In Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, the film’s stoned out protagonists suddenly find themselves craving White Castle burgers — a lot of them — shortly after taking a handful of puffs from a shared joint. This sort of experience is a well-documented one: the tired trope of the stoner, red-eyed and face-deep in a whole pizza pie, or shaking the crumbs from an XL bag of chips directly into his or her mouth. But what is it about ingesting marijuana that makes people want to sit down and consume a whole gallon of ice cream?
Over the years, science has found that various chemicals in marijuana stimulate a dozen parts of the neural network, all of which can be linked to your sudden change of appetite. Studies continuously show that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC fits perfectly in the receptors of the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for regulating pain, memory, emotions, and, most importantly for our purposes here, appetite.
But beyond just affecting our endocannabinoid system, researchers studying mice found that THC can cause the production of ghrelin, a hormone released by your gastrointestinal tract that interacts with the hypothalamus so that it increases your sense of hunger. It also preps the gastrointestinal tract for food intake.
But when we get high, we don’t just get hungry and eat a taco or two. Rather, we down three chalupas, a personal pizza, and a large soda. Why?
The Munchies & Dopamine Connection
Scientists believe that this is because eating while high feels really, really good — at least in comparison to eating when sober. A team of experts found that when THC binds to the receptors in the brain, it stimulates a region known as the nucleus accumbens. This is responsible for the infamous neurotransmitter dopamine, frequently described as responsible for the sense of pleasure. Dopamine is related to motivation, and as such, can cause red-eyed individuals to seek out food for the pleasurable reward.
But dopamine’s more common role is that immediate sense of pleasure. Due to THC causing a greater release of dopamine, after taking a bite, you feel a heightened sense of pleasure, enticing you to eat more, and more, and, uh, yeah, it can get messy. So while this doesn’t explain why we suddenly get hungry, it does explain why we can’t seem to stop eating.
A handful of scientists in Europe recently found another explanation for why the presence of food, particularly aromatic food like freshly-baked pies, can make us increasingly hungry when stoned. This is because marijuana can reduce olfactory habituation — the thing that makes us become bored by a scent. When you’re high, THC binds to receptors in the brain’s olfactory bulb, which caused mice in an experiment to be continuously allured by scents from oils. Rather than becoming accustomed to it as per usual, they continued to be intrigued by the aromas. So, afterwards, when the test subjects were given food, those that had be dosed with THC ate much more than their sober counterparts.
So next time you get high, be prepared to attack the pantry.