Why Does Weed Make You Hungry? A Scientific Look Into the ‘Munchies’

If you enjoy weed but haven’t seen Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies, you lose all your rights to be called a ‘stoner’! In the movie, the not so dynamic duo gets stoned to de-stress, and are suddenly hit with a bad case of the munchies. They set their sights on making it to White Castle and eventually get there after a sequence of strange events, including a coked-up Neil Patrick Harris.

Anyone who has eaten a White Castle ‘slider’ knows why it gets the name, but questionable fast food choice aside, why do we get so hungry after consuming marijuana? It turns out that the answer lies in biology and science, so read on to discover why you raid the fridge after an epic cannabis session.

What Normally Triggers Hunger?

Scientists have yet to fully understand all of the mechanisms that cause the body to regulate itself and trigger a sense of hunger. However, research has shown that hunger is a two-part process which changes depending on whether the body senses an excess or a decrease in energy stores.

In the case of a deficit, a hormone known as ghrelin is released by your GI tract. It stimulates the brain’s hypothalamus and increases your sensation of hunger. It also impacts the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of your brain, which aids the release of dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter.

In the case of excess, your body’s fat cells release a different hormone, leptin, which also stimulates the hypothalamus. In this case, it inhibits hunger and it also affects the VTA and dopamine release. Furthermore, leptin counteracts effects of Anandamide, the ‘bliss molecule,’ which binds to the same receptors as THC – the cannabinoid in marijuana best known for making you ‘high’. Therefore, the less leptin that your body produces, the hungrier you feel. As for why you get the munchies when you’re high, there is a very simple answer:

Your Body Thinks You Are Starving!

The THC in marijuana is responsible for those insane hunger pangs. A 2014 study revealed information on what weed does to the human brain and appetite, and it was discovered that THC targets the olfactory bulbs of your brain and heightens your sense of taste, smell, and of course, your appetite.

Additionally, a 2015 study at the Yale School of Medicine looked at the effect of weed on the appetites of mice, and the research team was amazed at what it discovered. In basic terms, the THC in weed tricks your brain into thinking you’re desperately hungry, even if you’re full. THC effectively ‘flips a switch’ in the hypothalamus, and instead of producing the chemical that says you’re full, neurons tell the hypothalamus that you’re hungry.

Tamas Horvath led the study and used a simple analogy to drive home the point: “It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead.” He admitted that the team was surprised that the neurons they believed responsible for signaling the end of eating, were activated and promoted hunger even in mice that were full.

Another biological sensation in terms of “the munchies” involves our sense of smell. When we’re high, our increased ability to smell means that food will taste better because when you chew, you normally force air through your nasal passages. This process carries the food’s scent so that you’re capable of grasping complex flavors. Also, because the body believes you’re starving, it will look for food that’s high in calories to ensure you get a burst of energy. (This partially explains why Harold and Kumar ended up at White Castle, I suppose).

And lastly, the THC in cannabis also increases your hunger by acting on your CB1 receptors. After attachment, it enhances the taste of sucrose but has little or no effect on bitter or salty items. This phenomenon helps explain why you opt for junk food that’s laden with sugar when high; it just tastes so good! The CB1 receptor also helps produce dopamine in a specific part of the hypothalamus.

Why Do You Think Marijuana is Used as an Appetite Stimulant?

Even by 2015, marijuana was known as an excellent method of increasing appetite. So much so that by then, medical conditions such as anorexia and wasting syndrome were classified as qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use.

A 2011 study on cancer patients had some extremely positive results. In the study, the subjects consumed THC pills each day for 18 days, and 73% of them reported an increased appreciation for food while 64% experienced a spike in appetite. According to one of the study’s authors, the fact that the cancer patients became hungry and enjoyed their food was a significant improvement in quality of life terms.

Individuals with advanced cancer tend to experience wasting syndrome, which, in addition to suffering from a severe lack of appetite, causes them to burn through calories much faster than normal. In the study, the research team gave THC pills to 11 patients and THC pills and a placebo to 10 patients. They consumed 2.5mg of THC 2-3 times a day for 18 days.

Final Thoughts on Weed & the Munchies

So, it’s official! The whole ‘weed gives me the munchies’ theory is now a scientific fact. If you’re on a diet, it is a good idea to avoid strains of marijuana that are high in THC because you won’t be able to stop raiding the cupboard for the sweetest, tastiest, unhealthiest foods you can find! On the plus side, weed is a fantastic treatment option for cancer patients and individuals with other conditions where lack of appetite is a problem.

Ultimately, smoking weed enhances your sense of taste and smell; you also feel awesome because your body is releasing a large amount of dopamine. Your body believes you are hungry because of the release of ghrelin, along with THC’s attachment to anandamide receptors. You now have the same feelings as when you’re deprived of food, whether you’re full or not. From now on when you’re high, you’ll understand why there doesn’t seem to be enough junk food in the house, and why everything smells and tastes amazing!

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