Psilocybin-assisted therapy may be an effective treatment for anorexia nervosa, according to the results of a small study published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine. In the study, researchers with the University of California, San Diego determined that therapy combined with a single dose of psilocybin, the primary psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, 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. Both men and women can have the disease, but it is most common in young women, with symptoms often first presenting in the mid-teens.
Anorexia is a chronic and often long-lasting condition, with treatment commonly including medical intervention to increase body weight and talk therapy to help with behavioral and self-esteem changes. The eating disorder can lead to other health complications including heart problems, bone loss and anemia, and can be fatal in some cases.
Rebecca Park, an associate professor in the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry who was not involved in the research, told Live Science that new treatments for anorexia nervosa “urgently need to be developed” because the disease “has the highest mortality of any psychiatric disorder and is notoriously costly and challenging to treat and recover from.”
Study Treated 10 Patients With Psilocybin
In a small trial of 10 women with anorexia nervosa, researchers administered 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.”
“Results suggest that psilocybin therapy is safe, tolerable and acceptable for female anorexia nervosa, which is a promising finding given physiological dangers and problems with treatment engagement,” the researchers added.
The authors of the study note that further research is needed to confirm the trial’s preliminary results. Nevertheless, the study is significant, because there is currently no medicine approved to treat anorexia nervosa available to patients with the sometimes deadly disease.
“While speculative,” Dr. Walter Kaye, senior author and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, told Live Science in an email, “it is possible that psilocybin administration may reverse altered serotonin function in anorexia nervosa and help patients develop a new perspective on their symptoms and behaviors.”
The authors noted limitations of the study, acknowledging that the research “lacked gender, racial and cultural diversity” because all 10 participants were women and nine self-identified as “white.” The exploratory study also lacked a control group of participants who took a placebo rather than psilocybin, although many researchers believe such studies are impractical for psychedelic research because of the unmistakable effects of the compounds.
Psychedelics And Mental Health
Clinical research and other studies into psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA have shown that the drugs have potential therapeutic benefits, particularly for serious mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, substance misuse disorders and anxiety. In January, a California biopharmaceutical company announced positive results from a clinical trial testing MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. Research published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2020 found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy was an effective and quick-acting treatment for a group of 24 participants with major depressive disorder. A separate study published in 2016 determined that psilocybin treatment produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.
Although the results of the recent study indicate that psilocybin was effective on some women with anorexia nervosa, Dr. Alexandra Pike, a lecturer in mental health at the University of York, noted that the effect of psilocybin was not as profound as it was in studies for other mental health conditions.
“The changes found in eating disorder symptoms were very subtle, and only appeared in a few of the many questionnaires participants completed – in contrast to more unambiguous results in disorders such as major depressive disorder,” Pike told The Independent.
“This study is a first step in showing that psilocybin may be a safe treatment for those with anorexia nervosa, but we cannot conclude from this work that it will be effective in this chronic, complex illness,” she added.