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Cannabinoids, diet & metabolism: The science linking food, hunger & cannabinoids



You really are what you eat, Leafly reader. We know that after you smoke weed, you will eat more in the moment—but as it turns out, you won’t necessarily gain weight in the long-run. Hey, the neuroscience of hunger and weed is complicated. Just in time for turkey day, Leafly’s Nick Jikomes, PhD, provides dietary tips for mind and body, as well as how cannabis fits in.

‘Mind & Matter’ is a column by Nick Jikomes, PhD, Leafly’s Director of Science & Innovation and creator of the Mind & Matter podcast. Disclaimer: none of this content is medical advice.

One of the most famous and well-known effects of cannabis is “the munchies.” THC can cause food to taste better and motivates us to eat highly palatable (tasty), calorie-rich foods. This effect comes from THC stimulating CB1 receptors in the brain, an effect seen across many species. Endogenous cannabinoids—important fat-like signaling molecules in the body—have a similar effect: higher overall levels of endocannabinoids are associated with increased feeding and weight gain, and injecting endocannabinoids into specific regions of the brain stimulates food intake.

The endocannabinoid system regulates whole-body metabolism, not just eating per se. Cannabinoids regulate many aspects of metabolism via the CB1 receptor, the same receptor THC engages to produce the psychoactive effects of marijuana. The metabolic effects of cannabinoids include fat synthesis in the liver, insulin secretion by the pancreas, and the use of sugar by muscles. In general, research indicates that increased stimulation of the endocannabinoid system through CB1 receptors mobilizes the body’s tissues to accumulate energy reserves. Basically, greater activation of CB1 receptors (read, consuming THC) tells the body to consume calories and store them up for later use. 

Fat cells in the body also express CB1 receptors. Cannabinoids can therefore directly influence body fat, often enhancing fat storage. There is a strong correlation between visceral fat and endocannabinoid levels in the body, and excessively high levels of endogenous cannabinoids are associated with diet-induced obesity and poor metabolic health.


How to stop the munchies when you’re high

Cannabinoid receptors are also expressed in key metabolic organs like the liver. Consuming cannabinoids such as THC, or changing your endocannabinoid levels via diet (more on that below), causes more than psychoactive effects in the brain; they influence not just your propensity to eat, but how your body utilizes what you consume.

Cannabinoids also influence gut-brain interactions via the microbiome, a new and active area of research. To learn more, check out my conversation with microbiologist Dr. Christoph Thaiss:

In general, stimulation of CB1 receptors by cannabinoids tends to have these metabolic effects in the short-term:

  • Increased food intake
  • Increased lipogenesis (fat synthesis) in the liver
  • Increased insulin secretion by the pancreas
  • Increased nutrient absorption by the GI tract
  • Increased glucose metabolism in muscle
  • Accumulation of fat in adipose tissue

A less commonly talked about subject is how diet itself, especially fat content, influences the endocannabinoid system. 

How diet influences endocannabinoids: Omega-3 vs omega-6 fats 

Cannabinoids don’t just influence our hunger levels and food cravings; what we eat influences endogenous cannabinoids within our bodies. Endocannabinoids are small, fatty molecules made from linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid. We have to eat essential fatty acids via diet because our bodies don’t produce them.

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Because endocannabinoids are derived from omega-6 fats, a diet higher in omega-6 content tends to result in higher endocannabinoid levels. The typical “Western diet” contains excessively high levels of omega-6 fats and low levels of another essential fatty acid, omega-3s, which are associated with elevated endocannabinoid levels.

The composition of Western diets has been changing for centuries. Compared to our Paleolithic ancestors, modern people have been getting more of their calories from fat. Since the early 1900s, dietary fat composition has dramatically changed. Increases in production of soybean and seed oils have driven large increases in consumption of omega-6-rich fats, paralleled by reductions in animal fats (e.g. butter, lard), which tend to be higher in other fat types.

The obesity epidemic emerged in Westernized countries around the 1980s. Since then, fat consumption has peaked or even declined somewhat, but with the continued trend of increases in omega-6 fat consumption. Today, Americans routinely consume omega-6 and omega-3 fats at a ratio of 20:1 or higher. For most of human prehistory, this ratio was closer to 1:1.

Omega-6 fats are common in processed foods and anything cooked or produced using cheap vegetable and seed oils, which are often high in linoleic acid.

Changes in the balance of dietary omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have links to a variety of consequential health outcomes. In general, diets very high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3s are associated with greater systemic inflammation, fat accumulation and obesity, and insulin resistance–poor metabolic health.

Since endocannabinoids generally stimulate food intake, elevated endocannabinoid levels resulting from a high omega-6 fat diet would then increase feeding. It’s easy to see how a vicious cycle could form: a high omega-6 diet leads to weight gain and poor overall metabolic health, which elevates endocannabinoid levels and stimulates further food intake. Not good. 

Making dietary changes

To promote better metabolic health, you may need to reduce your omega-6 and increase omega-3 intake. Omega-6 fats are common in processed foods and anything cooked or produced using cheap vegetable and seed oils, which are often high in linoleic acid. Avoid using cooking oils like grapeseed, sesame, and sunflower oil when preparing meals, and minimize processed food consumption. 

Eating omega-3-rich foods, by comparison, can help maintain healthy endocannabinoid function in the brain. Foods high in omega-3s include various seafoods (e.g. salmon, oysters), chia seeds, and walnuts. Fresh, cold-water marine animals have the highest omega-3 content.

Endocannabinoids are critical for proper brain functions like neuroplasticity. In animals, omega-3 deficiency can abolish forms of neuroplasticity which depend on endocannabinoids, and low levels of omega-3 are linked to numerous psychiatric diseases


The Stoner Diet: How Getting High Will Help You Eat Your Veggies

Here’s a summary of the key points around how dietary fat influences endocannabinoid levels and metabolic health:

  • Endocannabinoids are produced from omega-6 fats. Diets high in omega-6 fatty acids increase endocannabinoid levels.
  • A high omega-6 fat diet is characteristic of the typical Western diet, and has correlations with high endocannabinoid levels, weight gain, inflammation, and poor metabolic health.
  • Omega-3 fats are critical for endocannabinoid function in the brain. Diets deficient in omega-3s can lead to deficits in endocannabinoid-related brain function.
  • A diet with balanced levels of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is generally desirable.

So why is chronic THC exposure associated with weight loss, not weight gain?

Acute cannabis consumption stimulates appetite and eating (“the munchies”), due to THC activating the CB1 receptor, the same receptor endocannabinoids activate to drive eating. National surveys, however, have found a lower prevalence of obesity in cannabis users compared to non-users. Why would chronic cannabis use be associated with lower rates of obesity if cannabinoids like THC stimulate eating? 

One explanation is that the association between cannabis use and lower obesity rates is not real.

It may be that these simple surveys cannot adequately control for all relevant variables. To assess whether correlations like this might represent a real relationship, cause-and-effect experiments in rodents where diet and THC consumption are controlled indicate that chronic THC consumption actually protects against weight gain. In rodents with diet-induced obesity, chronic THC exposure leads to less weight and fat mass gain, as well as lower energy intake. This effect may come, in part, from alterations to the gut microbiome.

To learn more about the relationship between THC consumption, feeding, and weight gain, see my conversation with Dr. Saoirse O’Sullivan: 

Rodents aren’t humans, of course, but cannabis research on humans faces a mountain of regulatory, funding and clinical barriers. Assuming the link between chronic THC consumption and lower rates of obesity holds true in humans, how can we explain this? 

One theory is tolerance. Chronic THC exposure likely leads to a decrease in the number of CB1 receptors on neurons, or a decrease in their sensitivity. This would leave fewer CB1 receptors available for stimulation by endogenous cannabinoids. Because increases in CB1 activation lead to feeding and weight gain, fewer CB1 receptors might result in less overall CB1 activation and therefore lower levels of feeding (except with strong CB1 activation by consumption of high levels of THC). 


Does weed make you lose weight?

If chronic cannabis stimulation of CB1 receptors leads to weight gain, shouldn’t drugs with the opposite effect on CB1 receptors have the opposite effect (weight loss)? This was exactly the thinking behind Rimonabant, an anti-obesity drug developed in the 2000s with the opposite effect on CB1 receptors as THC and endocannabinoids. 

Rimonabant had the intended primary effect of facilitating weight loss in obese patients, but it was pulled from the market due to the prevalence of severe side effects. It caused depression or mood alterations in ~10% of patients, suicidal ideation in ~1%, and nauseas and respiratory tract infections in >10%. Other common side effects included gastroenteritis (infectious diarrhea), anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbances, and more.

Why? Because the endocannabinoid system is a whole-body system and CB1 receptors are found in diverse tissues throughout the body. A drug that blocks CB1 receptors will usually block them everywhere. This will affect all of the related biology, not just the specific piece we want to change.

The nutrients we consume as fuel also act as signaling molecules that influence cell function.

A far safer alternative to pharmaceuticals is proactive management of your diet. Food is not simply calories. The nutrients we consume as fuel also act as signaling molecules that influence cell function. As with endogenous cannabinoids, macronutrients like fat help facilitate critical messengers in the body that orchestrate how we process what we consume—a gram of fat from one source can have very different metabolic effect than a gram of fat from another. Furthermore, many drugs and foods affect key liver enzymes, which metabolize a wide range of other substances.

Actively managing your metabolic health by tracking nutrients takes time, effort, and willpower. Processed foods, such as omega-6-rich cooking oils, are cheaper and easier to acquire than alternatives, but they interfere with the body’s natural satiety mechanisms. They also have economic incentives to lack true satiation. It’s in the food processor’s interest for you to finish your bag of chips quickly, stay hungry, and then buy another.

Armies of industry food scientists have worked for years to come up with clever ways of hacking our biology. This can lead to eating beyond your body’s true caloric and nutritive needs, costing you not only your health but an enormous amount of lifetime dollars; besides more costly grocery runs, people with obesity have significantly higher medical costs.

What you consume, including both food and drugs, influences who you become. This is not just flowery language: you are physically built from what you consume, and what you consume influences how your body uses the building blocks you provide to it. Choose wisely.

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Cannabis Can Help You With Stress




Government shutdown, election nonsense, the end of summer, the news if full of all sorts of negative information. Plus, autumn is here along with cuffing season, the  time of year where many short-term relationships happen. It usually begins in the fall around October and ending in the spring around April—so there’s time to get cuffed and uncuffed. And while a short-term relationship which expires with spring, swimsuits and sunbathing may sound odd, some love it. It provides a cozy atmosphere and cuddle buddy for the long dark months and the holiday season.  Cannabis can help you with stress of news, searches and just life in general.

While marijuana can be a great escape mechanism, it can also be a constructive way of grounding yourself in the present and curbing other coping mechanisms that are more harmful.

It can curb your drinking

boozy parents
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Fall starts up many social events with work and family life.  The darker evenings give us a free pass to drink earlier every day. While drinking might help you feel better in the short term, marijuana might play a more effective role in the long term, eliminating hangovers, treating your body more kindly and preventing sad drunken episodes. Next time you feel yourself itching to reach for that bottle of wine or that whisky you’ve been saving for a special occasion (the end of the world counts), reach for an edible instead. Your body can tell the difference.

It can help you eat

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RELATED: Hacks To Prevent The Munchies

If you’re someone who feels anxiety in the pit of your stomach, hindering the desire to eat, marijuana might help; THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, has been shown to stimulate appetite.

According to a 2015 Yale study, neurons in the brain that are normally involved in suppressing appetite were being tricked by THC. Lead author Tamas Horvath of the study explains it this way:

“It’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead. We were surprised to find that the neurons we thought were responsible for shutting down eating, were suddenly being activated and promoting hunger, even when you are full. It fools the brain’s central feeding system.”

The government agrees it is a way to help you overcome anxiety and move toward a normal eating pattern.

It can help you feel more present

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Marijuana is an interesting compound; while it makes a lot of people feel good, it also makes a lot of people feel paranoid.  Manage your intake and have a talk with your budtender. As long as you keep an eye on your dosage, you’re likely to avoid bad reactions. Marijuana can help you have engaging conversations with friends, enjoy the outdoors , or help you get lost in a video game, book or movie. When used correctly, it’ll rein in your brain when it feels like going to the doom and gloom place.

If you’ve had bad experiences with marijuana, try to remember what happened that day that triggered it. Was it the strain? Was it your mood? Were you with people who triggered you? Keep in mind these variables whenever you’re planning on toking up and limit your amount of stressors. Start off slow, preferably with something you’ve tried before and increase or experiment as you go.

Manage anxiety

How Does Marijuana Influence Your Anxiety?
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RELATED: How To Relax When You Don’t Know How

The right strain and dosage of marijuana can help you relax — something you might be needing after the very intense week we’ve all had. Consider the method of consumption: If you’re having an edible, be patient and eat it during the earlier. If you’re smoking, pace yourself through the night and keep yourself hydrated. The idea is to relax, not to knock yourself out. Unless that’s what you want, in which case, go for it.

Much needed sleep

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RELATED: Want Better Sleep? Try Doing This 1-2 Hours Before Bedtime

Perhaps the most common ailment affecting many of us is insomnia. After a week of staying up and watching the news, it might be difficult to get back to your normal sleep schedule. While marijuana can do a lot of the work for you, another thing you can use to your advantage is devising a sleep routine and avoiding screens while in bed. Difficult, but not impossible. Here are 5 more tips to help you fall asleep faster.

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7 Incredible Benefits Of THC




Canada and 40 U.S. states medical marijuana law that permits adults, and sometimes children, to utilize the multipurpose cannabis plant. That means that despite its current Schedule I standing, which allows for no medical usages, people have made up their own minds, used their own eyes, ears and hearts to make decisions about their health.

Medical marijuana has many components to it, from cannabinoids to terpenes and flavonoids, all of which contribute to its therapeutic effects. This article, however, focuses on the benefits of the cannabinoid THC in particular. Though best known for its elevating properties, THC is medicinal at its core.

Chronic pain relief

Even in small doses, THC has been shown time and again to alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain. Though it may not wipe the pain out, it lends different tools to deal with said pain and provides relief from the hurt to the mental fatigue that pain brings.

RELATED: THC Benefits That Have Nothing To Do With Getting High

Getting the Most Out Of Cannabis for Chronic Pain
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Wasting syndrome and lack of appetite

THC is also responsible for bringing back appetites – a crucial part of healing for those living with HIV and the side effects of cancer therapy. These benefits can not be overstated, as keeping on weight is key to staying healthy.

It’s an enhancement herb

No matter if you’re watching your favorite sitcom or sitting down with a decadent piece of creamy cake, the THC in cannabis is going to make it better. We laugh harder, eat the best bits, appreciate art more intensely and the list goes on with THC enhancement. How could that not be healthy?

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THC is a powerful antioxidant

There are so many stressors out there that affect our health in a negative manner. THC and other cannabinoids act as antioxidants to protect skin health and protect against damage that could lead to cancer.


So many of the ailments out there are do to inflammation and THC is one of the best ways to combat it. Arthritis, depression, aches, pains and a whole slew of disorders could be alleviated by reducing inflammation where it counts. THC knows where it counts.

RELATED: Which Is More Effective For Marijuana Patients, THC Or CBD?

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It’s an anticonvulsant

Though CBD usually gets the credit for anticonvulsant properties, THC plays a major role as well. Medical marijuana is used with great success to combat seizure disorders such as epilepsy.


THC, especially when found in a heavy indica, is an incredible sleep aid. For those with severe insomnia, mixing cannabis with melatonin at night is an almost guarantee to have you off into dreamland.

When It Comes To Sleep, Quality Is Better Than Quantity
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Cannabis and Its Health Benefits: What You Should Know




Cannabis has many health benefits that everyone should be aware of. Cannabis can help promote mindfulness and being in the moment, manage pain, improve mental health, regulate body weight, and provide the many benefits of CBD. However, it is important to note that cannabis should always be used responsibly and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Individuals should also be aware of the potential side effects of cannabis, such as dry mouth, impaired coordination, and increased heart rate. By understanding the many health benefits of cannabis, individuals can make informed decisions about their health and well-being. 

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