Science Behind “Munchies”

Hang onto your Poptarts, everybody.

Studies recently completed have shown that eating fattier foods may be yet another reason causing a person’s brain and body to seek out those midnight munchies.  What has largely been seen as a sure sign of marijuana related euphoria may not just be a one-trick pony.  Instead it may be a different beast causing the feeding frenzy—unrelated to the drug, but rather to poor quality eating habits

To get a better idea of how this all works, first a word on how marijuana triggers the “munchies”: when cannabis enters the body, it heads to the brain.  Once there, a endocannabinoid receptor (CB1) is activated; this tells the body (namely, the stomach) that it is time to eat.  At this point, the effected person is well on their way to Candyland.

But, depending on the lifestyle, this can be either good or not-so-good news.

Daniele Piomelle, a professor of pharmacology, with his team at the University of California (UCI), School of Medicine, found that the body could trigger its own built-in high.

Through the research him and his team performed on rats, they found that the same CB1 receptors (formerly linked with marijuana) are set in motion by the consumption of fatty foods.

The experiment involved feeding the rats a variety of foods that were heavy in different solutions: protein, sugar, and fat, respectively.  By canceling out the stomach as a possible trigger for the cravings  (this was possible with a valve placed within the rat to drain the liquid before it reached the stomach), the aim was to see if any of these foods would have a cannabis-like effect on the brain. 

But while the effects were still present, the source was not.  When the fatty compound was presented to the rats, they could simply not resist: unlike the other compounds in which they could easily stop eating.  So this must have been a sign that the fatty compounds triggered the CB1 receptors in the brain, right? Nope.

However, they instead found that nowhere in the brain were the CB1 receptors activated.  This left them puzzled and wondering: why?

As Piomelli explains: “The fat hits the tongue, the cannabinoids kick in and more hunger follows.”  And it makes sense when we think about humans from an evolutionary standpoint.  Filling humans with a drive  to eat fats when they are available, would help to ensure survival when the threat of food scarcity could be looming close at hand.

But the truth is that for a lot of people (especially those where obscenity rates run high), famine is not as much a problem.  Food is available but the control over its consumption is not.

And this could mean big news for the future fight against obesity.  By looking at the gut as if it were operating like it had a mind of its own, drugs can be manufactured to target the receptors in the gut instead of those in the brain. 

Already there is a drug, Rimonabant (Acomplia), that is not currently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which targets the receptors in the brain.  However, according to Jonathan Farrimond, a researcher studying cannabinoids and feeding at the University of Reading, this particular drug “induced bad side effects like suicidal thoughts due to its activity [in the brain].”

Since this new study now shows that binge eating can be a product of events outside of the goings-on within the brain, the goal is to now refurbish a drug that does not interact with the brain’s activity but rather the gut.  By targeting the CB1 receptors in the gut, the future may see a change in how we can fight against the growing obesity problem. 

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