Psychedelics show promise for treating anorexia in early trials

A single dose of psilocybin alongside psychological support had positive changes within three months in adult women.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image of an anorexic woman
Representational image of an anorexic woman


Eating disorders (ED) like bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and anorexia, are among the deadliest mental health illnesses, second only to opioid overdose. The United States is spending $64.7 billion every year on treatment, diagnosis, and well-being in relation to ED.

With over 26 percent of the global population with eating disorders attempting suicide at least once, it’s imperative that we go beyond the sporadic research for the treatment of ED.

While cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotherapy remain the most established treatments, researchers have found a psychedelic molecule called psilocybin whose single dose alongside psychological support had positive changes within three months in adult women.

Psilocybin - the 'magic drug'

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic substance obtained from certain types of mushrooms that are indigenous to tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States. These mushrooms typically contain 0.2 to 0.4 percent psilocybin.

Researchers have previously experimented with psilocybin to treat depression and anxiety. In fact, this month, Interesting Engineering reported that Australia became the first country in the world to allow psychiatrists to prescribe medicines containing psychedelic substances like MDMA and psilocybin for the treatment of certain mental health conditions.

We had also reported earlier that psilocybin has been known to aid in curing alcohol addiction.

Eating disorders affect at least 9% of the population worldwide

The study had 10 adult women with anorexia as its participants. The women were assessed for the next three months after a single dose. After the administration of psilocybin, four participants reported that their symptoms had dropped so much by the three-month check-in that they qualified for being in remission of an eating disorder. 

The US study is the first-ever data report of using psilocybin in anorexia nervosa in a clinical research trial. The researchers highlight that their study is preliminary and they call for more extensive research, but say it’s a promising finding for a deadly and difficult-to-treat illness, as per the press release.

There are 10,200 deaths taking place each year as a direct result of an eating disorder—that’s one death every 52 minutes.

Except for its limitations like not including a placebo group and a relatively small sample size, the researchers note that it paves the way for further randomized controlled trials to validate the findings.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine.

Study abstract:

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a deadly illness with no proven treatments to reverse core symptoms and no medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Novel treatments are urgently needed to improve clinical outcomes. In this open-label feasibility study, 10 adult female participants (mean body mass index 19.7 kg m−2; s.d. 3.7) who met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) criteria for AN or pAN (partial remission) were recruited to a study conducted at an academic clinical research institute. Participants received a single 25-mg dose of synthetic psilocybin in conjunction with psychological support. The primary aim was to assess safety, tolerability and feasibility at post-treatment by incidences and occurrences of adverse events (AEs) and clinically significant changes in electrocardiogram (ECG), laboratory tests, vital signs and suicidality. No clinically significant changes were observed in ECG, vital signs or suicidality. Two participants developed asymptomatic hypoglycemia at post-treatment, which resolved within 24 h. No other clinically significant changes were observed in laboratory values. All AEs were mild and transient in nature. Participants’ qualitative perceptions suggest that the treatment was acceptable for most participants. Results suggest that psilocybin therapy is safe, tolerable and acceptable for female AN, which is a promising finding given physiological dangers and problems with treatment engagement.

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