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Ayahuasca: Hallucinogenic drug used by indigenous Amazon tribes could help treat eating disorders, study finds

Participants reported a reduction in symptoms and a shift in attitude toward their bodies

Sarah Jones
Friday 29 September 2017 10:57 BST
The plant-based brew is used in mystical rites by indigenous Amazon tribes
The plant-based brew is used in mystical rites by indigenous Amazon tribes (AFP/Getty Images)

Drinking ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic drug, could help treat eating disorders, according to a new study.

The plant-based brew, which is used in mystical rites by indigenous Amazon tribes, has been the subject of much controversy, even being blamed for the deaths of several young tourists.

But now, doctors and scientists are researching ways the drug – which causes someone to ‘purge’ or vomit before inducing intense hallucinations - could be used to treat psychological disorders including depression and eating disorders (EDs).

The study, conducted by Laurentian University was lead by Dr Adèle Lafrance who, after studying EDs, was shocked by the high rate of drop-outs and relapses among patients.

“I was a psychologist working in eating disorders and colleagues and I were witnessing first-hand the drop-out rates, the relapse rates, even deaths, when I watched a documentary on ayahuasca in the context of addictions,” she told PsyPost.

In search of an effective treatment, Lafrance wondered whether ayahuasca could help with EDs and decided to interview 16 people from North American who had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and also participated in at least once ayahuasca ceremony.

The interviews revealed that 11 of the participants felt their ayahuasca experience had reduced the symptoms of their ED with one describing the feeling as “like I had more distance between my behaviors and, you know the thought patterns and the triggers.”

Others even said it had reported a shift in their attitudes toward their bodies. “I really just experienced my body as a gift,” another person added.

“It was, I felt that it was malnourished. I could sense that, I could sense that I was not honoring the gift.”

In addition, half of the interviewees also said they experienced reductions in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidality, and problematic substance use.

With the small study group and researchers still knowing relatively little about why ayahuasca has the effects it does, it’s too early to draw conclusions but research like this does suggest a potential path forward in the treatment for eating disorders.

“The use of ayahuasca in North America is not legal,” Lafrance added.

“It may also be inappropriate for some people based on their medical status or history. That said, our study does point to the need for more research, including fewer restrictions in order to conduct such research.”

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