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Psychedelics Therapy More Than Just a Quick Fix

Effect of psychedelics treatment goes beyond the immediate mental health diagnosis.
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For years, medical professionals have been treating their patients with a series of drugs and therapies with limited ongoing success. So it’s no wonder that the psychedelics renaissance gaining prominence in mental health circles has definitely caught their attention.

An estimated 350 million individuals experience depression annually. It takes, on average, almost 10 years to obtain treatment after symptoms begin, and more than two-thirds of depressed individuals never receive adequate care.

Many commonly prescribed psychotropic medications, including antidepressants and antipsychotics, are associated with serious adverse effects, including weight gain, increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, neurologic disorders, and sudden cardiac death.

One study found that, in many psychiatric disorders, habits of mind and behavior, as well as beliefs, become “too precise,” meaning they are rigidly encoded and too influential. Examples include the negative cognitive bias in depression, specific cravings in addictions, specific fears in anxiety disorders, specific obsessions in obsessive compulsive disorder and specific bodily beliefs in body image disorders.

Psychedelics therapy has the promise of providing a safer avenue of ongoing holistic treatment and personal lifestyle development than traditional treatments.

While psychedelics clinical trials are still relatively small, there are more of them each year, using mostly classic psychedelics. Results have been encouraging. Some clinical trials continue to follow participants after conclusion of the trial – up to 12 months and still going – to see if the positive results continue.

But truth be told, this is still a young industry. Research and development is expensive, and there is still much to find out. Few companies have revenue to show for their work so far. And FDA approval for any psychedelic beyond ketamine is still years away.

Psychedelics therapy so far is not about taking a pill – though that is coming. It’s about a combination of psychotherapy with a psychedelic compound in a monitored set and setting that takes hours and sometimes days or even weeks to be effective.

Psychedelic compounds such as LSD, psilocybin, and DMT may not seem like obvious tools for promoting healthier living. However, plants and fungi with psychedelic potential have been used by humans for centuries, if not millennia, for holistic “healing” of body and mind. Modern psychedelics research is working on that angle as well.

The data is revealing that psychedelics for treating mental health issues can be more than just a quick fix. It becomes a larger lifestyle fix.

In a recent observational study, 380 ayahuasca users were asked about their health (including height and weight, allowing for calculation of their body mass index (BMI), and their physical activity, diet, and yoga/meditation habits).

When compared to data from the general population, results showed that ayahuasca users had a mean BMI of 22.6 kg/m2, well below the 30 kg/m2 cut-off for obesity and clearly lower than that of the general Spanish population. These users also had a high fruit and vegetable consumption (with 60-75% ingesting 3-6 servings a day of each vs. 22-48% in the general population).

In a U.S. survey of 343 people who claimed to have stopped or reduced alcohol consumption and misuse after a psychedelic experience, 63% of the participants also endorsed “improved diet,” and 55% reported “increased exercise” as a result of their psychedelic experience.

In a similar study of 444 participants who claimed to have stopped or reduced cannabis, opioid, or stimulant misuse after a psychedelic experience, 59% endorsed “improved diet” and 58% endorsed “increased exercise” as a result of their psychedelic experience.

The Johns Hopkins’ initial and follow-up studies on smoking cessation also provided evidence that participants were making other positive changes in their lives (besides reducing smoking) as they went through the psilocybin-assisted therapy program. Both studies reported significant (51%) increases in a self-reported scale titled “positive behavior changes” as people moved from baseline to the end of the treatment.

These were described further in a qualitative analysis, according to the study, which reported increases in time spent in nature, taking time for oneself, prosocial behaviors such as volunteering and joining community groups, and greater engagement with art.

A similar pattern was observed in the study of psilocybin for depression in cancer patients, from the same research group.

Although these are not health-related behaviors, results suggest psychedelics may be associated with life changes consistent with improved well-being and meaning. In support of this, a recent 4.5-year follow-up of cancer patients who underwent psilocybin-assisted therapy showed persisting increases in not just well-being/life satisfaction (reported by 86% of participants) but also in “positive behavior changes” attributed to the psilocybin experience.

In a perspective published in Frontiers in Psychiatry magazine, researchers from UCLA Health and Harvard Medical School coin the term “behavioral psychedelics” – the study of psychedelics to foster intentional changes in habits and behaviors to improve health and resilience. “Behavioral psychedelics can realize this potential by developing targeted approaches for therapeutic change that help people achieve enduring functional improvements in self-care, social connection, and family, school, and community responsibilities to help them live the life they desire,” the researchers reported.

“Studies should expand existing research to look at broader ranges of behavioral targets including diet, exercise, and other ‘wellness behaviors,’” research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology concluded.

“If psychedelic-assisted therapy is found to work through general processes, such as relaxed beliefs, psychological flexibility, and self-determined motivation, this might be used to enhance behavior change across a number of disorders and lifestyle challenges, and enhance the effects of multiple psychotherapeutic approaches. This would constitute a shift to a fuller transdiagnostic understanding of psychiatric disorders along a continuum with normative human behavior and lifestyle challenges.”

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