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It’s a question as old as the plant itself: Why am I getting hungry after consuming cannabis? What is it about cannabinoids that stoke the appetite?

Science has the answer, as it often does. In 2015, Tamas Horvath, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine, analyzed how cannabis reacts to a cluster of neurons found in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that is typically associated with base instincts such as sexual arousal, alertness and hunger.


Usually these neurons work by blasting out a chemical signal telling the brain, ‘you're sated, you should stop eating now’.

But when cannabinoids were injected into mice, Horvath found these compounds activated a receptor that causes the cell to switch from making a chemical signal telling the brain you're full to creating endorphins, a neurotransmitter known to increase appetite.

“What we found was that cannabis can fool and hijack the brain by using those pathways that normally signal to stop eating to switch to promote ferocious appetite,” Horvath says in an interview.

He goes on to explain that “these neurons normally support satiety, and, when exposed to cannabis, they make a 180 degree switch in function.”

Horvath’s research comes three years after Italian scientists found1 that cannabinoids boosted levels of dopamine in the brain. That's the swoon that comes with eating delicious goodies.

More recently, Jon Davis, a researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neurosciences at Washington State, spotlighted how cannabis triggers hunger: a hormone called ghrelin is usually released by the stomach when it’s empty, telling the brain that it’s time to eat. But in a study on rats, Davis and his team found that a cannabis dose instigates the release of a surge of ghrelin that is greater than normal. This didn’t occur when the rats were given a drug to prevent the ghrelin surge, confirming that the cannabis had triggered it.


“It usually happens after an hour of consuming cannabis,” Davis says in an interview.

THC is the prime culprit here, Davis notes, but a less well-known cannabinoid called CBG could also play a role.

In fact, researchers discovered2 that a form of CBG purified to remove THC was an effective appetite stimulant in rats.

Another piece of the munchies puzzle concerns why some cannabis consumers posit that eating a meal kills their high. Davis says a working theory revolves around food acting on the brain circuitry around rewards. “If you go to a buffet and feel full, your brain is telling you the euphoria from eating delicious food is now gone, and so that high might disappear too,” he says.

Davis says he’ll next work on a study on the delay between vape exposure and the munchies. He believes that if researchers can figure out more about this delay, they may be able to not only stimulate appetite, but determine how to inhibit it as well.

References:
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705914/
  2. https://www.leafly.ca/news/cannabis-101/what-is-cbg-cannabinoid

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