Updated on December 15, 2017.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Among recreational marijuana users, getting “the munchies” is a common occurence. They’ll describe the urge to eat junk food and how it tastes even better than usual. Eating at the end of a marijuana binge seems to complete the experience and top off the euphoria.
Medical marijuana use can result in that same compulsion to eat. For some, that’s the purpose of taking marijuana. It stimulates appetite to counteract the effects of eating disorders or other diseases that make it difficult to eat. For example, it allows people who are sick from chemotherapy to maintain some healthy body weight.
However, the munchies can also be an unwanted or even damaging side effect to medical marijuana use. There are some ways to control the compulsive urge to eat, and you may be able to find a strain of cannabis that relieves your symptoms but isn’t such a strong appetite stimulant.
Marijuana and Appetite
Marijuana works in your brain and central nervous system to block pain and alter other sensory perceptions to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and prevent seizures. One component of cannabis enhances your sensitivity to aroma, which is tied to your sense of taste. That’s why food seems to smell and taste better than usual when you’re under the influence of cannabis.
Cannabis mimics chemicals in your brain that carry sensory messages. When you’re under the influence, the cannabinoids in the marijuana are connecting with the receptors in your brain that receive smell and taste messages. You’re getting more of those messages than you do naturally, so those senses are enhanced.
Marijuana also stimulates hunger by producing another chemical in your brain in larger than normal quantities. Hunger is a complex feeling that combines smell, taste and a desire for sustenance. When you eat while you’re experiencing the euphoria of marijuana, your brain associates the euphoria with the food.
That euphoric effect is a natural mechanism for creating habits. When your brain associates eating with euphoria, it wants more. The more you eat, the happier you feel. In some cases, your brain thinks that eating more will bring the euphoric feeling even when you’re not under the influence of marijuana.
By increasing the levels of yet another brain chemical, marijuana makes your brain think you’re starving. The natural reaction to an increase in that particular chemical is to eat more. When eating doesn’t reduce the supply of the chemical the way it would under natural circumstances, you just keep eating.
Negative Side Effects of Munchies
Unless you’re taking medical cannabis products to stimulate your appetite, the munchies can be a negative side effect. By using your brain’s natural means of creating good habits, marijuana can create an addiction to food — and addiction is destructive even when you’re addicted to something good.
Endless binging and overeating can create physical health issues. Obesity is a dangerous condition that can be life-threatening. No matter what you eat, if you continually get too much food, your body will store it as fat. Fat is not only visible in the way your clothes fit or how you look, but it also builds up inside your body and impairs the functioning of vital organs.
There are also psychological consequences for food addiction and obesity. They can lead to mental health issues like depression and a poor body image. Some of these psychological consequences can be extremely damaging and dangerous.
Resisting the Marijuana Munchies
Obviously, it’s possible to use medical marijuana and not become addicted to food or obese. There are several strategies you can employ to be sure the munchies do not become your latest health problem.
Here are some suggestions:
Snack healthy. When marijuana gives you the urge to snack, be sure you have only healthy options on hand. Stock up on fresh veggies and other healthy foods. Remember, marijuana will enhance flavor, so most foods will taste good to you.
Clear the kitchen. You might not be able to control your binging while under the influence of marijuana, but you can’t eat junk food that isn’t there. When you take your marijuana, put yourself in a situation where you can’t access fatten or unhealthy foods.
Plan your calories. Calculate how many calories you can healthily consume each day and write it down. Figure out how much food you can eat to stick to your plan. When these decisions are made before you take your medicine for the day, you’re less likely to give in to the cravings and stray from your eating plan.
Workout early. Maintaining a healthy body weight requires some regular exercise. Once you get the munchies, your motivation for exercise will diminish significantly. Be sure to get your daily workout in early, so at least you know you already burned off some of the calories in your munchies.
Cannabis is a safe and natural remedy for several different health conditions and, in a way, food can also be considered a drug you use to energize and nourish your body. It’s important to understand taking marijuana to improve your health and eating poorly at the same time is counterproductive.
Cannabis works with your body’s natural systems and brain chemistry, and food can work the same way, too. Use the munchies to your advantage to fuel your body with nutrition and help it heal. If you can harness the compulsion to eat that marijuana creates, you can steer it to create healthy eating habits.