Cannabis and the Munchies: Understanding the Complex Science Behind Increased Appetite

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Added 25 August 2023

Among various recreational substances, few have garnered as much intrigue as cannabis. With its history of use for both medical and recreational purposes, this versatile plant continues to captivate both researchers and the common user. 

As a cannabis user, you’ve probably experienced sudden intense hunger after consuming cannabis. Referred to as the "munchies” in the world of cannabis, it’s nothing but a feeling of seemingly insatiable hunger that makes you pounce on a bag of potato chips or something savory. 

The association between cannabis use and increased hunger has intrigued scientists for decades, but the underlying mechanisms for this effect remain somewhat elusive. The good news, however, is that our understanding of cannabis and its effects on the human body has increased in recent years as researchers have unraveled many things we were previously clueless about. 

While it’s the butt of jokes for many people, this effect also begs for a scientific explanation. Of course, long-term users don’t feel hunger as intensely as beginners. However, many people would still like to know why cannabis makes them so hungry. 

And, if that’s the case, does cannabis make you gain weight? What are the effects?

Let’s find the answers to such questions and more in this article. 

How Does the Human Body Indicate Hunger?

How Does the Human Body Indicate Hunger?

Hunger, although we experience it many times and thus assume that it’s simple, is actually a complex process that arises from various interconnected processes within our bodies. Typically, these processes involve a combination of biological and psychological cues working together to inform our brain and body that it's time to eat.

Here’s how our body sends signals of hunger:

1. Ghrelin Secretion

Ghrelin, often known as the "hunger hormone " is produced by the lining of our stomach, and is released into the bloodstream when our stomach is empty. The levels of ghrelin increase when there’s an anticipation of meals. Conversely, they also decrease after we eat. In short, ghrelin plays a key role in triggering feelings of hunger and motivating us to find food.

2. Blood Sugar Levels

The human body derives glucose from the carbohydrates we eat, which serve as fuel for the cells in our body. When blood sugar levels drop below a specific threshold, you can feel hunger. At this point, alpha cells in the pancreas release glucagon, to release stored glucose into the bloodstream. This helps regulate blood sugar levels and alleviate hunger.

3. Neural Signaling

Our brain has a role in regulating hunger. The hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain responsible for several functions, contains specialized cells called "hunger neurons." They not only react to signals from hormones like ghrelin but are also sensitive to any fluctuations in blood sugar levels. When they are activated they send signals that create feelings of hunger and trigger the desire to eat.

Think of these neurons as operators that issue alerts. As they have a direct connection to ghrelin and other hormones, they can sense various changes in the body, including blood sugar. Thus, when they sense that there’s a reduction in blood sugar levels, they trigger hunger alarms, which is why you’re overcome by an intense feeling of hunger. 

4. Cholecystokinin (CCK)

The intestine releases this hormone, especially when you eat foods high in fats and proteins. CCK sends signals of satiety, indicating that the stomach is full, and also helps empty the stomach slowly and promote a sense of satisfaction after eating.

5. Leptin

The fat cells produce leptin, which is also known as the "satiety hormone". Thankfully, when you get the munchies and eat a lot, it helps regulate body weight by sending messages about the body's energy reserves to the brain. When fat stores increase, leptin levels rise, informing the brain that there is enough energy to decrease hunger. However, this doesn’t mean that you can rely on leptin alone and eat ungodly amounts of food. 

Okay, so what does this have to do with cannabis? As you read more, you’ll see that the cannabinoids in cannabis interact with the receptors present in various organs and influence hunger and appetite. 

Also, the above section is to help you understand how your body perceives hunger. You don’t feel hunger due to one particular hormone. It’s a result of various neurological and psychological factors. 

Our body's intricate signaling systems work together to maintain balance and ensure we get enough nutrients for survival. However, disruptions in these systems can lead to overeating or undereating which can contribute to health issues. This can happen whether you use cannabis or not. 

Now, let’s get into how cannabis specifically induces hunger. 

How Does Cannabis Enhance Our Hunger?

How Does Cannabis Enhance Our Hunger?

The term munchies usually refers to feelings of intense craving for food after you consume alcohol or cannabis. You’ve probably experienced this many times where you just can’t control yourself and end up eating a lot. Of course, with time, these feelings fade, but munchies are one of the reasons why many people hesitate to try cannabis as they don’t want to gain weight. 

There are several reasons as to why cannabis amplifies hunger. The compounds in cannabis interact with our body, and then there’s the endocannabinoid system that plays a role in regulating our appetite and food intake. Here are a few reasons that explain how cannabis can make you hungry:

Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors that help regulate various physiological processes in the human body. These processes include appetite control, mood regulation, pain perception, and more. The ECS primarily has two types of receptors: CB1 receptors abundant in the brain and central nervous system, and CB2 receptors which are found in immune cells and peripheral tissues.

Cannabis has various cannabinoids, and the most popular ones are THC and CBD. While THC is responsible for delivering a psychoactive effect or the “high” you experience after using cannabis, CBD does not producr narcotic effects. 

When you consume cannabis whether by ingesting or smoking it, THC enters the body and interacts with CB1 receptors that are dominant in the brain. This interaction triggers pathways that control responses, such, as appetite. Here’s how THC can influence your hunger:

  • The hypothalamus, located in the brain, plays a role in regulating hunger. Interestingly it has a good concentration of CB1 receptors. When THC binds to these receptors it can affect the release of hormones that are involved in hunger regulation. 
  • You already know about ghrelin that’s released from the stomach lining. THC interacts with the CB1 receptors and regulates ghrelin that stimulates appetite and speeds up digestion. Although THC doesn’t wield a direct influence, it contributes to heightened feelings of hunger. In short, when ghrelin levels increase due to THC, it signals the brain that it's time to eat resulting in an increased appetite, which we refer to as the “munchies."
  • THC also stimulates our brain's reward pathways by boosting dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and motivation. This stimulation can heighten our perception of food making it more enticing and rewarding. Thus, you enjoy consuming food and derive more satisfaction once you’re full. 
  • By engaging with CB1 receptors THC may reduce levels of peptide tyrosine tyrosine (PYY) a hormone involved in suppressing appetite. This action indirectly leads to an increase in levels of ghrelin as well.
  • When THC interacts with CB1 receptors, the mTOR pathway is triggered, leading to an increase in ghrelin levels, thereby intensifying the feeling of hunger.

Interestingly, whether you consume THC through inhalation, ingestion, sublingual administration, or rectal absorption, it can still influence appetite. However, factors such as potency and absorption rate are determined by how you consume it and whether you’re ingesting any other substances along with it. Most importantly, your tolerance levels also play a role in how THC stimulates your appetite. 

This complex interaction between THC, receptors and your consumption methods forms the foundation for how cannabis impacts your appetite and food choices. 

Additionally using cannabis can enhance our senses—such, as smell and taste—which means we may experience these sensations intensely. 

The heightened sensitivity to smell and taste can make food aromas and flavors more noticeable which can increase the desire to eat. Apart, from THC other cannabinoids found in cannabis, such as cannabidiol (CBD) also interact with the system and regulate appetite. 

Although CBD doesn’t work like THC, it might influence appetite by interacting with CB1 receptors and modulating the effects of THC.

However, note that you may not feel hungry even after consuming cannabis sometimes as the relationship between cannabis and appetite is intricate and can vary based on factors like the strain of cannabis, your tolerance level, and the balance of cannabinoids present. In addition, psychological and environmental factors can also play a role in increasing appetite. 

It’s common for regular cannabis users to feel hungry, as you can surmise by now. The term “munchies” is typically associated with jokes and ridicule; however, imagine the potential applications if we were to understand how cannabis affects appetite. 

For example, your appetite may not be a great deal for you, but it’s very important for people suffering from serious diseases. Therefore, researchers have explored how the ability of weed to enhance appetite can be beneficial for managing conditions such, as chemotherapy-induced nausea and loss of appetite. As research progresses we are gaining a better understanding of how cannabis affects hunger and appetite. 

Does Cannabis Make You Fat?

Does Cannabis Make You Fat?

Now that you know how cannabis can increase appetite and hunger, it begs the question — can weed make you fat? The answer is not straightforward. This is because the relationship between weed and weight gain is multi-dimensional and depends on individual factors, consumption patterns, and overall lifestyle choices. 

You’ll find some studies suggesting a connection between cannabis use and weight gain, but you must be aware that attributing weight gain solely to cannabis is not correct. Let's explore this topic a little more in detail:

1. Increased Caloric Intake

When you consume cannabis, you may experience heightened appetite and cravings for food or munchies. Eventually, you may end up eating more food. Now, it all depends on what you eat. If you stuff yourself with fatty or savory foods, then you can bet that you’ll gain weight. Basically, you can become fat if you consume more calories than the amount you burn. 

2. Metabolism

Metabolism plays a key role in how you lose weight. Some individuals may work out a lot but still struggle to lose weight because of their metabolism. The relationship between cannabis and your metabolism is pretty complicated. While some studies suggest that using cannabis resulted in lower BMIs in adults, other studies have shed light on how cannabis increases body weight.  

So, what should we believe? Note that most of these studies have tested very few subjects in a short period of time. Moreover, the study that suggested an increase in weight had the subjects snacking consistently. Thus, it’s safe to conclude that cannabis’ impact on metabolism is likely influenced by a variety of factors including the substances consumed, frequency of use, and an individual's unique biology.

3. Sedentary Lifestyle 

If you don’t engage in physical activities and spend most of the time sleeping or sitting, you will gain weight over time, whether you consume cannabis or not. But, will cannabis add to that weight? Yes, if you eat a lot of food whenever you smoke. 

One solution is to workout as much as you can. Cannabis can also increase your metabolism, as stated before. Plus, it can make your workout better in many ways. So, just smoke a joint, and go workout and you’ll not have to worry about gaining weight. 

4. Strain and Cannabinoid Composition

Different strains of cannabis contain varying ratios of cannabinoids which can have effects on appetite, metabolism, and overall well-being. Some strains may induce more cravings for food than others, affecting eating habits differently.

5. Individual Variability

Also, individual responses to cannabis can vary due to metabolic and physiological differences. While some people may experience changes in weight with cannabis use, others may see no impact at all. So, if your friend who shares a joint with you is putting on or losing weight, it doesn’t mean that you’ll experience it too. 

6. Medical Conditions

If you have a medical condition, cannabis may affect you differently, depending on the type of treatment and drug you’re taking. However, cannabis may actually be beneficial for specific conditions or during chemotherapy treatment where it can be difficult to maintain a healthy weight. 

As you can understand now, cannabis affects users differently, depending on various factors. It’s also true that some users may lose weight due to an increase in metabolism and changes in eating habits. 

The impact of cannabis on weight has been a topic of investigation particularly among healthy individuals, as you don’t want to gain unnecessary weight. However, the existing research produces results that are often contradictory, making it difficult to conclude whether cannabis helps you reduce or gain weight. So far, no studies prove definitively that there’s any connection between cannabis use and higher BMI. Clearly, we need more studies to understand more about what cannabis can and cannot do. 

Managing Your Weight While Using Cannabis

Managing Your Weight While Using Cannabis

It’s safe to assume that cannabis has an impact on your appetite, whether you use it for recreational or medicinal purposes. While some users may feel intense feelings of hunger, others report that they get used to it over time and don’t indulge in overeating. 

Another important factor to remember is that cannabinoids may also help reduce anxiety, which could potentially affect both appetite and Body Mass Index (BMI). Some studies suggest that long-term cannabis use might indirectly influence a person's waistline, meaning they could have lower BMI and obesity rates. Some researchers have boldly stated that cannabis could be a better option than surgical procedures for some patients who need to lose weight. 

Again, we need concrete evidence to believe cannabis can actually help you shed weight, but many theories have developed around how cannabis can be a potential weight-loss tool. For example, researchers suggest that since cannabis helps some users sleep well, it contributes to weight loss. Good sleeping habits can help you lose weight, so cannabis could help there indirectly. 

Another theory is that alcohol leads to weight gain, but since cannabis can help in reducing alcohol consumption, it yet again leads to weight loss in an indirect fashion. In addition, you may increase your physical activities when you use cannabis and since it does help increase metabolism to an extent, it can be beneficial to reduce weight. 

So, what’s the verdict? 

Can cannabis help you reduce or put on weight? In fact, what is the connection between hunger and cannabis? Well, we believe that the answer is entirely subjective as we have already pointed out that a variety of other factors must be considered as well. You might reduce weight or gain weight but it cannot be attributed to cannabis use alone as you could be snacking on too many foods. Different individuals respond differently to cannabis so there isn't a solution for controlling appetite. Nonetheless exploring the potential of long-term cannabis use impacting obesity rates is an option in the future.

If you’re worried about gaining weight due to cannabis, don’t worry. There are multiple studies that show how cannabis isn’t to be blamed for your waistline. Instead, you should look at managing other things including maintaining an active lifestyle, eating healthy food, ditching munchies, and more. 

Summary: Cannabis and the Munchies: Understanding the Complex Science Behind Increased Appetite

Cannabis is known to increase metabolism. Thus, if anything, it can work to help you reduce weight, as long as you don’t eat too many unhealthy foods when you get the “munchies”. In addition, THC interacts with CB1 receptors found in various organs of the body. These receptors can influence appetite and also enhance your digestion. Thus, we can assume that cannabis can influence your weight. 

Also, if you’re taking any other medication for any ailments, consult your physician to find alternatives as many drugs increase your weight. 

Finally, if you haven’t gained weight after using cannabis for a significant amount of time, there’s nothing to worry about. However, if you’re gaining weight despite going to the gym, you should consider changing the strain and maintaining a healthy diet for a healthier body. 


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