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More than 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). These conditions, which affect people of all backgrounds and ages, are on the rise. However, recent research shows that cannabis and psychedelics have a positive impact on eating disorders.
According to the NEDA, the week of February 21st is dedicated to educating the public on eating disorders — defined as psychological conditions with distrubed or abnormal eating habits — and their effects.
Typical eating disorder treatments start with a diagnosis and psychological and nutritional counseling, also according to NEDA. Other options include going to physicians, psychotherapists, dieticians, psychiatrists and additional therapists, like yoga or art.
Now, researchers have started investigating the use of psychedelics and cannabis.
Psychedelics in Eating Disorders
Studies suggest that psychedelics, including MDMA and ketamine, have many benefits in treating PTSD, anxiety and depression. Individuals with eating disorders are twice as likely to develop anxiety or depression when compared with the community as a whole, according to Beyond Blue. Due to the substance’s potential to treat such conditions, psychedelics show promise in treating a range of eating disorders.
According to Eating Disorders Research Catalogue, psychedelics function in eating disorders by disturbing the default mode network (DMN), or how the brain interacts within itself with no external factors. This includes governing self-image, memories, and preexisting beliefs and thought patterns. From the scope of eating disorders, a DMN would focus on calorie counting, over-exercising and body checking.
The more someone focuses on these thoughts, the more they’re reinforced and rewarded in the brain. Consequently, this leads individuals to engage in the behavior more often. Psychedelics’ effect on the network leads some experts to believe the substances turn off the DMN and therefore, negative self-images.
Entheogens like ayahuasca or cannabis are not the ultimate solution to curing eating disorders,. But, they may distract the brain from internal stressors by diverting the overwhelming thoughts that trigger eating disorders.
The Munchies and Stimulating Appetite
In anorexia nervosa, individuals suffer from negative self-image and the constant need to lose weight by not eating or compulsively exercising. Research shows that the appetite-stimulating properties of cannabis can help an individual act on their innate drive to eat.
For example, an International Journal of Eating Disorders study proved that giving women with anorexia Dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC, over the course of four weeks led to weight gain. Patients had increased appetites, and therefore ate more, aiding in increasing their body weight. Researchers are studying long-term effects to determine if the treatment is sustainable.
However, according to Eating Disorder Care (EDCare) — a resource for eating disorders — stimulating appetite doesn’t help overcome long-lasting issues with the disorder. This is why experts call for cannabis and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapeutic practice that aims to undo faulty thinking, avoid unhelpful learned behaviors and develop coping mechanisms. Combining cannabis and CBT can help slow down the mind, observe irrational thoughts and develop ways to overcome fears around food, the resource explains.
Dr. Tamara Pryor further explains on EDCare however, that there are concerns of potential substance abuse issues, as “eating disorders often co-occur with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD).”
When an individual uses cannabis to heal, experts recommend it be done in a controlled medical setting with a professional to monitor certain withdrawal effects like irritability and insomnia. Professionals can also help patients make important decisions like whether to use indica or sativa, and edibles or tinctures.
The Endocannabinoid System and Appetite
While one can ingest cannabinoids, our body also produces them. These compounds are known as endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids also play a huge role with eating disorders. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is composed of cannabinoids, CB1 and CB2 receptors and metabolic enzymes in the body. The ECS regulates many body processes, including appetite, to ensure a balanced and reactive body. Incorporating cannabis into the body can help stabilize the system, according to NORML.
In fact, research suggests that issues with the ECS may contribute to eating disorders. For example, a Biological Psychiatry study compared women who do and don’t suffer from eating disorders. Those who experts had diagnosed with bulimia nervosa — characterized by binge eating and bouts of purging — had an underactive ECS, highlighting an imbalance in both body and mind.
Also, according to CannaMD, CB1 and CB2 receptors control food uptake and show alterations in leptin, a hormone that controls body weight. This triggers appetite; and stimulating the ECS in this way could trigger eating, helping those with anorexia nervosa overcome a hurdle.
MDMA and Body Image
According to the Eating Disorders Research Catalogue, MDMA has conscious-altering abilities that lead to acceptance of the self and other surroundings. For example, brain images of people on MDMA highlight things like a reduced fear response. As a result, this may allow individuals to engage with overwhelming perceptions of body image without encountering stress.
Additionally, research suggests that MDMA can also raise oxytocin levels and stimulate serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Collectively, these neurotransmitters have the ability to influence mental behaviors and bodily movements to balance the mind and body, the catalogue explains.
To open more opportunities for treatment with MDMA, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) plans to conduct a study on the drug’s effects on anorexia and binge-eating disorder. It plans to determine how safe, able and effective the drug is to treat or assist in treating eating disorders. The study also aims to give caregivers support so they can serve as a better “treatment ally” for those that they take care of.
Ketamine and Treatment-Resistant Disorders
Ketamine-assisted therapy has antianxiety and antidepressant capabilities. As such, research reveals it may be beneficial for those with resistance to other drugs and treatments. This gives ketamine promising abilities to help heal treatment-resistant eating disorders, according to the Arizona Ketamine Treatment and Research Institute. As they explain, it helps individuals return to healthier eating patterns by interrupting the thoughts that the disorder produces.
Ketamine-assisted therapy can help overcome more than anxiety and depression related to eating disorders. The International OCD Federation places a link between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders. Specifically, in eating disorders, the obsessions are with body-image and food intake. Furthermore, the compulsions are the mechanisms individuals go through to control their weight, like calorie-counting, exercise or purging.
Ketamine Infusion Centers, Arizona and California-based alternative therapy centers, explains how IV ketamine infusion therapy can “break the cycle of obsessive-compulsive behavior and thoughts that are often the root cause of many eating disorders,” especially if paired with other treatments like supervised eating and therapy.
Essentially, the center describes, patients may use ketamine as a tool to break the OCD, depression and anxiety patterns of eating disorders down to restimulate healthier eating.
Ayahuasca and Dealing with Emotions
Individuals with eating disorders suffer from depression, anxiety, and accepting themselves. When individuals with eating disorders consumed ayahuasca, according to PsyPost, patients were able to appreciate their bodies more.
One Vice report featured the stories of patients with eating disorders who went through ayahuasca treatments. Each found that they had improved connections between food and body image. Additionally, they experience reduced anxiety, depression, self-harm and more.
An interview in Vice highlighted that a survivor felt “more able to be with [themself]” without shutting emotions down.
A criticism noted the purging aspect of ayahuasca. For example, vomiting and diarrhea are two eating disorder behaviors that contradict the recovery efforts of patients. Therefore, it’s important to go through treatment with a trusted clinician and talk with them after the process.
Similar to other substances, ayahuasca is not a magic cure, but rather another way to look at treatment.
Overall, experts suggest that entheogens prove promising in the treatment of eating disorders, and more specifically, the underlying issues — like body image or OCD — that trigger or contribute to such conditions. However, while psychoactive substances may be an effective alternative, it’s important to seek treatment with specialists in a medical/clinical setting.
The National Eating Disorders Association offers resources for help: call or text (800)-931-2237 or utilize their chat feature as a way to receive extra care, overcome a roadblock or start a recovery journey.