Body image can severely affect a person’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally, and researchers are close to understanding how psilocybin can help.
Psilocybin’s effects on eating disorders (ED) have been explored since the 1950s, and studies are zeroing in its ability to help us overcome treatment-resistant conditions like body dysmorphia, anorexia, or bulimia.
Most currently, researchers Elena Koning and Elisa Brietzke are exploring the ways psilocybin can treat ED by its therapeutic benefits in combating rigid thought patterns. Koning, who is a doctoral student, recently wrote about her discoveries for PsyPost, explaining the reasoning behind her research.
Koning mentioned that in the age of social media, EDs are becoming increasingly troublesome, and that new approaches to those types of disorders are needed.
A new study, “Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy as a Potential Treatment for Eating Disorders: a Narrative Review of Preliminary Evidence,” was published online ahead of print for Trends Psychiatry.
“Eating disorders (ED) are a group of potentially severe mental disorders characterized by abnormal energy balance, cognitive dysfunction and emotional distress,” researchers wrote. “Cognitive inflexibility is a major challenge to successful ED treatment and dysregulated serotonergic function has been implicated in this symptomatic dimension. Moreover, there are few effective treatment options and long-term remission of ED symptoms is difficult to achieve. There is emerging evidence for the use of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for a range of mental disorders. Psilocybin is a serotonergic psychedelic which has demonstrated therapeutic benefit to a variety of psychiatric illnesses characterized by rigid thought patterns and treatment resistance. “
EDs have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric disorders and their prevalence is on the rise. Moreover, conventional therapy often falls short. Researchers think psilocybin might be the key to overcoming treatment-resistant EDs.
“The current paper presents a narrative review of the hypothesis that psilocybin may be an effective adjunctive treatment for individuals with EDs, based on biological plausibility, transdiagnostic evidence and preliminary results. Limitations of the psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy model and proposed future directions for the application to eating behavior are also discussed,” the study abstract reads. “Although the literature to date is not sufficient to propose the incorporation of psilocybin in the treatment of disordered eating behaviors, preliminary evidence supports the need for more rigorous clinical trials as an important avenue for future investigation.”
Koning believes that psilocybin treats the underlying mechanisms behind EDs instead of looking for benefits elsewhere. She thinks this could lead to substantial breakthroughs in the treatment of EDs that can lead to death if they are left untreated.
Psilocybin’s Role in ED Therapy
Conventional treatment does not address the underlying mechanisms behind EDs. Instead, psilocybin therapy uses the psychedelic experience to improve cognitive flexibility.
A case study described a woman in 1959 with treatment-resistant anorexia nervosa. After two doses of psilocybin, the woman experienced immediate mood enhancement, increased insight into the root of her symptoms, and long-term weight resolution.
Konin explained that It increases serotonin signaling, all while reducing the activity of brain networks linked to rigid thinking patterns. She believes these changes can enhance body image, reward processing and relax beliefs, ultimately catalyzing the therapeutic process.
A small study published last July in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine arrived at similar results. In the study, researchers with the University of California, San Diego determined that therapy combined with a single dose of psilocybin was a safe and effective treatment for women with the eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health disorder characterized by a severe fear of being overweight and a distorted body image. Symptoms of the disorder include an obsession with attempting to maintain below-average body weight through starvation or compulsive excessive exercise.
In that trial, 10 women with anorexia nervosa were given a single dose of psilocybin combined with support from a therapist. Most patients tolerated the short-term effects of psilocybin well and experienced no side effects. Participants were then assessed for a period of three months after the psilocybin session.
Following treatment, most patients reported a positive experience with the drug, with 90% of participants saying that they had a more positive outlook on life and 70% saying that their general quality of life had improved. Additionally, 80% rated the experience as one of their “top five most meaningful of life.” After three months, four participants had entered remission of their symptoms.
“Psilocybin therapy, which includes psychological support by trained therapists, was found to be safe and well tolerated for the 10 participants who received treatment in this study,” the authors of the study wrote in a discussion of the research. “Most participants endorsed the treatment as highly meaningful and the experience as a positive life impact.”