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The Endocannabinoid System: Cannabis & Appetite

Zach Reichard July 24, 2013
The Endocannabinoid System: Cannabis & Appetite

It’s one of the most cliché side effects of consuming cannabis: a seemingly insatiable appetite.

The phenomenon dubbed for decades as “the munchies” is one that has permeated throughout our culture so much that even people who have never experienced the process at least know of it. But what actually causes these hunger-inducing effects after a good toke?

Before we can explain what makes you ready and able to run through a full package of Oreo’s in one sitting, there are a few fundamental things we need to clarify for everyone. First off, it is important to know what a cannabinoid is and how they play a major part in your body; even if you’ve never once used cannabis in your life.

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a diverse set of chemical compounds found in the human body whose job is to provide a two-way communication between certain receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS regulates processes in your body such as energy intake, nutrient transport, and metabolism storage. To better understand how cannabis comes into play, you must understand how this endocannabinoid system functions.

There are three important parts to the system: endocannabinoids, the receptors that recognize the presence of these cannabinoids, and two enzymes which help to synthesize and degrade them (fatty acid amide hydrolase or monoacylglycerol lipase).

“CBD works on receptors, and as it turns out, we have cannabinoids in our bodies, endogeneous cannabinoids, that turn out to be very effective at regulating immune functions, nerve functions, bone functions.” - Dr. Ethan Russo

There are three types of cannabinoids known to scientists today: endocannabinoids (found within the human body), phytocannabinoids (found in plants such as cannabis), and ones they created in a lab, which we’ll call synthetic cannabinoids.

The most popular cannabinoid of them all is a phytocannabinoid by the name of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis; Cannabidiol, or CBD, runs a close second place.

Considering there are already endocannabinoids being produced naturally within the body that are designed to provide this two way communication between cannabinoid receptors, the addition of THC and CBD from cannabis can work to help normalize the body’s systems when there is a deficiency of cannabinoids.

“CBD works on receptors, and as it turns out, we have cannabinoids in our bodies, endogeneous cannabinoids, that turn out to be very effective at regulating immune functions, nerve functions, bone functions,” stated Dr. Ethan Russo, a senior advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals, the British drug company that created a THC mouth spray known as Sativex.

“There’s a tendency to discount claims when something appears to be good for everything, but there’s a reason this is the case.” - Dr. Ethan Russo

“There’s a tendency to discount claims when something appears to be good for everything, but there’s a reason this is the case,” the doctor added, “the endogenous cannabinoid system acts as a modulator in fine-tuning a lot of these systems, and if something is deranged biochemically in a person’s body, it may well be that a cannabinoid system can bring things back into balance.”

The vital thing to understand is that endocannabinoids are the lipid-based chemical compounds that trigger the next important step in the endocannabinoid system – the cannabinoid receptors – and they are very similar in structure to the cannabinoids that are produced by cannabis.

How Your ECS Controls Appetite

Cannabinoid receptors are separated into two categories, CB1 and CB2, and are found throughout in places like the brain, intestines, and the immune system.

When a cannabinoid receptor is activated by an endocannabinoid, aided by the aforementioned enzymes, various physiological functions in multiple systems of the body are activated including memory, pain-sensation, mood, and most pertinent to this article, appetite.

“A lack of endocannabinoids in a person’s body could lead to eating disorders.”

ECS activity in the central nervous system regulates food intake. This is because whenever you’re hungry your ECS sends signals to your hypothalamus in your brain letting it know so.

Your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that triggers appetite, which lets your limbic system (controls emotion) know that it’s about to go down with that tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the freezer.

Endocannabinoids work to slow down the process of gastrointestinal emptying and transit, and appear to stimulate the secretion of Ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite and food intake. After eating, your brain is sent satiety signals (leptin signals) from your small intestine (duodenum) that reduces activity in your ECS letting your body know you’ve had enough to eat.

How Is This Information Useful?

muncheis3Anyone who has experienced the munchies knows of its power to bring about a powerful urge to eat absolutely everything in sight. Since we now know that hunger & appetite is caused by the production of endocannabinoids, is it a logical to assume that a lack of endocannabinoids in a person’s body could lead to eating disorders?

Studies conducted on women afflicted with eating disorders have revealed a deficiency in endocannabinoid levels and also reduced cannabinoid receptor activity within the brain.

Using cannabis to treat patients with eating disorders such as anorexia is something that makes logical and scientific sense. Evidence is suggesting there is a very real possibility it may help, and it is something that deserves more scientific attention.

Cannabis therapies could also be useful for patients who are undergoing treatments that cause them to lose their appetite; Chemotherapy treatment for cancer is infamous for this side effect. Additionally, patients that suffer from HIV and AIDS are also put at risk by decreasing appetite.

Research on the effects of cannabinoids is ongoing. Perhaps as we work to erase the social stigma associated with all things cannabis, the world can start to view the “munchies” not just as a comical plot catalyst to a stoner movie (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle…even though that was a hilarious movie), but also as a promising opportunity to help suffering patients.

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