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Treating Anorexia with Psychedelics

The problem with treating eating disorders is that most people who have them don’t want to change. Many people struggling with psychiatric disorders…



The problem with treating eating disorders is that most people who have them don’t want to change. Many people struggling with psychiatric disorders are desperate for help, but those with Anorexia Nervosa believe that they are fixing themselves. In actuality, they are inflicting serious harm upon themselves.

Body image issues are a huge problem, especially with young women. A study showed that over 50% of women ages 13-29 are dissatisfied with their appearance. 

Not everyone who is unhappy with how they look is going to develop an extreme eating disorder. However, a culture of women who are striving to change their appearance certainly doesn’t help. 

9% of the US will suffer from an eating disorder throughout their lifetime. In extreme cases, it can be life-threatening— resulting in over 10 thousand deaths per year in the US. Yet, there are no solutions to this issue outside of traditional talk therapy. 

Less than half of people struggling with anorexia will overcome it. Yet again, psychedelics are stepping in to treat a psychiatric condition that affects many but has no cure. This week, Compass Pathways announced positive results from a first-of-its-kind study treating Anorexia Nervosa with synthetic psilocybin (COMP 360). 

Novel Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Study

This was a phase 1 feasibility study, meaning that it only tested a small group of people. The purpose of this is to ensure that the drug has enough potential for the company to move forward with clinical trials— something that costs a great deal of money. 

In the study, 10 women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa were given one dose of 25mg of synthetic psilocybin (COMP360). Psychological support was given in conjunction with the drug.

Safety and feasibility were judged after dosing. The results ultimately showed that psilocybin is a safe treatment for people struggling with anorexia to take.

The study said about psilocybin: “When administered in a safe and therapeutic setting in conjunction with psychological support, participants can report transformative experiences characterized by profound changes in values, beliefs, and perspectives, which can lead to positive changes in subjective well-being, increased openness, and greater cognitive flexibility.”

It is this profound ability to change personal beliefs that makes psilocybin such a promising treatment for psychiatric conditions. In particular, ones rooted in false beliefs. 

One issue that may have affected the outcome of the results is the enrollment process, though this was unavoidable. Most of the participants found the clinical trial online. This means that they were extremely eager to find treatment for their anorexia. On the contrary, many of those suffering from this disorder do not. 

As for the results, eight of the ten test subjects reported that it was one of the top five most impactful experiences of their lives. This, however, is not news. A previous study shows that psychedelic trips often rank as a significant life experience. 

As for more unique data, seven of the patients reported an increase in quality of life. However, only 5 of them had a change in body weight index at the three-month follow-up, and the changes were insignificant. This statistic may increase with multiple dosings considering 90% of participants said that they thought one dosing session was not enough. 

Several studies are currently underway utilizing a multiple-dosing strategy, and they may provide more insight into the best practices for treating anorexia with psilocybin. 

Ultimately, this is just a start. More research is needed to establish just how effective this treatment is. The study did, however, show that it is safe enough for further research. 

The Future of Treating Anorexia with Psychedelics

The results of Compass Pathway’s phase 1 feasibility study show potential for treating eating disorders with psilocybin. However, with early studies like this, it is important to remember that the data is preliminary.

Trevor Steward, a senior research fellow in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, told New Atlas: “This study does not demonstrate that psilocybin therapy can be used to treat anorexia nervosa. While these results show this psilocybin therapy is safe under controlled conditions, it’s essential not to let the hype around psychedelics outpace the scientific evidence”

Though this study is early in the grand scheme of things, it is the first to show any scientific evidence for the potential of this novel treatment for a condition with essentially no treatment options. Compass is now planning a larger phase 2 study to confirm findings and further explore the benefits of treating Anorexia Nervosa with COMP360. 

The company’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Guy Goodwin, said: “People living with anorexia nervosa urgently need new options. This study shows promising preliminary evidence that COMP360 psilocybin treatment could help people living with this difficult-to-treat condition. We are now looking to investigate these findings further in our larger phase 2 study.”

There are currently two other studies underway testing psychedelics for the treatment of anorexia. 

Imperial College of London has a slightly more comprehensive study underway that is set for completion in June 2024. The study includes 21 patients and several dosing sessions instead of just one. In addition, Johns Hopkins has completed a phase 1 study, also dosing its 22 test subjects several times. The study was completed in April 2023, but the results have not been published as of yet.

The studies exploring the benefits of multiple dosings will shed some light on the best practices for treating eating disorders with psychedelics. Considering that 90% of participants in Compass’s study said that one dose was not enough, several dosings may show significantly better results. 

These three studies are certainly something to keep an eye on. There will be additional data on the efficacy of treating anorexia nervosa with psychedelics over the next few years. However, with studies still in the early stages, it will be quite a while before this treatment is (potentially) commercialized. 

Nevertheless, the biggest— and perhaps most money hungry— psychedelic company in the space is betting on this going to market. So, there must be something to it. 

Though there will not be a psychedelic treatment on the market for eating disorders any time soon, the data from this and future studies may inspire people suffering from this indication to seek treatment through the underground market, legal states such as Oregon, or overseas where it is easier to access psychedelic-assisted therapy. 

The potential of this treatment could provide hope for the millions of people suffering from an eating disorder. It also highlights a possible solution for the large percentage of young women dealing with body image issues. Though not as life-threatening as anorexia, it has a huge negative impact on the quality of life for millions of women in the US and worldwide. 

The ability of psychedelics to change personal beliefs and values offers a unique opportunity for a wide range of issues, both medical and not. Psychedelic research topics are currently expanding. Over the next few years, there will be a wealth of information and data on how psychedelics can treat psychiatric disorders and positively influence mental health and society at large. 

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