Eating disorders are some of the most physically dangerous mental health problems. Their rates of morbidity and mortality remain high despite traditional treatment methods. Research has shown that the ayahuasca plant could change the tide for ED treatment. In a new study, ceremony leaders lend their vital perspective on ayahuasca for eating disorders. Let’s dive in.
Many people think of the typical person with an eating disorder as female, white, young, and underweight. In reality, eating disorders affect people of every age, race, gender, and weight. And they’re remarkably deadly, with morbidity rates from eating disorders second only to opioid overdoses. Of people who suffer from an eating disorder, 26% attempt suicide.1
Despite clinical innovations and research, eating disorders remain difficult to treat. Patients tend to relapse after progress, further damaging their physical and mental health. But EDs and other treatment-resistant mental health conditions have shown promising outcomes from psychedelic treatment. Ayahuasca, an Amazonian psychedelic, has helped people reduce or terminate their eating disorders.2
Psychedelic Support is a leading educator in psychedelic therapy. We help therapists grow their client base by offering psychedelic integration. We also help connect people with licensed providers, build their network, and grow their knowledge. By following our newsletter, you can get updates on our speaker series, articles, and course right in your inbox.
The field of psychedelic medicine is constantly growing and changing. New research helps us provide better care and develop guidelines for practice. This week, we’re exploring a fascinating recent article from the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. It’s called “Getting to the Root:” Ayahuasca Ceremony Leaders’ Perspectives on Eating Disorders.3
Research like this is vital to the growing field of psychedelic therapy. Historically, indigenous leaders have not been given a voice in the discourse of entheogenic medicines. We owe indigenous people for lending their wisdom on psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine. Understanding traditional use of ayahuasca in ceremonies is one way to pay Indigenous peoples the respect they deserve and contributes to growing qualitative evidence on their cultures.
This study sought perspectives from 15 ceremony leaders with varying experience delivering ayahuasca ceremonies. Nine had a personal history of disordered eating, and one had received a clinical diagnosis in the past. Their unique theories of eating disorders and ayahuasca therapy for ED were discussed. Let’s get into the findings.
Leaders’ Theories of Eating Disorders
From their shamanic perspectives, leaders described their theories on why EDs happen and how they affect a person’s whole health. Three main theories emerged:
1. Eating Disorders are Symptomatic of an Underlying Problem
Most leaders concluded there’s no universal “root” for eating disorders. For someone to resolve their ED, they need to resolve their unique “root.” Here are leaders’ theories on where these roots originate:
- Two-thirds of leaders believe the root of EDs comes from trauma or emotional pain. Some root causes may not be personal experiences. They could come from generational trauma manifesting in family messaging and behavior around food.
- One-third of leaders believe EDs are rooted in a lack of self-love and self-worth. Under this theory, disordered eating is a way for people to express these feelings. Social norms around appearance may reinforce these behaviors as well.
- Other leaders believed that eating disorders come from a problem with a spiritual connection. Disordered eating may help these people “fill the void” when they’ve lost a connection with their higher power. Leaders pointed out that bio-medical approaches neglect this root cause.
Leaders have varying theories on where eating disorders come from. Now let’s explore their ideas about why they continue.
2. Eating Disorders Serve a Function
Check out leaders’ theories on how EDs are functional for people who experience them:
- Two-Thirds of leaders believe eating disorders help people avoid, control, or manage their overwhelming emotions.
- One-Third of leaders add that EDs may serve as a person’s attempt to heal themselves.
- Another leader had a different take. They believed people have disordered eating because they’re “striving for a better life.” They misunderstand what they’re doing and end up harming themselves.
According to these leaders, eating disorders aren’t just symptoms of a problem. They may serve as a means to an end, helping people as they try to heal and control their emotions. But what do these leaders think about the effect of eating disorders on health?
3. Eating Disorders Affect Several Aspects of Health
These ceremony leaders believe that eating disorders affect several aspects of personal health. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all at play. One-third of leaders believed that treatment for EDs should be all-encompassing, addressing all of these health aspects. Some leaders also believed that western ED management focuses too much on behavioral aspects.
Now that we’ve explored the theoretical origins, functions, and effects of EDs, let’s talk about treatment. What is ayahuasca’s mechanism of action for treating eating disorders?
Leaders’ Perspectives on Ayahuasca for Eating Disorders
Preliminary research into ayahuasca for eating disorders is promising. The mechanism of action for ayahuasca and other psychedelics remains unclear. But these leaders have theories about its mechanism of action and why it could be an effective treatment for eating disorders. Let’s talk about their ideas.
- Ayahuasca Helps Facilitate “Energetic Healing:” One-third of leaders believe ayahuasca helps people via “moving energy,” “cleaning” away the pain, and “energetic healing.” They believe this is why it’s effective for EDs and other mental health problems.
- Ayahuasca Helps People Identify, Process, and Integrate the “Root” of Their Eating Disorder: Two-thirds of leaders believe that ayahuasca helps people access the root of their ED. It allows them to access a state of “healing intelligence” by getting past people’s defense mechanisms. In this healing state, people can reintegrate trauma and release themselves from needing their eating disorder.
- Ayahuasca Promotes Holistic Healing: Half of the leaders see the ayahuasca experience as a treatment for the “whole person.” They believe it helps people by “bringing harmony” to different parts of the self, including spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects. In addition, leaders believe that ayahuasca helps people by challenging their emotions and helping them have more calming thoughts.
- Ayahuasca Enhances and Reorganizes Relationships: Two-thirds of leaders believe ayahuasca helps people to rebuild and reorganize internal relationships. These include dynamics between the self, community, a higher power, and the ED itself.
Some leaders theorize that ayahuasca helps pull people away from self-blame and push them towards self-love and compassion. Leaders noticed that after an ayahuasca experience, people tend to have a new perspective on their illness and take up more self-care behaviors.
Ceremony leaders view ayahuasca as a helpful treatment for eating disorders. People come away from their ayahuasca experience with new ways of healing, integrating, and recovering from their ED. But how do these findings contribute to the broader scope of ayahuasca research?
Treating Eating Disorders with Ayahuasca
This is the first study of its kind to explore ceremony leaders’ perspectives on ayahuasca treatment for eating disorders. Its results parallel some research findings while conflicting with other ideas in western ED treatment.
The writers of this article point out that the best treatment methods for patients may combine a biological and spiritual approach. By seeking opinions and expertise from ceremony leaders, psychedelic practitioners can take advantage of the historical use of ayahuasca as a treatment for EDs. This rising tide of knowledge can help raise all of our boats and help patients get better treatment outcomes.
Some discrepancies remain. Western medicine sees eating disorders as multifactorial mental illnesses . They may arise from genetic, environmental, and behavioral predispositions. This conflicts with ceremony leaders’ perceptions of the “root” causes of eating disorders. However, both theories agree that trauma contributes to risk factors for disordered eating.4 See the full article discussion in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
Psychedelic Support would like to thank Dr. Adele FaFrance and the rest of the research team for sharing their findings with us. Research like this is vital for expanding our knowledge and integrating indigenous knowledge into psychedelic medicine. We’re looking forward to more research into perspectives on these sacred medicines.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you’d love our newsletter. You’ll get fresh articles, access to our speaker series, and updates on course offerings right in your inbox. Subscribing also gets you access to our free courses page, where you can learn about harm reduction, psychedelic substance guides, and more. Subscribe below!
- Arcelus, Jon et al. “Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. A meta-analysis of 36 studies.” Archives of general psychiatry 68,7 (2011): 724-31. https://doi.org/10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74
- Lafrance A, Loizaga-Velder A, Fletcher J, Renelli M, Files N, Tupper KW. Nourishing the Spirit: Exploratory Research on Ayahuasca Experiences along the Continuum of Recovery from Eating Disorders. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2017 Nov-Dec;49(5):427-435. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2017.1361559. Epub 2017 Sep 12. PMID: 28895501.
- Williams, M., Kingston Miller, A., Loizaga-Velder, A., Files, N., & Lafrance, A. (2022). “Getting to the root”: Ayahuasca ceremony leaders’ perspectives on eating disorders. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2022.2113484
- Balasundaram P, Santhanam P. Eating Disorders. [Updated 2022 Jun 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK567717/