Clinical Research: Could Psychedelic Therapy Help Treat Eating Disorders?

Clinical Research: Could Psychedelic Therapy Help Treat Eating Disorders?

Psychedelics and psychedelic therapy mostly associated with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. But did you know both can potentially help treat eating disorders, too?

With new research, there’s incredible potential of psychedelic substances for other types of treatment methods. Addiction and eating disorders are conditions that many struggle with. Having psychedelic therapy as an option could make all the difference.

Eating Disorders 101

Eating disorders are serious illnesses associated with severe disturbances in eating behaviors, thoughts and emotions. They disrupt the relationship between food, body image, weight, and even exercise. This can severely impact one’s physical and mental health.

The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, all of which have descriptions below.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a severe and sometimes fatal eating disorder. It leads to abnormally low weight, fear of food, and gaining weight. It also skews the perception of body image.

Those suffering from anorexia believe they’re overweight and live in fear of gaining weight if they consume food. Therefore, they often combine excessive exercise in an attempt to lose weight. They often avoid and restrict foods, and try to control their calorie intake. This may lead to vomiting after eating (crossover with bulimia), or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas.

Over time, the loss of nutrients can lead to malnutrition and severe health complications. These include negative effects on the heart, the inability to concentrate, memory issues, abdominal discomfort and pain, loss of period and irregular hormone levels, weakened bones and osteoporosis, among other issues.

Current treatments exist to stabilize weight loss and begin to restore and maintain adequate weight and nutrition. The hope is to restore a process of normalcy, and to develop long-term behavioral changes.

They mostly include some form of psychotherapy, as well as medications, mostly antipsychotics and SSRIs (antidepressants). Unfortunately, these options don’t work for everyone, and more people are searching for alternative methods to help long-term.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is similar to anorexia. It involves the fear of gaining weight and brings a distorted perception of one’s body shape and size. However, this involves eating large quantities of food, then vomiting in an attempt to lose ingested calories.

It can lead up to the same health complications as anorexia, but it can also have a severe impact on the digestive tract and gut lining. Current treatments once again include psychotherapy, antidepressants and antipsychotics, which more people find unsuccessful.

Binge-Eating Disorder

A binge-eating disorder usually involves eating large amounts of food to the point of severe overeating, followed by strict restriction. These cycles keep on repeating and causing an impaired relationship with food. It also impacts one’s perception of their own health and weight.

Unlike anorexia and bulimia — where the result usually ends in weight loss and really low BMI — those suffering from a binge-eating disorder may develop other complications. These include obesity, diabetes, and other gastro-intestinal, hormonal, or heart conditions. Current treatments include psychotherapy, mostly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and antidepressants or antipsychotics.

Psychedelic Therapy and Eating Disorders

Current treatment options from the most common eating disorders are all the same. That’s where psychedelic therapy comes in as an alternative.

The habitual pathways of communication between brain regions appear to be overactive in certain mental health conditions. These are often depression, anxiety, OCD and eating disorders. This is the brain’s default mode network (DMN). This connection may lead to the impairment of cognitive flexibility, which psychedelic therapy has shown to treat with great results.

The current, ongoing research shows impressive results from: Ketamine, MDMA, Psilocybin and Ayahuasca.

Ketamine as Psychedelic Therapy

In 1998, the first ketamine-assisted trial occurred, with infusions given to a group of 15 women suffering from extreme cases of anorexia nervosa. Nine of them eventually fell into remission. More than 20 years later, researchers are now aware of how this type of psychedelic therapy can block compounds like glutamate and inhibit NMDA receptors. Both of these fuel anorexic thoughts and behaviors.

MDMA as Psychedelic Therapy

Currently, there are Phase 2 trials to discover if MDMA helps treat anorexia and other eating disorders. Researchers believe the psychedelic may aid in both recovery and potential remission. More info is necessary, but, at present, those conducting trials are optimistic about the outcome.

Psilocybin as Psychedelic Therapy

This form of psychedelic therapy is being studied as more than just an aid in treating depression, anxiety and PTSD. They are now on a path to help treat eating disorders as well and help those who really can’t seem to see any results from medications.

By increasing dopamine and serotonin to the brain, psilocybin therapy may be one of the best non-invasive ways to pair psychedelics with psychotherapy. The studies will show for themselves.

Ayahuasca as Psychedelic Therapy

Ayahuasca is also one of the psychedelics currently going through research as a potential alternative treatment for eating disorders. Participants often feel more distant from their behaviors, thought patterns and triggers. They also tend to notice a shift in attitude toward their bodies. It may be too early to draw conclusions, but these preliminary results only fuel optimism for further research.

Utilizing psychedelic therapy for eating disorders has shown early, positive results. However, more studies are necessary to determine if psychedelics are safe and an effective option.

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Karla Ilicic

View all posts by Karla Ilicic

Karla is a freelance writer, yoga teacher and nutritionist who's been writing about nutrition, fitness, yoga, mindfulness, and overall health and wellness topics for over seven years. She's written for numerous publications such as Healthline, Livesavvy, Psychology.com, Well + Good, and many others, sharing her love of storytelling and educating. She loves talking about superfoods and another amazing plant powers that people can benefit from if they learn how to use it properly. Her passion lies in helping others not only eat healthier meals but implement good eating habits, find a great relationship with food & achieve a balanced lifestyle. She believes that the only diet and lifestyle that's worth creating is the one you can stick to, so she aims to find what that means for each and every individual. Teaching WHY we eat, and not only WHAT we eat, is the premise of her approach.

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