It’s one of marijuana’s most well-known effects: smoke some flower or scarf down an edible and suddenly a powerful surge in appetite rushes through. We know this feeling simply as “the munchies.”
For medical cannabis users that have trouble maintaining an appetite, this can be one of marijuana’s greatest benefits. For recreational users, the munchies can be an enjoyable experience, though it may take a toll on your waistline over time. For years, scientists have sought to understand how the active ingredient in cannabis—tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—stimulates our appetite. But only recently have we come to understand this phenomenon in greater detail.
A 2014 study published in Nature Neuroscience brought us a little closer to a definitive answer. Head researcher Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux led a team of neuroscientists in a study of mice that found THC could fit into the rodent’s olfactory bulb, which significantly increased its ability to smell. This then led the mice to eat more, thus suggesting to us that cannabis simply makes us taste and smell more accurately. As a result, we feel inclined to consume more food.
This appetite-inducing effect that THC has on our body is a direct result of a lesser-known cannabis secret.
The Cannabis Plant’s Natural Defense Mechanisms
Contained within the cannabis plant are over one hundred different chemical compounds known as endocannabinoids. Chances are you’ve heard of two of these endocannabinoids, THC and CBD, or cannabidiol, though countless more exist as well. While endocannabinoids interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) to produce various effects, they originally acted as a self-defense mechanism against herbivores that felt inclined to eat the cannabis plant in nature.
The idea goes something like this: the cannabis plant would be consumed by an animal, at which point endocannabinoids like THC would cause disorientation and ensure the plant wasn’t eaten again. In humans, however, these effects not only influence our appetite, but our moods, emotions, pain sensitivity, and memory as well. Though our body produces its own chemical compounds known as cannabinoids, endocannabinoids mimic their activity in rather dramatic ways.
In theory, this study found that our appetites are so large when we consume cannabis because THC increases our sensitivity to the smell of foods. And because smell is so closely related to taste, this allows us to taste better too. This could also explain why certain foods stick out to us when we’re high as opposed to others—certain smells and tastes are simply stronger than others.
Essentially, we get the munchies because we’re hyper-aware of the smells around us, and THC offers stronger tastes as well.
Other Data Tells a Bigger Story
A separate analysis from March of 2019 found that the legalization of recreational marijuana in states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon led to a 3.1% increase in ice cream purchases, a 4.1% increase in cookie purchases, and a 5.3% increase in chips purchases after weed became legal for all to consume. From this data, we can assume that cannabis makes us more inclined to enjoy those notorious sweets if nothing else.
It’s important to note in this discussion that cannabis affects everyone differently; we won’t all find ourselves with an insatiable appetite, nor will we all find that foods smell and taste better than they did before. The manner by which THC interacts with your body alongside other endocannabinoids is an ongoing discussion, and much more research is necessary to provide us with a definitive map of how it all works.
As always, consume cannabis with care and enjoy its many effects as you take a walk in nature, hit up your favorite local diner, or just watch a few stoner movies with a bowl of popcorn. No matter what you’re doing, Diem is here to deliver the goods right to your front door.