Myth or Fact: Does THC Really Cause Weight Gain?

by | Jun 10, 2024 | Health and Wellness

There are many negative and inaccurate stereotypes about cannabis users. One of the most important wellness gifts you can give yourself is balancing a healthier weight. However, marijuana users who have a higher-than-average body weight may feel that cannabis can be contributing to the problem.

Chronic cannabis users come in all shapes and sizes. It would be one thing if everyone who used cannabis for approved conditions had an unhealthy body weight; then the culprit would be clear. However, many studies suggest that people who use cannabis are more physically active.

Is there a link between chronic marijuana use and obesity? Let’s explore how THC interacts with the human metabolism.

How Does THC Affect Your Metabolism?

Marijuana used for medical or recreational purposes can affect metabolism in several different ways. Metabolism is the series of chemical processes that convert food and nutrients into energy and fat for storage.

How well your metabolism works can dictate whether you easily maintain a healthy body mass index or experience problems with gaining weight. While certain cannabinoid and terpene combinations may stimulate appetite and cravings for snacks, researchers believe that some can actually help you lose weight and improve wellness with other significant lifestyle changes.

Here are the primary ways that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can impact human metabolism:

1. Increased Appetite

One of the best-known metabolic effects of THC on the human body is the munchies. When THC binds to receptors in the brain that regulate cravings, hunger, and thirst, researchers found a link between the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and eating behaviors.

Studies have shown that 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and N-arachidonoylethanolamine (AEA) affect, trigger, or inhibit hunger through the CB1 receptor. AEA has been shown to make humans feel hungry. Another molecule produced by the body and found in the intestines is oleoyl ethanolamide (OEA). This molecule is responsible for feeling full and satisfied after consuming a meal and plays a role in fat loss.

While the body welcomes or recognizes THC through the endocannabinoid s

2. Weight Gain

Regular cannabis use may cause weight gain, but it is not only because you can experience “the munchies” after taking medical marijuana. While the munchies can cause some weight gain, particularly if you are consuming calories late in the evening before bed, there are other ways that THC may impact the way your body produces and stores fat.

The THC cannabinoid is fat soluble, which means it easily binds to fat cells. This also explains why traces of THC can remain in your body for up to thirty days (or longer, depending on the frequency and potency of cannabis you use). There is clinical evidence that ECS activation can significantly increase body fat mass.

3. Insulin and Blood Sugar (Glucose)

There is growing clinical research to suggest that cannabis may help people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity. However, other studies suggest that THC can contribute to higher insulin levels and an increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Researchers are not sure why THC has an impact on insulin levels in the human body. However, there is a clear link: it may benefit some patients or worsen glucose management for others.

4. Overall Metabolic Rate

When your doctor takes a ‘resting heart rate” during an appointment, it is one way to test your metabolic rate, or how fast your heart beats when you are relaxed. That metabolic test can also provide data on your ability to burn calories.

Cannabis can cause a temporary increase in both heart rate and metabolism. However, the effects are short-lived and typically last less than one hour. In this “weed-high” state, when cannabinoid receptors in the brain are activated, you can burn calories more efficiently even if you remain sedentary.

5. THC and Fat Storage

Long-term use of cannabis may affect the proteins and genes that are involved in the development of fat tissue. Some studies suggest that THC can change the way your body processes and stores fat. In some people, this may cause them to gain weight.

Australian researchers suggested that food deprivation, stress, vigorous exercise, and weight loss may cause a release of THC stored in adipose fat tissues. It is possible to stop using cannabis and still fail a drug test, as stored THC can be released from fat cells.

6. Physical Activity and Fitness

There are two opposing sides to the argument about whether cannabis makes you lazy or motivated to engage in exercise or other activities. For some people, Sativa strains are invigorating and provide an energy boost, while for Indica dominant strains, the opposite effect occurs, and they may feel tired and sedated.

Chronic diseases and mental health disorders can also cause fatigue. Cannabis may help you feel like being active, or it may be an invitation to a midafternoon nap with your dog. It depends on the person and the strain(s) they consume.

If you are using medical cannabis to help with pain symptoms, it may also help you stay fit. People with chronic pain can experience mobility challenges. If cannabis helps alleviate pain, that may inspire individuals to stay active when their symptoms are well managed.

7. Sleep Quality

If you suffer from insomnia, you can try medical cannabis. Many people struggle with low sleep quality because of chronic pain or other symptoms like anxiety, restless leg syndrome, and more. The clinical studies are divided when it comes to THC for sleep and whether it helps or makes symptoms of insomnia worse.

The medical community does acknowledge that THC can influence your metabolism and sleep patterns. Poor sleep can also cause a disruption of the body’s hormonal balance. And that can alter your appetite, cause cravings for carbohydrates (fast energy), and ultimately affect weight gain.

Clinical Study Suggests Smokable Cannabis More Likely to Stimulate Appetite

We know that certain strains of cannabis can have a higher-than-average probability of stimulating appetite and those dreaded munchies. However, it may be more complex than simply the effects of THC that trigger hunger or cravings. It could be related to the intake method that you choose to consume medical marijuana.

In 2012, there was a pilot study conducted by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) and HIV Neurobehavioral Research Center (HNRC), University of California, San Diego, USA, on stimulating hunger with THC, focused on male patients suffering from HIV.

Many of the immune system treatments that patients with HIV receive (and medications) can cause nausea and significantly reduce appetite. The results suggested that smokable cannabis substantially increased appetite hormones ghrelin, PYY, and leptin. Smokable cannabis did not have an impact on blood glucose or insulin levels.

A new study published in December 2023 came to similar conclusions about vaping and smoking: “Cannabis sativa targets mediobasal hypothalamic neurons to stimulate appetite.” [1] Researchers provided cannabis in vapor (smoke) form and found that specific areas of the mediobasal hypothalamus areas of the brain in mice were activated. That caused a cascade effect of neural signals that not only stimulated hunger but also motivation and movement. Think of it as stimulating the urge to head to the kitchen and forage through cupboards for food. Particularly high carbohydrate (sugar) foods that provide more dopamine when consumed.

Will You Gain Weight if You Regularly Use Cannabis?

Researchers have stated that the temporary boost in metabolic rate every time you use cannabis is not sufficient to burn all excessive calories. So, cannabis cannot be considered a weight loss tool.

If you have a higher-than-average body mass index, it is possible that cannabis use may lead to gaining weight. However, researchers feel that it is correlated to a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition instead of the healing herb.

People who have a reduced body mass index seem unaffected by cannabis. Persistent users do not find that medical marijuana causes a weight increase. If you are focused on healthy weight management and prefer edibles to smoked marijuana, look for low to zero-carbohydrate products.

The Average BMI of Cannabis Users is Lower Than Non-Users

One study published in 2020, “Bidirectional Longitudinal Associations Between Cannabis Use and Body Mass Index Among Adolescents,” provided some evidence to debunk the myth that all cannabis users are overweight or clinically obese.

The gist of the research is that, overall, chronic cannabis users have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-cannabis users. Lifestyle factors have, by far, the greatest influence on whether someone is likely to be overweight or not.

People who use cannabis to wean off of other controlled substances (including Schedule I drugs and alcohol) are more prone to weight gain during their rehabilitation. This would happen, however, if they used cannabis or not.

Controlled substances (including nicotine) cause a substantial increase in dopamine. About 10x more dopamine is released in the brain from drug use than normal feelings of happiness or rewards. Subsequently, when someone stops abusing opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines, or other drugs, they experience a substantial drop in dopamine. That leaves them feeling fatigued and emotionally depressed.

People recovering from drug addiction are more likely to gain weight because certain foods also provide pleasure and trigger the release of dopamine. Again, mounting evidence suggests the weight gain is due to lifestyle choices (poor nutrition, lack of daily exercise, overeating, or eating late at night) instead of cannabis use.

Tips for Using Medical Cannabis and Maintaining a Healthy Body Weight

If you are a patient who uses medical cannabis on a regular basis, you may be concerned about weight gain. Studies suggest that marijuana users are no more likely to be sedentary or gain weight than people who do not consume cannabis.

But if you are aiming to lose weight or achieve a healthy body mass index (BMI), here are a few suggestions to help you stay on track.

1. Start Slow and Low: When diving into the world of medical cannabis, especially if you’re using it for weight management, it’s crucial to start with a low dose and gradually increase it. Your body needs time to adjust to the effects, and this method helps you find the right balance without overwhelming yourself. Remember, it’s like cooking a stew—start with a pinch of spice and adjust to taste!

2. Consult with a Professional: Before embarking on any cannabis journey, it’s wise to chat with a healthcare provider who’s knowledgeable about cannabis use. They can offer personalized advice based on your medical history and weight management goals. Think of them as your cannabis co-pilot, guiding you through the process with expertise and care.

3. Keep an Eye on Your Munchies: Ah, the infamous munchies! While cannabis can stimulate your appetite, it’s essential to munch mindfully. Opt for healthy snacks like fruits, veggies, and nuts to satisfy cravings without derailing your weight management efforts. With a little planning, you can turn the munchies into a nutritious adventure!

4. Pair Cannabis with Exercise: Who says cannabis and exercise can’t be best buds? Incorporating physical activity into your routine can complement the effects of medical cannabis, promoting overall well-being and weight management. Whether it’s yoga, hiking, or dancing like nobody’s watching, find an activity that sparks joy and gets your body moving!

5. Stay Hydrated: Hydration is key, my friend! Drinking plenty of water not only keeps you feeling refreshed but also helps curb cravings and supports your body’s natural functions. So, sip on that H2O like it’s nature’s elixir—it basically is!

6. Monitor Your Progress: Keep track of how cannabis affects your body and weight management journey. Jot down any changes in appetite, energy levels, or mood to pinpoint what works best for you. Think of it as your personal diary, documenting your experiences and insights along the way.

7. Prioritize Sleep: A good night’s sleep is like magic for your body and mind. Cannabis can help some folks catch those Z’s, but it’s essential to establish healthy sleep habits, too. Create a cozy sleep environment, unwind with calming activities, and bid farewell to those restless nights. Your body will thank you!

8. Mix it Up: Variety is the spice of life, even when it comes to cannabis strains. Experiment with different types to find what suits you best. Whether you prefer the relaxing vibes of India or the energizing effects of Sativa, there’s a strain out there with your name on it. Just remember to enjoy responsibly!

9. Focus on Whole-Body Wellness: While cannabis can be a helpful tool in your weight management toolkit, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Embrace a holistic approach to wellness by nourishing your body with nutritious foods, staying active, managing stress, and nurturing your mental health. When you treat your body like the temple it is, the results speak for themselves!

10. Listen to Your Body: Above all, tune in to what your body is telling you. Pay attention to its cues and adjust your cannabis use accordingly. Whether it’s a gentle nudge to take a break or a high-five for hitting your fitness goals, your body knows best. So, trust yourself, embrace the journey, and let cannabis be your wellness ally!

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