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Verified by Psychology Today

The Promise of Psychedelics for Health and Health Behaviors

Beyond mental health, psychedelic benefits may extend to health and wellness.

Key points

  • Many people are aware that psychedelic substances may improve mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD.
  • Few people know about the emerging applications of psychedelics to physical health parameters such as habits and behaviors.
  • The growing list of health and health behavior psychedelic applications include addictions, eating disorders, weight loss, and resilience.

Psychedelics represent the most promising new development in the fields of psychology and psychiatry for the treatment of depression and posttraumatic stress disorders. In just one of several new trials, for example, a 2021 study testing a psychedelic called MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) against placebo (both combined with psychotherapy) showed rapid, large, and sustained reductions in PTSD and depressive symptoms (1). More than two-thirds of participants no longer met criteria for PTSD based on symptom patterns and severity, an effect considerably larger than observed with traditional psychotherapy and psychotropic trials.

Even if psychedelic treatment benefits were limited to PTSD and depression, they would offer a welcome new treatment frontier for the many patients with these conditions who do not respond to conventional psychotherapies and psychotropics. Preliminary research, however, suggests that psychedelic benefits could extend more broadly than to the treatment of mood and anxiety-related conditions. Perhaps much more broadly. An emerging subfield called behavioral psychedelics (2) — referring to the medically supervised use of psychedelics to improve parameters of health, health behaviors, and resilience — represents one of these promising extensions.

OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay

Although it needs to be stressed that psychedelic research requires caution to mitigate against misuse, adverse events, and marketing exploitation (3), the scientific promise of behavioral psychedelics is undeniable. Although we don’t know how or why certain mushroom species evolved to contain psychedelic substances capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier of humans, we are rapidly uncovering how these substances create their mind-altering effects.

Amongst the many receptors possessed by brain neurons, there are at least 15 distinct receptors for serotonin (serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in numerous functions including mood regulation). These receptors are frequently categorized into three “families” characterized by the types of biological and subjective effects we observe when chemicals bind with them. Traditional antidepressants such as Prozac, for instance, bind with the first “family” of serotonin receptors in producing their antidepressant and antianxiety effects (technically called 5-HT1A receptors). Psychedelics interact with the second “family” or 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, producing effects both similar to and substantially different from 5-HT1 receptor agonists.

Among the important latter differences often experienced by users of psychedelics under controlled conditions is the ability to unlock new paradigms for perceiving the self, others, and the environment (4). Positive changes in mood and anxiety commonly result but many patients also report experiencing liberating changes in previously rigid cognitive belief structures and behavioral habits. The potential for these paradigm shifts in conscious and unconscious brain function to facilitate improvements in health is considerable.

Some of these health-related targets of recent and ongoing behavioral psychedelic research include drug and alcohol addiction (5), eating disorders (6), smoking cessation (7), sleep (8) and weight loss (serotonin is also involved in appetite regulation (9). Based on this interventional research — along with parallel advances in psychedelic laboratory research to advance the understanding of neurobiological effects — some scientists project that future psychedelic applications may include helping people make healthy habit changes in nutrition and exercise (10). With poor nutrition, inadequate physical activity, obesity, poor sleep, and emotional stress combining to contribute to the modern epidemic of metabolic diseases affecting Westernized countries, treatments that could facilitate lasting healthy behavioral changes would benefit society from the micro-level of the individual to the macro-level of hospital and government healthcare systems.

At a pace that is promising yet difficult to predict, behavioral psychedelic applications are coming. Although much of the current psychedelic research is constrained by small samples, nonrepresentative populations, and lack of controlled human trials, the early returns are favorable enough to give hope to many scientists, practitioners, and patients regarding treatment options in the years ahead.

References

1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-021-01336-3

2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.821208

3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.727050

4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.724606

5. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881119845793

6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00043

7. https://doi.org/10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135

8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059712318762735

9. doi: 10.3390/molecules23112880

10. https://doi.org/10.1177/02698811211008554

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