Hallucinogenic drugs could treat eating disorders

Drinking ayahuasca may help people struggling with eating disorders to want to eat again, according to a new study.  

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic drug that has been the subject of much controversy and has been blamed for the deaths of several young tourists.

But in recent years, doctors and scientists have been researching ways to re-purpose the drug to treat psychological disorders.

Psychology professor Dr Adele Robinson interviewed 16 subjects with bulimia or anorexia, and found that ayahuasca had helped reduced the symptoms of the eating disorders for the majority of the group.  

La medicina: Ayahuasca has long been in spiritual ceremonies in several South American countries. A new study suggests that it may be useful in the treatment of eating disorders, but the psychedelic brew is still illegal in most countries

Eleven of the subjects said that the symptoms of their eating disorders were reduced after the ayahuasca ceremony, and 14 said that they felt more in control of their emotions. 

Dr Robinson, a professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ottawa, Canada, acknowledges that these findings are very much preliminary, but sees the outcomes of her study as reason for more research, and fewer legal restrictions on ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca is a psychotropic brew made from a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and one of several other vines that contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT) found in the Amazon rain forest.

Indigenous people of South America have long used the brew – called ‘la medicina,’ in some places – in spiritual ceremonies.

But tourists have been flocking to the rain forest to try it for themselves. 

The reportedly foul-tasting drink typically causes someone who has just drunk it to ‘purge’ or vomit up the drug, sometimes violently. It then induces intense hallucinations, lasting several hours.

How ayahuasca affects the brain 

In recent years, scientists and doctors have become increasingly interested in the brew’s effects.

In 2015 and 2016, a number of reviews of studies exploring the use of ayahuasca to treat everything from depression to addiction were published.

The results of these studies have been overwhelmingly positive – one reported an 82 percent reduction in symptoms of depression – and ayahuasca itself does not seem to be addictive. 

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can arise in people with distorted body images, rooted in anxiety, low self-esteem or trauma. A new study suggests that ayahuasca may be useful in reducing compulsions to binge, purge or avoid food in people with eating disorders

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can arise in people with distorted body images, rooted in anxiety, low self-esteem or trauma. A new study suggests that ayahuasca may be useful in reducing compulsions to binge, purge or avoid food in people with eating disorders

Promising though studies like Dr Robinson’s are, they are hard to draw scientific conclusions from or apply clinically. The study groups tend to be small, and ayahuasca is illegal in most places, including the US and Canada. 

Eating disorders  

There are three essential types of eating disorders: 

Those with anorexia nervosa have distorted images of their own bodies, and often will eat very little, exercise compulsively or even refuse to eat. They believe that they are too heavy, even when their weights are dangerously low.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binging and purging. People suffering from bulimia will use laxatives, self-induced vomiting or other means to try to purge themselves of food, often after eating large quantities. 

People with binge eating disorder go through periods of obsessive eating, unable to control the impulse to eat. 

Researchers still know relatively little about why ayahuasca has the effects it does and how it’s interacting with the brain. 

The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca, DMT, also exists in trace amounts in the human brain. Research suggests that it may be the metabolic waste of other neurochemicals. 

There are a number of theories on how exactly ayahuasca affects the brain. Dr Draulio Barros de Araujo, a professor at the Brain Institute at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil, presented some of his research on the topic at the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference two years ago. 

His research used magnetic resonance imaging to find that the brain’s default mode network was less active in his research subjects while they were experiencing the effects of ayahuasca. The default mode network describes the regions of the brain that connected while a person is not actively paying attention to what is going on in the outside world.

The salience network, activated during attentive moments, however, was more active, even when Dr Barros de Araujo’s team was not giving their subjects outside stimuli.

He said that this was similar to what we see happening in the brain during meditation. He also observed that an area of the brain, called the post cingulate gyrus, was less active during an ayahuasca experience. This, he said, could allow for greater openness. 

Ayahuasca may make emotional traumas easier to access 

Dr Robinson, a psychologist, does not delve into the neurochemistry of ayahuasca, but says that in her research, the brew ‘really facilitates the inner healing mechanisms that can get interrupted by one’s own psychological defenses.’

She says that eating disorders are often a way of coping and exercising control for patients that have undergone past traumas.

Her research subjects also reported similar experiences on ayahuasca to those described by people in other studies who had used it to try to overcome addiction. 

‘Addiction and eating disorders share roots in mechanisms to manage strong overwhelming emotional pain,’ Robinson says.

People who suffer from eating disorders often also struggle with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Eating disorders can also be triggered by emotional traumas, such as sexual abuse, or even the stress caused by changes, whether for better or worse.

The psychedelic experience helped both groups to ‘gain perspective that allowed them to create some distance from it.’ 

All but one of the 16 participants in the study reported improvement of their eating disorder symptoms after having done ayahuasca. The extent of their improvements varied. 

The ayahuasca vine grows in the Amazon rain forest in countries like Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador

The ayahuasca vine grows in the Amazon rain forest in countries like Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador

One subject said ‘there was an eating disorder before, there was on some level compulsivity. I came back from the ayahuasca, I didn’t [binge] for six months. There’s no struggle around food. The struggle left.’

Another said, simply, ‘it was like my brain was reprogrammed.’ 

For others, their compulsions were reduced, but less dramatically, and some eventually relapsed into their eating disorders. Half of Dr Robinson’s subject also reported reductions in their anxiety and depression symptoms.

Dr Robinson notes that ayahuasca has historically been used in South America as part of spiritual experiences. She says that spirituality is nearly nonexistent in eating disorder curriculum. 

‘Spiritual experiences can help to make meaning of challenging life situations and help [people] to feel more grounded and able to face life’s challenges,’ she says. 

She cautions that this doesn’t mean everyone struggling with an eating disorder – or anything else for that matter – should buy a plane ticket to Peru or Brazil. 

‘We don’t know yet how to create safest environment or criteria’ for who might benefit from ayahuasca,’ says Dr Robinson. 

But she’s eager to find out. 

‘We need to be cautious and considerate of how we do that, but it’s an exciting time and reason for hope for all those individuals who have not responded to traditional treatment and who are still suffering,’ Robinson says.  

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