The ability of Cannabis sativa to promote eating has been documented for many centuries, with the drug reported by its users to promote strong cravings for, and an intensification of the sensory and hedonic properties of food. These effects are now known to result from the actions of cannabinoid molecules at specific cannabinoid receptor sites within the brain, and to reflect the physiological role of their natural ligands, the endocannabinoids, in the control of appetite. Recent developments in the biochemistry and pharmacology of endocannabinoid systems have generated convincing evidence from animal models for a normal role of endocannabinoids in the control of eating motivation. The availability of specific cannabinoid receptor agonists and antagonists raises the possibility of improved therapies for disorders of eating and body weight: not only in the suppression of appetite to counter our susceptibility to the over-consumption of highly pleasurable and energy-dense foods; but also in the treatment of conditions that involve reduced appetite and weight loss. Here, we outline some of the findings of the past decade that link endocannabinoid function appetite control, and the possible clinical applications of that knowledge.
Second, THC hits a part of the brain that controls hunger. “The appetite-promoting effect of THC is mediated by CB1 receptors located in areas of the brain involved in appetite control,” explains George Kunos, scientific director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
But what about its effect on hunger? After all, smoking or ingesting cannabis is associated with the munchies. So, I wondered: Does CBD have the same effect? Could a trend toward CBD-infused foods lead to weight gain? And how might CBD affect people who have conditions that make it difficult to keep weight on (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, eating disorders or depression)? I decided to consult some experts.
To understand their answers to these questions, first, a quick tutorial. Cannabis plants contain more than 100 cannabinoids, although the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of most of them aren’t yet known. The two most-researched cannabinoids are CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive cannabinoid. THC makes you high; CBD doesn’t. And, it turns out, they affect appetite in different ways.
As a dietitian, I always receive an influx of New Year’s emails predicting upcoming food trends. This year, several experts have forecast an increase in foods and beverages containing cannabidiol, a chemical compound found in cannabis plants. More colloquially called CBD, cannabidiol has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat some forms of epilepsy and shows potential in treating pain, nausea, anxiety and depression — without making users high.
THC produces the well-known cravings for sweet and fatty foods through several mechanisms, according to the experts I consulted. First, “THC increases the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry,” says Janice Newell Bissex, a registered dietitian and holistic cannabis practitioner in Melrose, Mass. If your stomach is empty, she says, you produce more of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which tells the brain to generate the sensation of hunger. But THC can increase ghrelin and trigger the feeling of hunger even if your stomach isn’t empty.
And third, THC boosts dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain, “so you get more pleasure from eating,” Bissex says. “THC can increase the sense of smell and taste, so people are more inclined to want to eat.”