This Is Why Cannabis Makes You Hungry, According to Science

The munchies are very, very real.

<p>Garrett Aitken / Getty Images</p>

Garrett Aitken / Getty Images

Cannabis is now legal across 24 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, meaning many Americans may participate in this weekend's 4/20 celebrations. And some may get really, really hungry, too.

"The munchies" has long been part of the cannabis community. You know, that feeling after you indulge in a little sativa blend and you just simply have to devour that whole bag of chips. And surprisingly, up until relatively recently, we didn't know why that was. But now, science is getting a clearer picture. 

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Scientists have been studying cannabis' effects on human hunger for decades, with one 1975 study published in the journal Behavioral Biology noting at the time that "No unequivocal explanations for the phenomenon in humans or animals are readily acceptable and a general consideration of the problem raises more questions than answers."

However, in 2015, researchers at Yale uncovered a clue.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a group of researchers led by Tamas Horvath, a neurobiologist at Yale University School of Medicine, found that cannabis tricks our brain into thinking we are hungry even if we are still full.

“It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead,” Horvath said in a press release about the study at the time. “We were surprised to find that the neurons we thought were responsible for shutting down eating, were suddenly being activated and promoting hunger, even when you are full. It fools the brain’s central feeding system.”

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Specifically, cannabis activates the receptor CB1, which is found throughout the human body, and alerts it to release hunger-promoting hormones. Additionally, what was new in their study was the finding that nerve cells in the brain, called pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons, which were thought to promote the feeling of fullness, may also promote appetite, explained. "Even if you just had dinner and you smoke the pot, all of a sudden these neurons that told you to stop eating become the drivers of hunger," Horvath told NPR in 2015.

And while this all may seem like fun and games for scientists, these studies have real-world promise to help people. This includes understanding how cannabis can assist people undergoing chemotherapy treatment to regain their loss of appetite, and improve the quality of life for those with a variety of medical conditions. So while we still do not have a full picture of the mechanics behind cannabis and hunger (though new studies are dropping all the time), we do know that if you plan to partake, it's best to have a few snacks around. Just in case. 

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