Takis, Pop-Tarts, Doritos, and Funyuns. Apart from name-brand status, these snacks are a common cure for the “munchies” — the overwhelming sensation of hunger caused by weed. No smoke session is complete without some greasy nachos or killer tacos, but what causes this voracious appetite to arise? Scientists are studying the connection between taste and behavior to explain cannabis-induced cravings beyond a mere obsession with Ben and Jerry’s famous pints

So, why does weed give you the munchies?

Despite decades of medicinal and recreational usage, the science on marijuana and hunger is still in the early stages. As researchers across disciplines attempt to demystify behavioral responses to weed, plenty remains unknown about the taste system, Northwestern University assistant professor in neurobiology Dr. Hoojon Lee told me.

Lee’s research centers on the reflexive, or automatic, behaviors associated with specific tastes, like scrunching your face after biting into a lemon. After getting his start under Dr. Charles Zuker, the world’s leading expert on taste-related neurobiology, Lee worked to identify whether specific taste buds are capable of detecting different taste qualities. 

“We might feel satiated or full, but we always have some space for dessert,” Lee said. “How does that happen, and why does sweet taste allow us to overeat?” He hopes to better understand the hard-wired reactions triggered by what we eat and shed light on the feelings that arise around food.

The munchies come down to the brain.

Providing a scientific explanation for the munchies is no less complex, Lee said. Cannabinoids — naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant that cause a drug-like “high” — operate through cannabinoid receptors (CBRs). These receptors are expressed in many parts of the brain, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly which ones contribute to the munchies phenomenon.

Several studies indicate the presence of CBRs in the olfactory system, or the body's sense of smell. When these CBRs interact with cannabinoids, the heightened sensitivity to certain smells could lead to an increased desire to chow down on aromatic, fatty foods, Lee said.

The limbic system, the brain’s structure for emotional and behavioral regulation, also shows the existence of CBRs that activate in the presence of weed. Getting high alters the body’s emotional response system, a mechanism already involved in feelings of hunger, fullness, and snacking desires. According to Lee, interactions between cannabinoids and CBRs in the limbic system have the potential to shift eating habits and create an emotionally-charged craving for the nearest bag of chips.

More recently, CBRs in the hypothalamus have been the focus of munchies research. Integral in maintaining the body’s homeostasis, neurons in the small brain structure play a key role in regulating feeding. Given the direct influence on eating behaviors, cannabinoids in the hypothalamus could reasonably influence stoner hunger cues. 

But this still leaves us with more questions.

This hypothesis, however, raises even more questions for researchers. As Lee explained, two competing types of neurons help regulate hunger in the hypothalamus: one works to suppress appetite, while the other works to promote it. One would assume that the appetite-promoting neurons are involved in munchies behavior, but research has shown the opposite to be true.

“The cannabinoids hit the neurons that suppress feeding,” Lee said. “And, somehow, that affects us to eat more.”

Studying the munchies is leading to other breakthroughs.

While the munchies are certainly cause for scientific exploration, Lee said further investigation into cannabis-hunger reactions are shepherding vital breakthroughs in eating disorder treatment for diagnoses like anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and compulsive eating. Drugs to combat eating disorders are already being developed using the knowledge of neurological systems garnered from cannabinoid studies.

There is a clear medical benefit to delving further into the munchies. Nontraditional subject matter aside, understanding the behavioral effects marijuana has on human hunger could have life-saving implications, emphasizing how science and snacking go hand in hand. 

Cannabis remains a federally illegal substance in the United States. Possession and consumption depend on your state of residence and your age. Only consume cannabis if you are of legal age and in a state where possession and consumption is legal. The intoxifying effects of cannabis can be delayed and you should not consume cannabis if driving or operating machinery. The information provided in this article is for entertainment and informational purposes only, the accuracy of which has not been verified, and shall not be construed as medical or legal advice.