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Why Do People Get The Munchies?

If I had a spliff for every time I’ve been asked “why do we get the munchies?”, “why in blazes am I so God damn hungry?” or simply just “what’s the number for Domino’s again?” the sheer immensity of my cannabis induced appetite would have reached pandemic proportions and there would be no Oreos left. None. If like me you have pondered this yourself – with the inevitable rounds of hazy speculation that follow – then please allow me to satisfy the appetite of your curiosity. With a background in biochemistry I’ve taken it upon myself to research the scientific literature and piece together a simple, bite sized but nevertheless illuminating answer to one of smoking’s great mysteries.

The Munchies Explained

Contrary to popular belief the all too familiar Mary-Jane feastival has actually very little to do with changes in blood sugar level. It’s much more interesting than that. Studying cannabis and particularly the effect in question reveals insights into some of the most fundamental mechanisms in physiology and one of the body’s primary methods of hunger regulation; our very own Endogenous Cannabinoid System.

As you are no doubt aware, your brain has innumerable chemical receptors for a vast number of diverse purposes, some are more common than others but all of them react to their own specific range of stimuli to produce certain desired effects. Crucial amongst these are the two types of cannabinoid receptors, dubbed and romanticised as CB1 and CB2. These protein structures are shaped with intricate precision and bewildering complexity and are found in abundance throughout the hypothalamus – a region of the brain that plays a central role in the regulation of appetite. Your treasured cannabinoid receptors respond to naturally occurring organic molecules called (unsurprisingly) cannabinoids, and for the most part these cannabinoids will be internally synthesised and therefore called endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids amongst friends.

Endocannabinoids are produced in just about every tissue in your body, from your face to your foot, and fulfil a similar role to neurotransmitters in that they allow peripheral parts of your anatomy to send a message to the brain, namely “it’s lunch time”

In fact, I’ve downplayed it. Both cannabinoid receptors and a selection of endocannabinoids are found in not just humans but a huge variety of animals including mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. The fact that the same biological mechanism is used across so many different animal kingdoms suggests two things. First, that even the heftiest of carnivores are susceptible to the munchies. Secondly, due to the vanishingly small probability of so many species evolving the exact same trait independently of one another it follows that the endogenous cannabinoid system predates the most recent common ancestor of all the different species it is found in today. The fossil record tells us that such a creature existed no less than 440 million years ago in the Silurian period at a time when the Earth’s climate was first beginning to stabilise, vascular (flowering) plants were just starting to grow over the equatorial land mass and vertebrate life ventured out of the oceans for the very first time. (For now I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the timing of the first flowering plants coinciding with the development of animal evolution to harness cannabinoid compounds, but this is certainly a topic for another article).

Though there is still a lot to learn about the endogenous cannabinoid system, past and present, our valiant and selfless scientists are making excellent progress. The first endocannabinoid was identified in 1992 in an Israeli laboratory and named Anandamide, derived from the Sanskrit word “ananda” meaning bliss. And with good reason too, as the pharmacological effects are strikingly similar to its chemical counterpart, THC.

Delta 9 – tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, is of course the main psychoactive compound in our favourite herbal remedy and indeed the most famous of all the cannabinoids. It is sufficiently similar in both structure and functionality to stimulate our cannabinoid receptors when ingested and replicate, with greater intensity, the endocannabinoid effect the body naturally produces for itself.

This overlap in pharmacological functionality isn’t just restricted to making you feel hungry, and further desirable effects on body chemistry shared by THC and the internal cannabinoids include helping you relax, sleep, feel less pain, control your movement and experience euphoria. Also, THC and the human cannabinoids both protect you from and alleviate stress so effectively that many scientists are starting to view endocannabinoids as vital to the body’s general stress-recovery system. The natural roles of these miracle compounds are so significant that the therapeutic use of THC is quite rightly a cause for genuine excitement. For instance, late stage cancer patients and other sufferers of loss of appetite can and do benefit enormously from cannabis treatment, a treatment that has been recognised and employed in India to remedy loss of appetite for over two thousand years.

In essence, your mind is blissfully ignorant to the fact that an externally sourced cannabinoid, THC, is the real culprit behind your snack cravings, it being mistaken for the standard “feed me” signal the body sends out several times a day. Therefore you will find strains of cannabis with particularly high THC content to be the most famishing, with strains like White Widow and Blue Cheese leaving you best disposed to put away a biscuit or two.

It is all the more amazing when you realise that, although similar, the structure of THC is not identical to any of the structures of the endocannabinoids, not even anandamide to which it bears the closest pharmacological resemblance. Astonishingly, there are scores of chemicals much closer in structure to the body’s own repertoire of cannabinoids than THC is but which all do absolutely nothing when introduced to our receptors; their inert properties thus making THC’s effectiveness all the more incredible. Not amazed? Well what if I told you that the protein based cannabinoid receptors THC manages to fool are among some of the most complex structures in the entire observable universe… This is not an exaggeration. To this day protein folding remains one of the most notorious crown holders in the crowded, intimidating hall of scientific enigma, the inconceivable complexity of their folded structure perplexing – no, mocking even the most advanced of supercomputers.

To fool an arbiter of such precision and intricacy is truly a remarkable property of the marijuana plant and one that I am happy to pay homage to. And not just me, not just like minded people, but, as previously mentioned, the majority of animal species with a spine in their back. So now you see that “the munchies” is symptomatic of a molecular kinship, an evolutionary harmony between plants and animals at the most fundamental of levels. A harmony that was forged hundreds of millions of years ago before the continents separated, before fish had jaws. A harmony that has been inherent in human behaviour for millennia, and has now culminated in you buying an extra tub of cookie dough ice cream. Good choice. It’s delicious.

Original article written and donated by S. P. Liffy © 2011



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