New research shows ayahuasca has potential for healing eating disorders

published on September 12, 2017

Study participants reported a reduction and cessation of eating disorder symptoms after drinking ayahuasca.

Researchers who led study say findings promising, call for more research in therapeutic potential of ceremonial ayahuasca drinking.

Vancouver, BC [September 12, 2017] – A compelling new study suggests ayahuasca may have potential as a therapeutic intervention for difficult-to-treat eating disorders.

The study, published today in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, interviewed individuals with a diagnosed eating disorder who had also participated in ayahuasca ceremonies. Many reported a reduction and in some cases cessation of eating disorder symptoms, shifts in body perception, and other positive outcomes.

Eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are serious health conditions and among the most challenging mental disorders to treat, leading to high rates of morbidity and mortality. Previous research has found that nearly half of individuals who initially respond well to standard treatments – which could include counselling, psychotherapy, and pharmaceutical approaches such as antidepressants – eventually relapse, demonstrating an urgent need for new and innovative treatments.

“Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses. Despite our best efforts as a field, nearly half of adult women relapse within a year of treatment,” said Dr. Adèle Lafrance, lead author of the study and a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Laurentian University (Sudbury, ON). “Our research found that ayahuasca could hold promise as a potential healing tool and it may even over-ride – at least temporarily – the cognitive inflexibility often present in those afflicted. I am hopeful that given the high stakes of the illness, these insights will lead to further exploration into the possibilities for its therapeutic use.”

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant-based tea that has been used for centuries throughout the Amazon basin as a traditional indigenous folk medicine. However, because it contains trace amounts of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ayahuasca falls into the pharmacological class of drugs known as psychedelics or hallucinogens and has not been approved or even widely researched for therapeutic purposes. In the United States, it has been designated as a Schedule 1 substance. As a result, scientific studies on its healing potential have been limited.

The study authors hope these latest findings will demonstrate the need for policy changes to support further clinical research.

“Ayahuasca has a long history of use in ceremonial settings as part of traditional folk healing practices in South America. However, research into its therapeutic value for a range of illnesses — from eating disorders to substance use disorders — has been limited in part due to restrictive drug policies,” said Dr. Kenneth Tupper, senior study author and director at the BC Centre on Substance Use and adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC). “These findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating the potential physical, psychological, and public health benefits of ceremonial ayahuasca drinking, and point to the need for more focused research into this promising treatment intervention.”

The emerging scientific research on ayahuasca is part of a broader trend of renewed studies investigating the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances. This latest study adds to the growing body of research pointing to its promise in the healing of various mental health issues.

The 16 participants interviewed for this study had drunk ayahuasca in ceremonial contexts. The majority had already sought treatment in North American treatment settings prior to working with ayahuasca. After participating in ayahuasca ceremonies, they frequently reported their experiences led to reductions in eating disorders and other mental illness symptoms.

“I commend the authors for their novel and significant qualitative study that sheds new light onto a promising and powerful line of attack for these often treatment-refractory and potentially life-threatening conditions,” said Dr. Timothy Brewerton, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Medical University of South Carolina (Charleston, SC). “Their pilot study further extends the purview of psychedelic medicine as a potentially bona fide approach for eating disorders and related psychiatric disorders.”

The study, “Nourishing the Spirit: Exploratory Research on Ayahuasca Experiences along the Continuum of Recovery from Eating Disorders”, is available here:

https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2017.1361559

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For additional information or to schedule an interview, please contact:
Kevin Hollett, BCCSU
778-848-3420
khollett@cfenet.ubc.ca