At the heart of cannabis culture, beyond the red eyes, giggles and relaxation, lies an indescribable feeling: the “munchies.” From Snoop Dogg’s “Smoke Weed Everyday” to “That ‘70s Show,” the “munchies” have been popularized as a cultural badge of the stoner lifestyle. But beyond the media’s comical depiction of this behavior, how does a puff lead to popcorn, pretzels and Pop-Tarts? 

Marijuana, colloquially known as weed, herb, pot, bud or even Mary Jane, comes from the dried flowers of the plants known as Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. Marijuana’s active ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC which is known for its mind-altering effects. After using marijuana, the senses of smell and taste become more acute and flavors of food seem to be experienced at much higher levels.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, our brains typically produce their own chemicals called cannabinoids that fit into receptors in our brain from the endocannabinoid system. This naturally occurring system “helps to control emotions, memory, pain sensitivity and appetite.” THC fits into these same receptors and is able to mimic the activity that our natural chemicals are responsible for with more intensity.

A study from Nature Neuroscience verified the region of the brain that plays a role in munchies. The researchers dosed one group of mice with THC, while keeping a sober control group. The high mice sniffed oils from bananas and almonds much more intensely than the group of mice who were not dosed with THC. The researchers also performed this experiment on genetically engineered mice that did not have a certain type of cannabinoid receptor and found that, even if these mice were given THC, it had no effect in increasing their appetite. The studies’ findings confirmed that the “munchies effect” relied on the part of the brain connected to the endocannabinoid system.

Other research found that the drug effects the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a primary role in pleasure and reward by increasing the release of dopamine that occurs when eating while high. Alternative research has also found that THC interacts with receptors in the hypothalamus by causing the hormone ghrelin to be released, which triggers the feeling of hunger. 

All of these effects involve the brain’s natural endocannabinoid system. THC and marijuana manipulate the system that regulates our senses. While the munchies have become a source of humor and fun in media and stoner culture, recent research is exploring how marijuana’s appetite-stimulating effects can be used to benefit patients that have a suppressed appetite. 

Researchers from Washington State University looked deeper into these hunger-inducing benefits. According to a press release from WSU, this research “could pave the way for refined therapeutics to treat appetite disorders faced by cancer patients as well as anorexia and potentially obesity.”

Further research connecting cannabis’ interactions on the brain with neurons as well as the metabolic system will study harnessing the appetite-promoting feeling into a patient’s actions. So, in addition to the countless laughs and cravings and comedic media stories, the same plant may be responsible for improved medical treatment. Who knows what untapped potential marijuana might have? 

UCSB’s Alcohol & Drug Program offers informative pages on cannabis as well as other drugs. Check out more articles from them to learn more about cannabis and their current research!