Why We Get the Munchies

Posted on in On Our Radar by Stephen Gray

Will Relaxed Pot Laws Lead
to Relaxed Pot Bellies?


man with eat

It’s become a familiar cultural phenomenon—a never-ending source of humor in comedy clubs, films, hip-hop songs, and social media banter, as well as around the kitchen table. A typical scenario: After a few puffs of your favorite pot, you start feeling some curious hunger pangs despite having previously downed a good meal. The kitchen beckons and so do fatty, calorie-rich items—not the leftover kale salad. So you chow down on a doughnut, a leftover slice of pizza, a bag of rice chips. They all taste unusually yummy. Grazing doesn’t alleviate the pangs so you keep gorging. The body’s apparent needs have been railroaded—you’ve got the munchies.

Jokesters aren’t the only folks interested in this phenomenon; scientists are on the case. In a 2015 Nature article that generated media buzz, the authors found through their experiments with stoned mice that the introduction of cannabinoids could disrupt homeostatic feeding regulation.

Here’s a simplified explanation: Feeding behavior is regulated in the brain region known as the hypothalamus, where pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) peptides—small-chain amino acids—are produced to help digest food and perform other bodily functions. Such peptides prompt neurons to trigger production of melanocyte-stimulating hormones to regulate appetite. Under normal conditions the brain lets the body know it is sated, but cannabis scrambles the mechanism. When cannabis is introduced the POMCs start releasing an entirely different chemical—beta-endorphins that stimulate appetite and promote cravings. The authors are cautious in their conclusions and point out that cannabinoid-controlled feeding behavior is complex—and that the study was performed on high mice, not men.

One key influence on appetite is cannabis’s pharmacokinetic action in the human body. Immediately after smoking or vaping, the heart rate rises slightly, pumping more freshly oxygenated blood throughout the organism. The resulting sensory enhancement is a well-known phenomenon among cannabis users—everything intensifies. So when those scrambled POMCs entice you into the kitchen, your intensified sensitivity of taste and smell help keep you there.

So, is this a problem? Are we facing an epidemic of pot-bellied gourmands? Apparently not. Several extensive studies—such as the one in the American Journal of Epidemiology—have shown that regular pot users, such as those who smoke at least three times a week, have noticeably lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than abstainers.

How can this be, even though potheads may be consuming up to 600 more calories a day than non-tokers? Experts don’t claim easy answers. It could be any combination of the metabolic action of the cannabinoids, the need for less food at other times when the POMCs are behaving normally, demographics, lifestyle choices, tobacco use, gender, and more. Obesity in and of itself is a complex issue linked to biology, behavior, and social, environmental, economic, and cultural systems.

There are of course some excellent reasons for deliberately confusing your POMCs with cannabis. People suffering from a range of medical conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDs, and others are finding cannabis’s appetite-stimulating properties a boon, sometimes even life-saving. There are also indications that pot helps with diabetes and anorexia, among other conditions. Further research will undoubtedly give clearer explanations as to how this works as well as reveal other conditions that can be mitigated through use of appetite-enhancing plant materials.

There can be downsides to munchie mania, though. As pointed out at TheHealthOrange. com, “The ganja-gluttony phenomenon may have its benefits in a medical context but for a healthy individual it isn’t the healthiest way to go about getting your daily calorie intake. Frequent gluttony episodes can result in high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers, and esophageal cancer, to name a few.” I would add that the fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods that stoners prefer (apparently an evolutionary response to food scarcity) are not the wisest choices. The simple axiom “The more you smoke, the more you eat” is—cautionary.

In a new era of pot acceptance will we see a noticeable surge in pot bellies? Time will tell, but surely more users will be drawn to the enticing smells of snacks—and food marketers smell money. Food manufacturers are being coy for now, fearing to offend their non-weed-loving customer base, but slip coded puns around words like fried, baked, cooked, toasted, roll, bowl, and the like, knowing this is a rich vein. For better or worse, advertising departments are abuzz. Bud ‘n Breakfast is just a beginning.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we don’t have to be helpless victims of our food cravings just because we’re high. Self-discipline goes a long way. Forearmed with the knowledge that the hunger mechanism will be tricked by scrambled POMCs, we can choose to override our habitual instinct to pay obeisance to the pangs. Experienced users and those who work with the plant for creative and spiritual purposes have learned to channel that energy elsewhere or ignore it altogether.

Just because you enjoy pot doesn’t mean you need to add one to your waistline.

Stephen Gray is an author, educator, speaker, and event organizer. His book Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to an Ancient Plant Spirit Ally is published by Inner Traditions/Park Street Press. CannabisAndSpirituality.com.

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