That cannabis use causes the “munchies” is well established – why it does has been a bit of a mystery, until now.
A known side effect of cannabis has been a desire to snack – and snack, then snack some more. This attribute has been useful when consumed for medicinal purposes in some instances; for example, treating appetite issues in chemotherapy patients.
Researchers at Washington State University have confirmed what actually happens.
While previous studies have examined tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, for its appetite-stimulating effects, a link between it and a “hunger hormone” was not firmly established.
“By studying exposure to cannabis plant matter, the most widely consumed form, we’re finding genetic and physiological events in the body that allow cannabis to turn eating behavior on or off,” said Jon Davis, Ph.D., a researcher at WSU’s Department of Integrative Physiology and Neurosciences.
The researchers discovered when briefly exposing rats to cannabis vapor, they began to eat even after having recently consumed a meal. Exposure to the vapor triggered a surge of the hormone acyl-ghrelin (AG), a compound secreted primarily in the lining of the stomach that increases hunger. When the rats were administered a second drug that prevented the ghrelin surge, cannabis no longer triggered eating.
In addition to stimulating the production of ghrelin it was determined cannabis changed the activity of brain cells in the hypothalamus that respond to the hormone.
Their findings could lead to the development of useful treatments.
“A targeted treatment that offers the beneficial effects on appetite without the broader effects on the mind and body could increase quality of life and speed recovery,” says a release from Washington State University.
But if THC alone is responsible for the release of ghrelin, it remains to be seen how such a treatment would be developed so as to not affect the mind, as THC is a psychoactive compound.
Previously it was thought the use of cannabis may promote appetite by through enhancing taste and smell.
An interesting paradox is that while cannabis may stimulate hunger, a 2013 study found lower rates of obesity among regular cannabis users compared to the general population.