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July 31, 2023

Psychedelic mushrooms may be helpful treating people with anorexia, clinical trials show

The number of potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin is increasing, and more states, including New Jersey, are considering bills to legalize it for medicinal purposes

For many who struggle with eating disorders, relief may soon come from an unexpected source: magic mushrooms.

In a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, psilocybin mushrooms were shown to have therapeutic benefits for female anorexia patients, new research published in Nature Medicine shows. For the study, conducted by the University of California, San Diego's Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Center, 10 women diagnosed with anorexia were given 25 milligrams of psilocybin, along with psychological support.

After three months of the psychedelic treatment, 40% of the women saw a "statistically significant" reduction in anorexia symptoms. Participants in the trial also reported having less concerns about their body shape and weight after being treated with psilocybin.

Study participants said the psilocybin treatment had positive effects of their mental and physical conditions, with a particularly striking impact on their mental outlook. Overall, participants felt very good about the treatment, with 80% identifying it as one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives and 70% saying it sparked a shift in identity and overall quality of life. Nearly all of them – a full 90% – reported feeling more positive about life endeavors after taking psilocybin.

"I think it looks very promising," said Dr. Jason Wallach, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at St. Joseph's University who works on developing new psychedelic drugs at the school's Discovery Center. Wallach was not involved in the UC San Diego anorexia research. "I believe the serotonergic psychedelics have therapeutic potential across many diagnostic boundaries via their ability to induce lasting beneficial changes in perspective, outlook, and thought processes." 

The new data come at a time when interest in psychedelics for therapeutic purposes is reaching a fever pitch. After a decades-long lull due to the restrictions of U.S. federal drug policy, there has been a resurgence of research into the potential mental health benefits of psychedelic substances like psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine in the last few years. 

Increasingly, that research is yielding a mountain of evidence that psychedelics can be effective in treating various mental illnesses. A 2022 Johns Hopkins University study showing that psilocybin can alleviate symptoms of depression for up to a year is just one example from the flurry of research into psilocybin’s potential mental health benefits. Meanwhile, MDMA has been shown to be very effective in treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder, with researchers from a 2021 study published in Nature Medicine calling it “a potential breakthrough treatment” that should be researched more extensively.

This "psychedelic renaissance" in medicine has also started getting the attention of policymakers and politicians. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its first-ever guidance for psychedelic drug trials, which outlined suggested considerations for research into psychedelic substances like MDMA, LSD and psilocybin. A few days later, New Jersey lawmakers began mulling the possibility of legalizing psilocybin for the purposes of treating mental illness and addiction and held informational hearings on the subject a year after a decriminalization bill was introduced in the statehouse in Trenton. So far, only Oregon has decriminalized psilocybin for any purpose, with five other states allowing the substance in select municipalities.

While psychedelic drugs have been studied as potential treatments for anxiety, depression, PTSD and addiction, the UC San Diego findings mark the first time a clinical trial has been conducted to study the effects that psilocybin might have for people with anorexia, specifically. In addition to reporting various positive results from the initial trial, 90% of participants said that the single dose they received was not quite enough. Fortunately for them, psychedelic therapy may soon become more accessible. 

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