When Josh Bareket was in high school, he would give himself "the munchies" on purpose. For him, it wasn't just about eating potato chips and hitting a bong in his basement. It was serious. He was suffering from the autoimmune disease ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. He was diagnosed his junior year of high school in 2008, and he’d learned about evidence suggesting that smoking weed could calm his inflammation and bring back his appetite. So he'd try it when his colitis was acting up.
Getting high became something that helped him through the worst of his symptoms. At one point, he weighed 108 pounds at 5 foot 10. So, he turned to the munchies.
“I got high, and I was able to eat the entire tray of baked ziti in a single day — probably 6 pounds of baked ziti," Bareket recalls. "I don’t think I would have put on weight and been able to be healthy with an autoimmune disease without weed. Having had access to cannabis really was a complete life-changer.”
Bareket says he owes a lot to the munchies. But what are they, exactly?
What are “the munchies?”
“THC” — the psychoactive compound in cannabis that makes you high — affects your body physiologically in a few different ways. Ginger Hultin, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and owner of Champagne Nutrition, says that the munchies happen when THC taps into the part of your brain that controls your appetite.
“It specifically stimulates the endocannabinoid system in the brain, says Hultin, who works with patients in Washington state, where marijuana is legal (but only if you’re over 21, with some other caveats). There is also evidence that it stimulates a hormone that makes you hungry called ghrelin, Hultin says.
Elise McDonough, editor of Bong Appetite: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Weed and The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook, breaks this down a bit further. “THC works into receptors throughout your body,” McDonough says. But the effect of the munchies is caused specifically by THC on receptors in your brain’s olfactory bulb, which is part of how you smell and taste and sense food, according to McDonough and a 2014 study published in Nature Neuroscience Journal. So, when THC binds to receptors there, it makes food smell better and taste more delicious, which is part of the munchies phenomena, McDonough says. Basically, it works within your brain to make your body feel hungry even when it’s not.
Does doing an edible change the way munchies hit you?
You can get the munchies from taking an edible or smoking. “THC that is found in cannabis will be absorbed into the body whether you’re smoking or eating it,” McDonough says.
That said, McDonough suggests that if you’re trying to avoid the munchies for health reasons, you might want to get high when you’re already full. “If you eat an edible after a full meal, it will take effect in a less intense way," she says.
What happens if I eat more edibles when I have the munchies?
You will probably be really high. A fatal overdose is “unlikely,” according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The signs of using too much marijuana are similar to the typical effects of using marijuana but more severe,” CDC literature says. “These signs may include extreme confusion, anxiety, paranoia, panic, fast heart rate, delusions or hallucinations, increased blood pressure, and severe nausea or vomiting.” It sounds scary, but not everyone will experience these side effects. People like Bareket say marijuana can be a truly pleasant and helpful experience.
With that said: “If you’re already high and you have the munchies I wouldn’t advise eating more edibles,” McDonough says. “Just healthy, regular food will do. A wholesome snack.”
How are the munchies different than being super hungry when you're on your period or having pregnancy cravings?
These are all types of hunger, but they are pretty different. First of all, the THC-induced munchies are caused by an external factor, while period and pregnancy hangry-feels are caused by hormones within your body. “THC is a compound that is interacting with receptors in the brain, affecting neurons and altering satiety levels upon intake,” Hultin says. “When THC exposure is gone, the 'munchies' also dissipate.”
But being hungry from menstrual-related hormonal shifts likely happens because of high progesterone levels at the beginning of the menstrual cycle, Hultin says. “Progesterone levels are also high during pregnancy for a variety of reasons, but another reason women want to eat during pregnancy is because their caloric needs increase," she says. "The body lays down fat stores and has to support a growing fetus.”
Basically all three of these food cravings happen for different physiological reasons — not all hunger is equal.
Can the munchies be a good thing?
McDonough says says that cannabis appetite stimulation could be the future of medicine. “It’s interesting because some people look at it as a problem because you don’t want to necessarily eat more calories than you need,” McDonough says. “But for people who have medical need to increase their appetite, it’s just really powerful medicine.”
You’ve probably seen examples of cancer patients getting high to help them get through chemotherapy on TV. That example (and glaucoma) are a few of the most widely talked about medical uses for the drug, but it can also be helpful for other medical conditions such as colitis. Bareket is exhibit A.
Bareket agrees that marijuana as a medicinal tool will continue to thrive in the coming years. “You have this standard image of a cancer patient going through chemo, and smoking weed to be able to eat,” Bareket says. “But there’s a wide spectrum of ailments that this can be helpful for."
He had a surgery in 2010 to remove his large intestine, which, for the most part, helped alleviate his colitis symptoms. But cannabis is still a large part of Bareket's life. He was inspired by his experience to found a business in the cannabis industry called BUSHL, an educational platform and marketplace for sustainable, organic, and craft cannabis. But Bareket still reflects on how getting hungry and high got him through when his colitis was at its worst.
“Having access to cannabis got me through some tough times,” Bareket says. “The munchies really helped me.”
Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that marijuana usage continues to be an offense under Federal Law, regardless of state marijuana laws.