Binge Eating May Be a High All Its Own07/06/11
WEDNESDAY, July 6 (HealthDay News) -- The next time you indulge
in a juicy steak or a hot fudge sundae, consider this: The high you
get from eating all that fat may be related to the one you might
feel if you smoked marijuana.
The same mechanism that gives pot smokers the "munchies" -- that
is, a nearly irresistible desire to eat -- appears to help explain
why people like fat so much, according to a new study involving
The research offers insight into how your body forces you to eat
and could eventually help lead toward treatments designed to calm
food cravings, said study co-author Daniele Piomelli, a professor
of pharmacology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI)
School of Medicine.
"When we reach into a refrigerator, and we take that pint of ice cream, there [are] a lot more things happening than we think, and a lot deeper," Piomelli said. "Unraveling them over time can be helpful."
At issue in the study are chemicals in the brain known as
endocannabinoids, which scientists think are crucial to regulating
things such as mood, anxiety and appetite, explained Piomelli,
director of the UCI Center for Drug Discovery & Development.
Fat appears to activate the chemicals, as does marijuana.
It makes sense that appetite and pot-smoking would be connected,
Piomelli added. After all, besides helping people relax and feel
less anxious in many cases, marijuana can trigger the "munchies" --
a desire to consume food, especially junk food.
In the new study, Piomelli and colleagues from Yeshiva
University in New York sought to determine how food affects the
endocannabinoid system and which particular aspects of food set it
The researchers came up with an experiment. They fed the rats
different kinds of liquid solutions -- with fat, sugar or protein
dissolved in them -- and monitored what happened. And since they
didn't want to keep track of the whole digestive system, they
created a way to keep the solution from getting all the way to the
They found that only fat appeared to turn on the endocannabinoid
system by a signal that traveled to the brain and then to the
intestines via a certain nerve bundle called the vagus, and that
happened early in the process of digestion. The endocannabinoids,
in turn, trigger a craving for more fat.
"The fat hits the tongue, the cannabinoids kick in and more hunger follows," Piomelli said.
The system appears to be a product of evolution's interest in
making sure that animals eat lots of fat when it's available, he
said. The problem comes in modern life, when the animals known as
humans often have plenty to eat.
"In modern life, fat is everywhere," Piomelli said. "There are McDonalds and Burger Kings. But before the invention of the refrigerator, fats were hard to find."
What to do with this new information? Piomelli said it provides
more support for finding ways to manipulate hunger -- particularly
your desire to eat more than you need -- by disrupting how the
endocannabinoid system works.
The problem, he said, is that drugs designed to do just that
have made people irritable, depressed and anxious. "That's why
they're no longer being developed," said Piomelli.
The new study was supported by the U.S. National Institutes of
Health and other federal agencies.
Tim C. Kirkham, a professor of experimental psychology at the
University of Liverpool in England, said the challenge is finding a
drug that affects the endocannabinoid system but doesn't enter the
brain and cause the psychological side effects.
There's still hope, study co-author Piomelli said: "Imagine
being able to block this mechanism so that when you reach for your
pint of ice cream, you have one or two spoonfuls and that would be
The study appears in this week's issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For more information about obesity, visit the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.