Why does cannabis whet the appetite?

The psychotropic effects of cannabis are due to a family of molecules called cannabinoids. Surprisingly, the brain produces its own cannabinoids, and the cerebral effects of cannabis are caused by the activation of an endogenous (endocannabinoid) system that developed in most animals long before the Cannabis sativa plant appeared on Earth… One of the notable effects of the active molecules of cannabis is in particular to give an ogre appetite. One of the uses of therapeutic cannabis is in particular in the case of severely anemic people who nevertheless have no appetite.

A basic principle of pharmacology is that a substance must necessarily interact with a molecular target to elicit a biological response. In other words, if a substance like cannabis is capable of causing psychotropic effects, it is because its main constituents (cannabidiol (CBD) and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)) bind specifically to certain receptors (targets) that are naturally present. in the brain, and can subsequently trigger a biological response.

Fish, birds, reptiles also have cannabis receptors

The discovery of these receptors, called CB1 and CB2, has made it possible to highlight the presence of an endocannabinoid system, not only in humans, but also in most other animals, even those that are very distant from us from the point of view. evolutionary perspective (fish, birds and reptiles). In practice, this means that the first cannabinoid receptors first appeared around 400 million years ago, well before the cannabis plant appeared on Earth (around 35 to 65 million years ago). years). These receptors are therefore part of a basic mechanism involved in the functioning of the brain, which appeared very early in the evolution of animal life.

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Appetite activation

The two endocannabinoids that have been most studied are anandamide (arachidonoyl-thanolamine) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), two molecules derived from a fatty acid present in the membranes of our cells, the acid arachidonic. These two endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that play very important roles in the control of metabolism, especially everything related to food consumption (stimulation of appetite) and calorie storage. Blood levels of endocannabinoids vary considerably during the day, with the highest concentrations being reached around midday, and the lowest during sleep, helping to synchronize appetite with the wakefulness cycle. This important role of endocannabinoids in appetite control also explains why activation of the CB1 receptor by cannabis THC is generally associated with a noticeable increase in hunger in people who have used the drug.

No need for drugs, physical activity is better

Several studies have observed that physical exercise increases blood levels of endocannabinoids. In addition to reflecting the central role of these molecules in the control of metabolism, recent data suggest that this mobilization could also participate in the feeling of well-being that accompanies physical activity, what is commonly called the euphoria of runner. The researchers observed that physical exercise caused a significant increase in anandamide, and that this molecule was responsible for the anxiolytic and analgesic effect of exercise. For example, when animals were treated with drugs that block endocannabinoid receptors, the post-exercise “buzz” disappeared completely, while anti-endorphin drugs had no effect. In other words, the calming effect of exercise would be much more a question of endogenous cannabis than of opiates.

An essential aid to our development

These positive effects of endocannabinoids make a lot of sense from an evolutionary point of view: to survive, our distant ancestors had to walk and run over long distances, up to 20 km a day in routine, and it is likely that the secretion of these molecules allowed them to continue moving even when injured or in discomfort. Not to mention that the slight euphoria felt after a busy day was certainly a good motivation to start again the next day.

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Hillard CJ. Circulating endocannabinoids: from whence do they come and where are they going? Neuropsychopharmacology Rev. 2018; 43: 155–172.

Fuss J et al. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. proc. Natl Acad. Science. USA 2015; 112:13105-8.


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