Despite getting ‘the munchies,’ marijuana users are skinnier — but that’s not a good thing

IRVINE, Calif. — “The munchies” are a classic side-effect of using marijuana, especially among younger people. Despite all that snacking, however, researchers in California say frequent cannabis users tend to be leaner and less likely to be obese or develop diabetes. While that may sound like a pretty good thing, the team warns that it’s actually bad news for a user’s overall health.

A team from UC Irvine notes that many cannabis users start consuming the drug regularly during their teenage years. With that in mind, their study found cannabis use severely disrupts the fine-tuned processes that govern energy storage during this period of rapid physical development among children and young adults.

While this makes a marijuana user’s body leaner, it also makes them less capable of releasing stored nutrients which are essential for the brain and muscles. All of this takes place because the drug triggers molecular changes within the body’s fat deposits — which scientists call the adipose organ. After exposure to cannabis, these storage deposits start producing proteins normally found in the heart and other muscles — not in fat.

“All too often we think of cannabis only as a psychoactive drug,” says Daniele Piomelli, PhD, director for the UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis, the Louise Turner Arnold Chair in the Nuerosciences, and professor in the UCI School of Medicine Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology. “But, its effects extend well beyond the brain. Its main constituent, THC, mimics a group of chemical messengers called endocannabinoids, which regulate important functions throughout the body.”

Scroll down to see a list of health problems linked to marijuana use

Woman smoking marijuana in bed
(© Yakobchuk Olena – stock.adobe.com)

THC negatively changes how the body releases fuel

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the major psychoactive component within marijuana. It’s the compound that makes users feel “high.” THC binds to receptors in the brain which control pain, mood, and other feelings. That’s why the drug often makes users feel euphoric.

During their study, the UC Irvine team gave daily doses of THC to adolescent mice. Researchers stopped the treatments before the animals reached adulthood and carried out an examination of their metabolism.

To the team’s surprise, results showed adults mice that were now drug-free but consumed THC during adolescence still had less fat mass and more lean mass. They were also more resistant to becoming obese or diabetic and had a higher body temperature. However, they were also unable to mobilize fuel from their fat stores. The study authors note that they also saw these same results in a number of human cannabis users.

At a molecular level, the researchers discovered that fat cells treated with THC started producing large amounts of muscle proteins. At the same time, muscle cells started making fewer of their normal proteins.

Piomelli’s team concludes that the effort it takes for fat cells to make these “alien” proteins interferes with their healthy functioning. This makes it difficult for them to release essential nutrients (or fuel) that organs like the brain need to work properly. When the brain doesn’t receive fuel from our fat cells, it can negatively affect mental processes, such as attention.

“Our results show that interfering with endocannabinoid signaling during adolescence disrupts adipose organ function in a permanent way, with potentially far-reaching consequences on physical and mental health,” Dr. Piomelli says in a university release.

The study received funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The findings are published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

3 health problems science has linked to marijuana

Heart disease:

Researchers working with the American College of Cardiology say those who smoke marijuana or eat weed-laced edibles daily are significantly more likely to develop coronary artery disease (CAD).

CAD is the most common form of heart disease. Cholesterol narrows the arteries supplying blood to the organ, causing chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue. It can cause heart attacks.

The team compared how often 175,000 participants smoked weed with the rates of CAD diagnosis in the group versus the wider U.S. population. They applied a genetic-based method of identifying a causal link between using cannabis and developing heart disease. Those who smoked or consumed the drug daily were 34 percent more likely to develop CAD.

Female infertility:

In 2020, scientists found tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may also lead to infertility in women. According to a study on embryos at the University of Guelph in Canada, exposure to THC leads to a drastic drop in the chances of a successful pregnancy.

Testing the eggs of cows, researchers found that higher levels of the marijuana ingredient delayed the eggs from reaching important milestones in their development. The results show eggs affected by THC had far fewer connexins, genes that are found in good quality embryos. Study author Megan Misner explained that fewer connexins means an egg will likely fail to develop into a baby.

Memory problems:

In 2018, a study found that long-term use of cannabis or cannabis-based drugs can disturb areas of the brain that control memory, causing “significant impairments.”

Researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Lisbon studied the effects of the cannabinoid drug “WIN 55,212-2” on healthy mice, exposing them to the drug intermittently for 30 days. Using brain imaging technology, they found that the mice suffered impaired functionality in brain regions associated with memory and learning at the end of the trial. The effect was so profound, the authors determined the mice couldn’t tell a familiar object apart from one newly-introduced to them.

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