Anyone who has ever partaken in a little cannabis use – and even most people who haven’t – are well aware of the infamous “munchies”. It is a phenomenon around which many comedic movie scenes, jokes, and stoner stories are set – but what actually are the munchies? What does weed do to our bodies that makes almost every kind of food utterly irresistible?
The munchies may be a pop culture reference that everyone today is sure to understand, but the first record of this phenomenon, in fact, is believed to date from over a thousand years ago. That’s right, it seems the Rajanirghanta, an Ancient Hindu text dated around 300 AD, was informing of weed’s ability to “excite the appetite” long before the plant became commonplace all around the world. And it’s not just a raging appetite that has become associated with cannabis, either; nope – food even seems to taste so much better, too.
Why does weed make you hungry?
According to various studies, agonism of cannabinoid receptors in our bodies can stimulate acute food craving, intake, and reward (duh). And it may not be surprising to learn exactly which cannabis compound is largely behind this reaction. That’s right – THC. This well-known cannabinoid is known to interact with the body’s dopamine system to elevate dopamine levels. This feel-good neurotransmitter plays a significant role in our internal reward system and helps to make pleasurable activities, well, pleasurable.
This influence over the dopamine system makes foods – especially sweet, salty, and satiating ones – all the more appealing after cannabis consumption. But it isn’t just the extra boost of dopamine that leaves us ravenous for pizza and chocolate. The endocannabinoid system may also influence the area of the brain that is largely responsible for appetite and our habit of eating for pleasure – the hypothalamus. When THC compounds trigger cannabinoid receptors in this area of the brain, it’s likely that the munchies won’t be far behind.
According to a 2020 study, exposure to THC can also cause a spike in ghrelin, a hormone released in the stomach that is believed to be linked to feelings of hunger. Put all these internal responses together and it isn’t difficult to understand why cannabis can leave us with a hunger that no amount of food seems to satisfy – at least temporarily.
So, let’s address the elephant in the room: if smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis will leave you wanting to eat everything in the fridge, will it make you fat?
Will weed make you fat?
It only makes sense that all the extra calories consumed when you’re high will lead to significant weight gain, right? Well, the evidence may surprise you.
Various studies have found that cannabis use is not associated with a higher prevalence of obesity. In fact, the truth may be quite the opposite, as a 2011 survey found: “the prevalence of obesity is lower in cannabis users than in nonusers.”
What’s more, despite getting a bad rap as being lazy and unmotivated, growing evidence suggests that cannabis users may also be more active than non-users. For example, a 2021 US survey even found that frequent cannabis users were more involved in physical activities than their non-user counterparts! (Find out more about cannabis and exercise in our article, ‘Working out with weed’).
But the contradictions between cannabis use and weight gain don’t appear to end there.
While the literature tells us that cannabis users are no more likely to be obese than non-users, this impressive plant is increasingly being considered as a potential aid for patients who need to gain weight. Weight loss and wasting is a serious side effect of a number of chronic illnesses and diseases, including cancer and HIV.
For example, weight loss is relatively common among patients with cancer due to both tumour-host interactions and side effects of chemotherapy. Appetite stimulants are, therefore, an important therapeutic consideration for individuals undergoing cancer treatment. Likewise, as HIV progresses to AIDS, it causes significant damage to the immune system, causing poor absorption of nutrients and harmful changes in metabolism, both of which can contribute to significant weight loss.
In recent years, medical cannabis has been increasingly assessed for its potential to stimulate appetite and how this could be useful in such clinical settings. In the US, Marinol (known as Dronabinol in the UK), a synthetic form of THC, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of weight loss and anorexia in people with advanced HIV infection.
There is still a lot more to understand about the munchies-inducing effects of cannabis, from how it is caused to its implications on our health. One thing is for certain though – making sure you’re stocked up on your favourite snacks before getting high can save you a whole lot of heartbreak.