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The Secret of Munchies

One of the most well-known effects of cannabis is getting what is known as “the munchies” or a powerful surge in appetite. The desire to eat is common and compelling enough that it’s often used as a plot point in many so-called stoner movies. Beyond its cinematic appeal, though, the munchies has plenty of practical and medical applications. People who consume cannabis for recreational purposes find satisfying the craving a very enjoyable experience. The said effect can also be quite beneficial for patients who have lost their appetite due to certain treatments, such as chemotherapy.

How can cannabis affect a person’s appetite? Even though the plant is one of the earliest to be cultivated by humans and food cravings is a common effect of consuming cannabis, the answer to this question has remained largely a mystery — until recently, that is. Now, scientists are pointing to the plant’s famed psychoactive ingredient as a possible cause of the munchies: tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. 

How Does Cannabis Affect the Appetite?

The human body has what is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex network of receptors that interact with cannabinoids naturally produced within the body itself (endogenous) as well as cannabinoids from outside sources (exogenous) like the cannabis plant. The ECS plays a role in many body functions and processes like fertility, pregnancy, pain sensation, mood, and memory.

Aside from these, the ECS also affects odor detection according to the 2014 research done by a team of neuroscientists from the University of Bordeaux. The researchers observed that the endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids improved odor detection in mice. In particular, THC, an exogenous cannabinoid, fits perfectly in the receptors in the olfactory bulb. This interaction amplified the sense of smell in mice, causing them to eat more food. The researchers observed that mice that have been starved for 24 hours have a higher level of endogenous cannabinoids in their olfactory bulb. This hints that, perhaps, THC mimics the sensation of being hungry.

The same research team also genetically engineered a group of mice to lack the THC receptors in their olfactory bulb. THC exposure didn’t have the same effect in these genetically engineered mice; they easily got used to the scent of food and did not have an increased appetite.

Aside from interactions with the receptors in the olfactory bulb, THC is also said to increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This makes eating while on a high a very enjoyable activity.

Another research, which was published in Nature in 2015, zeroes in on the effect of cannabinoids to POMCs, which are neurons found in the hypothalamus. These neurons, when activated, make the subject mice feel satiated. The introduction of cannabinoids interferes with the function of the POMCs; instead of satiating hunger, the activation of the POMCs improves the appetite of the mice. This, then, compels them to eat more, even though they are already full. 

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Is Marijuana a Key to Eating Healthy?

The complex mechanism that leads to the munchies remains an area of interest to scientists, and a lot of studies still need to be done to establish the exact process that triggers this effect. Currently, however, marijuana’s appetite-inducing effect is welcomed by people who want to eat more and gain more weight. Dronabinol and nabilone, which are both FDA-approved drugs made of synthetic cannabinoids, are used to treat chronic pain and nausea as well as stimulate the appetite of patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. People who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa may also enjoy the same benefits. The munchies effect, combined with the help of therapies and guidance of medical doctors and mental health professionals, can help these patients develop a more positive attitude toward food and eating in a healthy manner.

Also, the munchies may help make daily meals more enjoyable for many people. Cannabis edibles like brownies and sweets can be consumed to achieve the effect in a casual setting, or the oil can be mixed with beverages like tea. At the same time, cannabis oil can also serve as an ingredient in everyday dishes to make meals more appetizing. To ensure that everyone will have a pleasant experience, the host should carefully dose each dish and everyone should be well informed about the contents of the dish before partaking in it.

The munchies can be a very pleasurable and useful side effect of consuming cannabis. Paired with a balanced diet and exercise, indulging in cannabis-induced food cravings can actually help you maintain a healthier weight and lifestyle.

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