The Science Behind Why You Get the Munchies

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When your stomach’s on empty, catching the scent of fresh-baked cookies or a hearty chili simmering on the stove can instantly make your mouth water and tummy grumble, leading you to inhale anything edible. And if you’ve ever, ahem, inhaled something else, you know snacks can be equally hard to resist when cravings set in during “high” times.

As recent research shows, the cravings caused by appealing food aromas are linked with the “munchies” that marijuana smokers experience after toking up. A new study in the French journal Nature Neuroscience reports that a period of fasting triggered the same hunger-inducing receptors in mice brains that marijuana triggers by boosting the sense of smell. [Tweet this fact!]

When you skip a meal or fast, the brain produces compounds called (coincidentally) endocannibinoids that behave similarly to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and cause hunger to rise. And when you’re hungry, your brain’s olfactory center is more sensitive to food aromas like those snickerdoodles in the oven.

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The researchers discovered that the olfactory bulbs in mice brains contain receptors that bind THC and ramp up appetite, both when mice are fasting and when they were high. At the same time, these receptors made them more sensitive to odors when hungry or stoned. The results suggest that the way marijuana triggers food cravings is through the sense of smell.

Of course, we can’t draw definite conclusions about pot-smoking humans from mice injected with THC, especially since mice rely much more heavily on their olfactory center to forage for food than we do. However, the study does shed light on the mystery of the munchies by showing how our sense of smell is heightened in either a fasting or high state. Additionally, if similar mechanisms are at work in human brains, the findings may help scientists develop weight-loss or anti-obesity drugs that target the cannabinoid receptors.

While it may be tough to resist the scent of Cinnabon after skipping lunch or finishing a high-intensity workout (not anything illegal!), you don’t have to wreck your healthy eating ways next time you get the munchies. Try these snacks:
2-Ingredient Snacks Under 200 Calories
40 Crunchy and Creamy Healthy Snacks Under 200 Calories
Top Trainers’ Favorite Post-Workout Snacks
SHAPE Snack Award Winners
10 Surprising Ways to Slim Down Comfort Food Favorites

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