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Can Psychedelics Help Treat Binge Eating Disorder?

Food– the sustenance of life. It can nourish us, heal us, free us from hunger, and give us the energy to experience this beautiful life. The act of eating can be a sacred one. One that allows us to find regeneration, rest, and often quality time with a community. 

In our modern times though, this view of food is not exactly the case for many. Although every individual has a unique relationship with food, we’ve all been subject to what ‘food’ means, through messages from our family, our culture, and the media. 

Some of us may have experienced food as a reward, or the restriction of food as a punishment. We may have been taught that there are good foods and bad foods. We may associate certain meals with specific events, memories, and feelings, based on our individual life experiences. Mom’s chicken soup may be a ‘comfort food’ for when you weren’t feeling well. 

Birthday cake may bring the promise of celebration, while oysters may remind you of a time you were trapped in the bathroom for what felt like an eternity. Whether it be cake and birthdays, oysters and illness, or food and reward, our neural pathways are constantly connecting various experiences, ideas, and concepts together in order to create a comprehensive reality for us. 

While this is an incredibly beautiful process done by our brain to help us navigate this reality, it can be damaging if these connections aren’t grounded in truth. When we’ve been immersed in one way of viewing something, or ‘tunnel vision’, it can be challenging to determine whether these views are truthful or helpful. 

Active components found in psychedelics like psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD have been known to have a consciousness-shifting, perspective-altering effect, during which one can gain a different point of view. 

Could these compounds help us explore our individual relationship to food more honestly and meaningfully? Could they mediate a transparent conversation between you and your body, within your authentic self? For many people, that answer to that is yes.

To understand how psychedelics can help us heal disordered eating and improve our relationship with food, we review and analyze the findings of relevant research studies. If any of the above interests you, read on to learn more about how psychedelics can help treat binge-eating disorder.

Understanding Eating Disorders 

With all the programming we take in about food from our media, family, and culture, it’s no wonder 9% of the population worldwide is affected by eating disorders, with 28.8 million Americans having an eating disorder in their lifetime (ANAD, 2022). 

Eating disorders are serious. They are debilitating conditions that negatively impact one’s life across many domains. In some cases, they can even take a life. “Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder” (STRIPED Harvard, 2020). There are many different ways of eating that could be considered ‘disordered’, and to receive a formal diagnosis. 

Some eating disorders (ED) exist on their own, but many individuals struggling with eating disorders can be dealing with multiple forms of disordered eating, and are often challenged with other mental health struggles. 

In fact, 55-97% of people diagnosed with an eating disorder also receive a diagnosis for at least one more psychiatric disorder, making it challenging to isolate the exact causes of EDs, as more than half overlap with other various mental health challenges (National Eating Disorders Collaboration, 2023). 

Though, in most psychological work it’s understood that for people with an eating disorder, controlling food and controlling the body is often a way of relieving stress of feeling a sense of control over their life. Therapeutic psilocybin studies are already underway for the treatment of many other control-seeking disorders such as substance abuse and OCD

With emotional regulation being the driving factor for these maladaptive behaviors, researchers believe psilocybin’s power to promote neural plasticity could catalyze the ED recovery process by reconditioning reflexive responses to environmental changes.

Most associate EDs with those who restrict their eating (anorexia nervosa) or those who purge or engage in compensatory behavior after eating (bulimia nervosa). There is another type of ED that exists outside of the typical associations of anorexia or bulimia, which has been recently recognized as a disorder and increasing in prevalence. 

This ED is known as binge eating disorder (BED), in which an individual consumes large quantities of food during ‘binges’, without the use of compensatory behaviors (like those struggling with bulimia). 

The Reality of Having a Binge Eating Disorder

Let’s get this straight, binge eating disorder (BED) is a real and serious condition. It is more than just overeating, or someone being gluttonous, and it is incredibly dangerous to dismiss this disorder as such. 

Clinically speaking, BED is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time (typically within two hours) accompanied by feelings of loss of control over eating during the episode. What does this really feel like though? 

These chronic periods of overeating are typically used as a means to cope– using food intake as an attempt to manage inner emotional imbalances. For those with BED, their world can feel like an unsafe place, and an eating disorder can provide them with a sense of safety. 

EDs can often leave people feeling trapped, feeling as if they need to maintain it in order to survive, not knowing how they could cope without it. Individuals with BED often feel embarrassed or ashamed about their eating habits and may eat in secret. 

Similar to addiction, binge eating disorder revolves around the idea of control. One feels that the substance, whether it be drugs, alcohol, or food, provides them with a sense of control over their life, that it helps them to cope. But when one is engaging with their substance of choice, they feel the opposite: absolutely powerless and out of control. 

Not only is BED filled with suffering in the moment, but over time it can lead to various physical and psychological problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and more. In many ways, it can be life-threatening.

BED is also the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting people of all racial and ethnic groups, with 2.8 million people suffering across the country. Generally speaking, those with BED experience body dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and difficulty coping with feelings. 

Traumatic events such as sexual abuse can also increase the risk of binge eating, with things like stress, poor self-image, social pressures to be thin, and the availability of preferred binge foods all being triggers for binging.

What causes binge eating disorder is much more complex than the escape the food provides. In fact, its cause lies far beyond the plate. People with BED feel as if they’re unable to sit and cope with underlying emotions. 

This causes them to see food as a way of easing their suffering. In reality, (and they often know this) binging actually makes things worse, and deepens underlying neural pathways that further fuel these addictive patterns. 

Our Culture’s Role in Food Programming

Many of the ideologies our culture holds regarding food are determined by the media, which is run by powerful, wealthy companies. ‘Big Food’ largely determines how food is advertised and what ingredients they contain. Over $14 billion is spent annually on food advertising alone in the United States, ranking ‘food and beverage’ in the top three highest spent on TV advertisements. 

And of course, in late-stage capitalism, the main goal is profit, with little to no care about the well-being of consumers. Hence, we are bombarded with images of ‘food’ coupled with the idea that a certain meal or snack can bring us happiness. 

Most foods do temporarily fulfill this illusion of happiness, as food provides satiation and evolutionarily– a sense of safety. But by creating foods so that they are full of salt, sugar, and fat (to make them taste good), dopamine receptors get lit up, stimulated, and eventually habituated.

At the same time that companies present the idea that food can make us happy, they also smother us with terms like ‘zero calories’ and ‘reduced fat’. These messages are alongside advertising from the beauty industry, selling us the idea that our bodies must be a certain way in order for us to be happy. Together, we are constantly receiving mixed messages about ‘food’, happiness, and our bodies through the media and through our society as a whole. 

In short, we’ve been socially conditioned to value the unfulfilling, some would even say brainwashed, and these messages are then reflected in how we collectively behave and relate to ourselves and the world. What could help us rewire this programming? Could psychedelics be the answer? 

How Psychedelics Can Help Treat Binge-Eating Disorders

In treating binge eating disorder, many components of the healing process are vital to ensure long-lasting, permanent, positive changes. In the following sections we note key ways in which psychedelic medicine can aid in binge eating disorder recovery.

Psychedelics Rewire Neural Pathways and Rewrite Mental Narratives 

Having binge eating disorder can be incredibly frustrating, as most notice the fallacies within their own patterns, yet experience extreme difficulty in putting their logical knowings into tangible action. To bridge the disconnect between logic and habitual thoughts and behaviors, the way we perceive must change, meaning our physical brain sees structural alterations to some capacity.

Those in recovery from BED can notice signs of healing when their automatic coping response is no longer resorting to food, but is replaced with alternative healthier ways of self-soothing. Rewiring the brain in these ways is vital for recovery, and is something that can take years of traditional therapy, and incredible amounts of continuous energy and hard work. 

While therapy is incredibly important, there is an ancient tool out there that has helped people heal for centuries in a very curious way– one that we’re just now getting back in touch with– psychedelics. Psychedelics are widely used for their dexterity in reframing mental narratives and cognitive patterns that often cloud objective decision-making with rehearsed coping/defense mechanisms.

These compounds have the power to not only diminish limiting preconceived notions in the eye of our abstract minds, but at a molecular level, they can offer such a stark experiential contrast that our literal neurons begin to interact with each other differently, 

In fact, they physically increase in length to traverse neural pathways that weren’t explored before. The ability of psychedelics to open our minds in such a way is partly due to increased connectivity within the default mode network (DMN), a grouping of interconnected brain regions responsible for our ‘default’ or standard thought patterns. 

These patterns unconsciously circulate around our brains and eventually become what we conceptualize as ourselves, our egos–the conglomerate of niche thoughts, memories, and perceptions that set the trajectory for our mind’s identity. 

Neuroimaging studies have shown that psychedelics decrease activity in the DMN, allowing for new neurological connections. Thus, the usage of psychedelics could be used to help open one’s mind to new ways of being and seeing, reframing one’s thoughts, beliefs, and behavioral patterns surrounding food in conjunction with their own emotional regulation. 

Psychedelics Treat The Root Problem

Since EDs are highly comorbid with other mental health struggles, it’s vital that one applies a holistic approach to help them heal as a complex individual, getting to the root of problems and addressing other mental health challenges, not just addressing the presenting symptoms. 

It’s recommended that those struggling with an eating disorder seek help from professionals. They can help create a plan to alleviate co-occurring disorders, and free one from the entrapment of the ED itself. Some seeking treatment for BED may be recommended to try therapies like CBT, DBT, and/or may be recommended pharmacological management in addition to this. 

Traditionally, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are often offered for treatment of BED, which interestingly enough, the way that these medications function (by altering serotonergic pathways) share similarities with the effect of various psychedelic compounds. 

Psychedelics’ serotonergic effect, meaning their ability to affect serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone) levels, has been shown to help treat many conditions that occur alongside eating disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

In fact, recent studies are finding that classic psychedelics may have transdiagnostic efficacy through several mechanisms relevant to eating disorder pathology (Gukasyan, 2022) allowing them to help alleviate the eating disorder itself.

For those with BED, treating their eating disorder along with comorbid conditions can help empower them to seek healthier coping alternatives. Please note though that if you’re on any medication, you should consult a medical professional before partaking in psychedelic use. Combining psychedelics with SSRIs & antidepressants have blunting effects, and could be potentially dangerous. 

Psychedelics Promote Acceptance & Surrender

As we’ve established, the act of eating in EDs is used as a form of control. So in order to release the ED, individuals must recognize the illusory nature of control that the ED represents, while allowing any accompanying feelings and experiences to arise. 

Letting go and allowing feelings (ideally with loving awareness) can help individuals gain the ability to navigate difficult experiences without the use of food or other substances. Psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics like LSD and MDMA, or ‘Molly’, are frequently recognized for their ability to promote acceptance of inner events. 

Often, many journeyers come to learn of a specific ironic truth through psychedelic trips– that resisting the sensations and revelations of the experience will in most, if not all cases, increase the likelihood of experiencing a bad tripIt’s only in surrendering to the natural course of the experience, that journeyers can breathe a sigh of relief and absorb the teachings of these medicines. 

This often provides the journeyer with an integrated understanding that ‘what we resist, persists’, teaching them how to let go, allowing and accepting the organic unfolding of what stands before them. Instead of running away from change, psychedelics help us to lean in, to explore new mental commutes and practice surrender–arguably the toughest opponent to our desire for control.

In addition to letting go and helping us accept what is, simply being aware of one’s experience, or mindfulness, is a key component in many BED treatment programs. Psychedelics have been shown to help improve mindfulness practices, and could potentially aid in furthering the rate and intensity to which these practices aid in relieving BED. 

The Future of Psychedelics and BED 

While there is currently limited research on the use of psychedelics for binge eating disorder specifically, these drugs have been anecdotally proven to produce a therapeutic effect on disordered eating patterns.

Their ability to help individuals gain a new perspective on their relationship with food, along with increasing mindfulness, facilitating surrender, and acting as an effective treatment for comorbid conditions, could make them a viable option for those struggling with BED. 

Future research regarding this treatment is incredibly important. As the prevalence of BED studies increases, psychedelic treatment may be able to help ease the suffering and save the lives of so many who are challenged with this disorder every day.    

Ready to Accept & Surrender? 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, our hearts truly go out to you. A toxic relationship with food can be so draining to the spirit– as if you’re at war with the very sustenance that allows us to have energy and to physically flourish on this crazy beautiful earth.

Know that at one point, all of us came into this life without any preconceived ideologies, ideas, thought or behavior patterns associated with food. As babies we had no knowledge of what a ‘happy meal’ meant, or why something would be ‘zero calories’ or ‘fat free’. We simply listened to our bodies, ate when we needed and stopped when our bodies told us to do so. 

Although the toxic thoughts you hear when living with an eating disorder (or other mental challenges) may seem deeply ingrained within, please understand that you are so much more than this. These intuitive and instinctive senses we possessed as mere infants still reside within us. 

There is hope. You are so much more than your diagnosis. You have the power to let go of these patterns that no longer serve you, and to return to that place of deep wisdom and creation– your True nature. Wherever you are on your healing journey, we want to meet you there. 

If you’re interested in the potential that psychedelics may have for helping you or a loved one, we encourage you to connect with our pre-vetted network of psychedelic facilitators by booking a consultation with us.

Feel free to explore our resources page for more informative articles like this one. We’re here to help you make informed decisions and to figure out a path that will carry you closer through intentional healing. As always, safe and mindful journeying, friends!

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