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Science of 'The Munchies': Resistance Is Futile

You're stuffed. Can't eat another bite. You duck out to have a puff for dessert. Suddenly, you're hungry again. You've just been hit by the cannabis-induced craving better known as "the munchies."

Researchers have only recently begun probing the scientific basis for this common experience among cannabis consumers.

Despite what people think, cannabis doesn't actually make people hungry. The cravings stem from how THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) heightens our awareness of the food around us.

In 2014, Giovanni Marsicano and a team of researchers at the University of Bourdeaux found that THC enhances our sensitivity to smells and tastes. The cravings result from sensing and savouring food more acutely. Being more conscious of food makes us feel hungry.

Raising Awareness

Does that mean THC gives us hyper-senses like Wolverine? Not exactly.

THC inhibits our inhibitors. It shuts off our " olfactory inhibition," which makes us tune out the smell of food over time.

Marsicano's experiment found that mice exposed to THC remained fixated on banana and almond extracts, while a neutral group of rodents lost interest over time (as expected).

Given the overlap between smell and taste, Joseph Stromberg of Smithsonian wonders if THC " enables us to better taste flavours," allowing us to enjoy each bite or sip as though it were the first.

The next time someone gives you a weird look for smoking a joint before a wine tasting, just explain that you're sharpening your palette.

Neurons Going Rogue

Overriding olfactory inhibition explains why cannabis makes people graze on whatever's nearby, but seasoned smokers know that cravings go beyond gobbling whatever's readily available.

The urge to snack stems from THC's influence over mechanisms in the brain that regulate eating habits. In a study published recently by the Yale School of Medicine, Tamas Horvath and his team found that the munchies occur when certain neurons go rogue.

Normally, these neurons prevent overeating by making us feel sated. When influenced by THC, those same neurons do the exact opposite: they promote hunger.

Horvath describes the phenomenon as stepping on the brakes of a car, only for the vehicle to accelerate.

Men Munch More

The munchies affect the sexes differently.

Back in 2012, researchers at Washington State University found that males experience the munchies more frequently than females. In rat trials, the team observed that males were more susceptible to cravings, while females experienced the pain-relieving effects of cannabis to a greater extent than males.

Navigating Your Cravings

While the urge to eat is clear, taking action can be time consuming and distracting. Luckily Food & Wine Magazine has designed a flowchart to help troubleshoot your hunger based on how much time, effort and attention span you have.

Of Mice and Men

Marsicano's and Horvath's findings are fascinating, but can studies on rats tell us anything about human behaviour?

Yes, according to Horvath. The part of the brain influenced by the munchies predates the differentiation of species. The same behavioural mechanisms that regulate hunger in mice and humans also appear in many other creatures.

If Horvath's right, then the process responsible for cannabis-induced cravings is older than mammals. Indeed, the munchies predate humankind.

h/t Food & Wine, NPR, Smithsonian, YaleNews


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