One of the most referenced impacts of cannabis within pop culture is the munchies. To many, it’s considered a cannabis cardinal sin to invite them over for a smoke session without stocking up on an adequate assortment of snacks. Scientists and medical professionals are beginning to understand the munchie phenomenon as an opportunity to provide more options for people struggling with eating disorders and illness-induced anorexia, but first, they need to understand what it is about cannabis that so commonly triggers our appetite. 

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Cannabis and Ghrelin

"We all know cannabis use affects appetite, but until recently we've actually understood very little about how or why," said Jon Davis, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neurosciences at Washington State University (WSU). "By studying exposure to cannabis plant matter, the most widely consumed form, we're finding genetic and physiological events in the body that allow cannabis to turn eating behavior on or off." When you’re body needs food, your gastrointestinal tract releases a peptide hormone called ghrelin to indicate to your brain that you’re getting hungry.

The WSU researchers found that when they dosed lab rats with cannabis vapor, it not only triggered a ghrelin surge that prompted them to eat but also altered the genetic activity of the brain cells that respond to the hormone within a small region of the hypothalamus. The cannabis, however, did not trigger a rise in appetite when the body was introduced to a ghrelin-suppressing drug.

Cannabis and Olfactory Processes

A couple of curious white laboratory rats looking out of a cage iStock / Olena Kurashova
In 2014, a different team led by Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux also recognized that cannabis was clearly linked to stimulating hunger in humans but took a different approach as to why. They observed how THC reacted to mice’s olfactory bulbs, the part of the brain that controls our sense of smell. They found that THC heightened olfactory processes and their ability to smell food, indicating that animals may eat more after cannabis use because of their ability to more astutely smell and taste the various flavors.

Next, the team observed what would happen if they altered the mice’s endocannabinoid system, a biological system occurring in both humans and mice that is composed of endogenous lipid-based retrograde neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids that bind to cannabinoid receptors. It plays a major role in regulating different physiological and cognitive processes, including appetite. Though our body produces its own cannabinoids that fit into the system’s receptors, THC works beautifully in binding to these receptors just as those naturally occurring chemicals would.

The researchers found that when they didn’t make alterations to the mice’s endocannabinoid system, they would smell something like a banana or almond oil and shortly lose interest as they were habituated to the smell. Exposing these mice to THC seemed to enhance their sensitivity to such scents, as they would keep smelling much longer than those not introduced to any cannabis. Mice who had been genetically altered to lack a particular type of cannabinoid receptor in their olfactory bulbs underwent the same experiment.

THC did not seem to heighten their sense of smell, as they habituated to the scent just as they had before being exposed to it. They also did not demonstrate any signs of increased scent sensitivity or appetite when they had been undernourished, signifying that THC and the cannabinoids that the body naturally produces in times of hunger follow the same neural pathway.

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Cannabis and Eating Disorders

In 2011, a study published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal found that Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and (BN) Bulimia Nervosa are likely linked with an underactive and imbalanced endocannabinoid system, which could possibly be corrected by introducing external cannabinoids like THC and CBD to the body. With AN patients, encouraging appetite stimulation through cannabis rather than using a feeding tube is less traumatic as well as more sustainable for the patient, and can serve as relaxation therapy in addition to a weight regulation tool.

In corroboration with this idea, Davis and his team were optimistic after completing the study about the possibilities of treating eating disorders, particularly those that are illness-induced, with cannabis. “Severe appetite loss is a common symptom of many chronic illnesses, and is especially problematic in cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, and some metabolic disorders,” reported Science Daily. “A targeted treatment that offers the beneficial effects on appetite without the broader effects on the mind and body could increase quality of life and speed recovery.”

The Munchies and Individual Health

Assortment of fried food. iStock / margouillatphotos
Unfortunately, munchies don’t typically inspire smokers to reach for the kale and quinoa or craft a nutritious beet salad, and snacks like Cheetos and Pop Tarts are a more likely candidate to satisfy cannabis-induced hunger. In fact, UConn economist Michele Baggio and Georgia State Policy Studies professor Alberto Chong collaborated on a study to compare purchasing trends in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon and the legalization of recreational marijuana in those states.

Their study indicated a 3.1 percent increase in ice cream purchases, a 4.1 percent increase in cookie purchases, and a 5.3 percent increase in chip purchases immediately after recreational marijuana sales began. Whether marijuana will have long-term effects on resistance to disease and the overall health of populations is still inconclusive. Though weight is not a reliable indicator of health within an individual, some people falsely believe that an increase in the availability of marijuana will lead to a spike in obesity and thus a downfall in their community’s overall health.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, however, found that obesity occurrence was 6-8% lower in people who had used marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months than those who never used it. No matter the wider implications of recreational legalization, it’s important to keep in touch with your own individual health and how your cannabis use affects it. If you’re a cannabis-lover who wants to stop reaching for the Doritos and find healthier and more satisfying ways to get through a spell of the munchies, there are plenty of options. There are actually many nutritious foods that will not only fill your stomach when it feels like a bottomless pit but will also enhance your high.

What Strains Stimulate Appetite?

Certain strains are more effective in beating a loss of appetite than others, and hunger-stimulating strains can come in Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid forms. Increased appetite is usually the side effect, not the main treatment, of any strain, so you can browse for one that not only helps you eat but also fits in with your other cannabis needs. Orange Bud, for instance, is effective in treating a loss of appetite but is more well known for boosting your mood, energy, and creativity. Rainbow Kush is known for its mild mixture of body and cerebral high but is also great for treating loss of appetite relating to chronic nausea. For a full guide of what Wikileaf strains will bring on the munchies, click here.