For people with anorexia, treatment options are few.
There are no approved eating disorder medications because none have been shown to work. And anorexia has the highest death rate of all psychiatric conditions, according to a 2020 study.
But now, a small study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, has found that the psilocybin in “magic mushrooms” can successfully treat some people with anorexia.
It was “the most important experience of my life,” said one study participant, a normally reserved 32-year-old lawyer.
“This drug almost independently altered how I felt about my body,” he said in a UCSD news release. “It was like a gift, altering my perception in a way that I’m not sure I could have done on my own.”
That kind of breakthrough is hard to achieve with standard anorexia treatments, medical experts say.
“One of the things that makes anorexia so difficult to treat is that while most people with a psychiatric illness want to get rid of it, that is not the case with this,” said Dr. Stephanie Knatz Peck, associate clinical professor at the UCSD Center for Eating Disorders, as quoted in the Daily Mail.
“People identify with their illness: they say that they love themselves more or that they feel better with anorexia. Therefore, they may refuse to return for further treatment,” added Knatz Peck, lead author of the study.
In recent years, psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, ketamine, MDMA, ayahuasca, and other compounds, both synthetic and natural, have been used successfully to treat a growing number of mental health problems.
Australia is now the first country to legalize the use of MDMA and magic mushrooms to treat PTSD and depression, and in the US, Oregon recently graduated a class of state-licensed magic mushroom guides to treat people with mental health issues.
But anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders such as bulimia have proven highly resistant to treatment and can lead to serious medical complications. In severe cases, people may require a feeding tube to ensure they have enough nutrients to maintain basic vital functions.
Counseling, including family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, can sometimes help normalize eating behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic, but people often relapse during stressful periods or triggering situations.
To test whether psilocybin is safe and tolerable among people with anorexia, the research team gathered 10 women aged 18 to 40 with the condition and gave each a single 25mg dose of psilocybin.
Participants were treated in a clinical setting with a trained therapist; the individual sessions lasted several hours each due to the long hallucinogenic trip that followed the psilocybin dose.
“I was nervous,” said a 24-year-old participant. “[I]In college I met people who took mushrooms and had bad
travel, and that really freaked me out. I always said that I would never take hallucinogens for that reason.
But he later described the session as “one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had.”
The hallucinogen caused her to review various good and bad events in her life, and “this one experience brought all of those good and bad experiences together and put them through a more meaningful lens.”
Three months after their psilocybin session, each participant reported back to the researchers: 90% said they felt more positive about life’s endeavors, and 70% reported an overall change in personal identity and quality of life.
And four participants, 40% of the sample, had substantial decreases in their standard Eating Disorders Examination (EDE) scores, low enough to qualify as in remission from an eating disorder. None of the 10 women had gained a significant amount of weight after the therapy session.
Interestingly, 90% of the participants thought that a single psilocybin dosing session was not enough. But not all experts are ready to call psilocybin a cure.
“[T]their study does not prove that psilocybin therapy can be used to treat anorexia nervosa,” Trevor Steward, a senior investigator at the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, told New Atlas.
“While these results show that this psilocybin therapy is safe under controlled conditions, it is essential not to let the hype around psychedelics outweigh the scientific evidence,” Steward added.
The researchers noted that their study had several limitations: In addition to being a small sample of just 10 participants, all were women, and nine identified as white.
Also, there was no control or placebo group, a common problem in psychedelic drug trials because people taking psychedelics know within minutes whether or not they are hallucinating.
Additional research is needed on the safety and efficacy of psilocybin mushrooms, and there are currently two ongoing clinical trials investigating psilocybin as a treatment for anorexia.