So you’ve smoked a bit of weed. You’re chilled out, feeling relaxed, and chuckling at the TV. But you’re also really, really hungry. You’re overcome with a sudden desire to eat and faced with no other option but to raid the kitchen cupboards for a bag of crisps or box of cereal – and why does everything taste so good?
Introducing one of the most notorious side effects of cannabis, ‘the munchies’. For years, researchers have assumed that the appetite-stimulating effects of cannabis pose a risk of weight gain for frequent cannabis users, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The munchies don’t actually cause you to put on weight – but why is this?
The science behind the munchies
When high, many people experience an enhanced appetite, often in the form of intense cravings for sweet, salty, or carb-rich food. This sensation has been termed ‘the munchies’ and is one of the most common side effects of smoking or consuming weed, documented as early as 300 AD.
In terms of what causes the munchies, we know that cannabis is the culprit, but what’s going on inside the brain to cause this insatiable urge to eat?
There are several theories for this, but it is likely a combination of different mechanisms – all of which are initiated in response to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering molecule in the cannabis plant.
The prevailing idea is that THC, by activating type 1 cannabinoid receptors (CB1) in the brain, stimulates several brain pathways that cause the release of ghrelin, famously termed our ‘hunger hormone’. This, in turn, increases our desire to seek out food.
Other animal model evidence suggests that THC activates receptors in the olfactory bulb – the brain’s smell centre. This enhances the smell and taste of food which, naturally, increases how much we want to eat.
Finally, it is also thought that cannabis interacts with dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in signalling pleasure. By increasing the release of dopamine, THC increases the sensation of pleasure when eating sugary foods which, you guessed it, makes us want more.
The ‘lazy stoner’ stereotype
The term ‘stoner’ – someone who is habitually high on cannabis – often conjures up a very specific stereotypical image: an unproductive, couch-bound, zombie-like individual who spends their day devouring food in a haze of smoke. Because of this, there is often an expectation that those who frequently indulge in cannabis will put on more weight.
The ‘lazy stoner’ stereotype is outdated. It was formulated on misinformation, stigma, and is rooted in fatphobia. As modern attitudes towards cannabis use are changing, it is becoming increasingly clear that cannabis does not make you lazy.
In fact, cannabis users appear to engage in more physical activity than non-users. Why is this the case? It could be because cannabis relieves pain, making exercise easier for those who may previously not have been able to. Alternatively, cannabis may induce a behavioural change that makes it more enjoyable to work out. Researchers don’t know the answer, but even world-famous athletes claim cannabis to be their key to sporting success.
What’s more, the relationship between cannabis and metabolism is far for complex than previously credited. Research indicates that frequent cannabis use isn’t actually associated with weight gain – has the munchies myth been debunked?
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