetite without those nasty side effects. And it gets better. According to Dr. Vincent Maida, a palliative medicine specialist at the University of Toronto and co-author of A user’s guide to cannabinoid therapies in oncology, cannabis doesn’t just make you hungry, it can relieve “the pain, the nausea and the anorexia [appetite loss]..." that cause many patients to keep losing weight.

So, cannabis…for the win!

And while you ponder all of this, there’s a large tub of rocky road calling our name and, science is cheering us on from the sidelines.

You wouldn’t argue with science, would you?

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