Can Psychedelic Therapy Treat Obesity?

Explore effective treatment options for obesity, including groundbreaking research into the potential of psychedelic therapy.
Treatment options for obesity. A dusty purple background with liquidy patterns. There is a larger-sizes person in a white t-shirt holding a scale, cropped to just their torso. There are also some pink psychedelic liquid patterns around the scale.
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
January 5, 2024

Everyone knows that we are getting physically bigger. Our increasing size has a detrimental effect on our health. It’s been over two decades since the US Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in how psychedelics can improve our health and potentially treat various conditions. Scientists have begun investigating whether plant medicines have the ability to help reduce obesity rates. 

This article dives into the current evidence and its limitations. It also explains the potential mechanisms involved in psychedelic therapy’s role as one of the treatment options for obesity.

Obesity in the US

Obesity in the United States is a common and serious public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States was 41.9% from 2017 to March 2020. 

Childhood obesity is also a growing issue. Approximately 19.7% (14.7 million) of children and adolescents (aged 2–19) were obese from 2017 to 2020.

Obesity Health Consequences

Obesity has far-reaching consequences for individuals and society as a whole. Health consequences associated with obesity include the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Stroke 
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Sleep apnea
  • Breathing problems
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Psychological issues such as depression and low self-esteem 

Severe obesity can reduce life expectancy.

Causes of Obesity

Some people may be genetically predisposed to obesity. However, there isn’t a single cause of obesity. There are multiple factors that can increase someone’s risk of developing the condition. These include physical, emotional, mental, and personal experiences, history, and conditions.

Lifestyle Factors Associated With Obesity

  • Diet: Excessive consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods plays a significant role.
  • Physical Activity Level: A sedentary lifestyle contributes to weight gain.
  • Sleep: Insufficient and inadequate sleep can lead to weight gain.
  • Stress: High stress levels can affect the hormones that control your hunger and satiety cues. This may make you eat more and store more fat.

Social Determinants of Health

The social determinants of health are the conditions that affect how we live and work. For instance, the availability of unhealthy foods and limited opportunities for exercise in certain communities can contribute to the risk of developing obesity.

Other causes of obesity include having certain conditions and taking medications like antidepressants and steroids) that may cause weight gain. An example of one such condition is Cushing’s disease.

Current Treatment Options for Obesity

Treatment options for obesity include lifestyle changes such as adopting a healthier diet, increasing physical activity, and behavioral therapy. There are support groups and counseling that help individuals manage emotional and mental health aspects of eating habits and behaviors. For severe cases of obesity, healthcare providers may prescribe weight-loss medications and bariatric surgery may be considered.

Despite the currently available treatment options for obesity, the growing numbers of Americans who are affected by this condition are leading to severe health and economic consequences. So can psychedelics help us get our weight back on track?

Indirect Effects of Psychedelics on Obesity

The use of psychedelics as one of the treatment options for obesity is still an emerging and largely unexplored area of research. Their role in treating obesity is not well-established. 

Most psychedelic research has focused on mental health applications. For instance, psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca have shown promise in addressing various mental health conditions. Some of these include depression, anxiety, and addiction. 

Here is some evidence that shows the potential indirect effects of psychedelics on obesity.

Psychedelics and Healthy Behaviors

Some people report that psychedelic experiences have led to shifts in mindset. These include improved self-awareness, emotional regulation, and a greater sense of well-being. 

Mental changes such as these might indirectly influence behaviors related to eating and physical activity. Those who use psychedelics may have healthier behaviors which can have a protective effect against obesity.

A study looked at classic psychedelics, health behavior, and physical health. Study participants (N = 2822) were 18 years or older and were representative of the US population. They were recruited in October 2021 through the participant recruitment platform Prolific Academic.

Measures include:

  • Substance use
  • Tobacco-related health behavior
  • Alcohol-related health behavior
  • Exercise-related health behavior
  • Diet-related health behavior
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Non-communicable disease (NCD) in the past year
  • Lifetime classic psychedelic use
  • Psychological insight from psychedelic use

The results showed that lifetime classic psychedelic users were more likely to have healthy tobacco-related and diet-related behaviors. Among those identified as psychedelic users, greater psychological insight from their psychedelic experience was found to be associated with increased exercise-related behavior and higher odds of a healthy BMI.

The study authors highlighted the following:

“Notably, one of the most consistent findings was the links between psychological insight during respondents’ most insightful classic psychedelic experience using a classic psychedelic with more healthy diet-related and exercise-related health behavior and having a healthy BMI, which are variables particularly relevant to obesity and its adverse health effects.” 

The study suggests that classic psychedelics could potentially be one of the treatment options for obesity and weight management. More research needs to focus on leveraging current treatments that use meditative practices to increase insight and self-knowledge. This needed research includes longitudinal designs and randomized controlled trials.

Read more about how Psychedelics May Help You Maintain Healthy Habits.

Psychedelics and Mental Health Improvements

Obesity is a complex condition often associated with psychological factors, including emotional eating, disordered eating, stress, and trauma. Psychedelic therapy may help individuals address these underlying issues, potentially leading to improvements in health and well-being.

Obesity is technically not considered an eating disorder; however, there is an overlap between the two conditions. Most people tend to associate eating disorders with anorexia and being underweight. That said, it’s important to understand that there are different types of these mental health disorders. It is very possible that someone who has an eating disorder may be obese. 

Learn more about the 3 Most Common Types of Eating Disorders.

Research has shown that those who are overweight are more likely to experience disordered eating behaviors. Harmful weight loss tactics such as extreme dieting and taking pills as also more likely to be used. It has been shown that dieting behavior contributes to obesity and eating disorders.

A prospective study looked at those who have an eating disorder and the effects of psychedelics on depression and well-being. Data was taken from individuals who had reported plans of taking a psychedelic substance. Among those who completed the questionnaire, 28 participants indicated they had been diagnosed with a lifetime eating disorder. 

Treatment options for obesity. A tree stump with some psilocybin mushrooms growing out of it, as well as a diagram of the molecular structure of psilocybin. There is a blurry green background, and some concentric circles in white and pink emanating from behind the stump.

Measures included depressive symptomatology and psychological well-being before and after a psychedelic experience. The Emotional Breakthrough Inventory (EBI) was used to measure acute psychedelic experiences.

Results showed significant improvements in depression and psychological well-being after psychedelic use. It also found an association between emotional breakthroughs and mental health improvements. 

The study authors concluded that psychedelic experiences can potentially support the treatment of eating disorders. Nonetheless, further studies and clinical trials need to investigate the safety and efficacy of psychedelic therapy in treating this condition.

Read about Psychedelics and Their Potential for Treating Eating Disorders.

Potential Mechanisms

There is a lack of evidence that shows a direct effect between psychedelics and obesity. However, here are some proposed mechanisms that help explain their role as one of the treatment options for obesity.

Impact on the Default Mode Network

Unhealthy habits such as poor diet and physical inactivity are the main causes of obesity. Most of us know how hard it is to start exercising and eating better. 

The effect of psychedelics on our brain’s default mode network (DMN) may potentially help us change our behavior more easily. There is potential for us to adopt healthier habits by breaking deeply rooted psychological patterns and beliefs.

Psychedelics such as psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) have been found to significantly impact the default mode network. 

The DMN—a network of interconnected brain regions—is associated with self-referential thoughts, mind-wandering, and the sense of ego or self. When the DMN is overactive, it can contribute to rumination, repetitive thinking, and patterns of thought associated with conditions like depression and anxiety.

Psychedelics work by disrupting the usual functioning of the DMN. They reduce activity in this network, which can lead to profound changes in perception, cognition, and self-awareness. 

Psychedelics can help individuals break free from repetitive and often negative psychological patterns. Disrupting the DMN, creating new neural connections, and increasing neuroplasticity provide an opportunity for introspection and personal growth. They may help individuals confront and reevaluate deep-seated psychological patterns and trauma that may be contributing to their weight issues.

Obesity and Addiction Similarities

Psychedelic therapy has been shown to help addiction. There are a number of similarities between obesity and addiction—particularly in how they affect the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Both obesity and addiction can dysregulate the brain’s reward system

Substances like drugs or alcohol trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Over time, the brain may become less responsive to dopamine. This, in turn, leads individuals to seek more of the substance to achieve the same pleasurable effect. In obesity, high-calorie, palatable foods can also activate the brain’s reward system. As a result, some individuals may overconsume these foods, seeking the pleasurable sensation they provide.

With addiction and obesity, individuals can experience strong cravings and a loss of control over their consumption. People with addiction may crave their substance of choice, finding it challenging to stop using it—even when they want to. Similarly, people with obesity may experience strong cravings for unhealthy foods and struggle to control their eating habits.

Individuals with obesity may develop a degree of tolerance similar to those who struggle with addiction. This means they may need to consume more food to experience the same level of satisfaction over time. This is similar to how drug users may need to increase their dose.

Withdrawal symptoms are commonly associated with substance addiction. Some research suggests that individuals who regularly consume high-sugar, high-fat foods may experience withdrawal-like symptoms when they try to cut back, contributing to overeating.

Both addiction and obesity can lead to decreased neuroplasticity and impaired brain structure and function.

Psilocybin on Addiction

Studies have looked at psilocybin’s potential to help with addiction in various ways. Psilocybin has a profound impact on the brain’s serotonin system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood, emotions, and various physiological functions.

When you ingest psilocybin, your body converts it into another compound called psilocin—the active form responsible for the psychedelic effects. Primarily, psilocin affects the brain’s serotonin receptors, particularly the 5-HT2A receptors.

Psilocin acts as an agonist for the 5-HT2A receptors, which means it binds to these receptors and activates them. This leads to an increase in serotonin transmission. 

Activation of 5-HT2A receptors by psilocin can alter sensory perception, leading to hallucinations, mood changes, and shifts in thought patterns. This altered state of consciousness can lead individuals to reflect on their addictive behaviors. If they are able to see them from a new perspective, they may be more open to change and break unhealthy habits.

Psilocybin may promote neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections. This can help individuals break free from established addiction-related neural pathways and develop healthier habits.

Read more about How Psychedelics Help Neurons Grow.

Some studies suggest that psilocybin can reduce cravings for substances such as nicotine or alcohol. This reduction in cravings can make it easier for individuals to quit or reduce their substance use.

Psilocybin and Obesity: Mice Models

Given the supporting evidence of psilocybin for the treatment of addiction, a mice study assessed the effects of psilocybin and changes in body weight. Five groups of male mice were fed until they became obese. They were then treated with either metformin, a high or low dose of psilocybin, or a placebo. 

Measures included body weight, high-calorie food intake, and fasting glucose levels. At the end of the intervention, a glucose tolerance test was conducted, and fat pads were dissected to measure adiposity.

The results showed that the psilocybin group was significantly associated with decreased body weight compared to the control group. The high-dose psilocybin group showed a reduced consumption of calories and less body fat in central areas.

The study authors concluded “that psilocybin has potential weight-reducing properties.”

Contrasting Perspectives: Another Study’s Findings

However, another study did not find similar results. This study looked at how psilocybin affects feeding behavior, energy metabolism, and weight loss in mice. The investigators used mice that were diet-induced obese, genetically obese, or had a binge eating disorder. 

They looked at the effect of microdosing and a single dose of psilocybin on the mice. The results showed psilocybin had no lasting changes in food intake, eating behavior, energy metabolism, or body weight. 

The researchers were surprised by their results. However, they concluded that future studies involving human subjects need to be conducted to understand the potential mechanisms. Clemmensen, one of the study authors, shared with PsyPost the following:

“Although we failed to discover major effects of psilocybin on mouse energy metabolism and behaviors associated with eating, we believe that there are nuances of the mode of action of psychedelics that cannot be appropriately captured in rodent models. Importantly, psilocybin was safe and had no adverse effects on the physiological parameters we tested in mice.” 

In summary, while there is growing interest in the potential therapeutic applications of psychedelics, more research is needed to determine their efficacy and safety in the context of treatment options for obesity. 

Anyone considering such an approach should consult with medical professionals. Psychedelic experiences can be intense and emotionally challenging. For those considering the use of psychedelics to address obesity, it’s crucial to prioritize safety and work with trained professionals.

Check Out Our Vetted Directory For Providers Near You or Online.

The legal status of psychedelics varies widely across states; their use beyond clinical or research settings can have legal implications. Please stay informed about the legal and ethical considerations related to psychedelics.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 27). Overweight & Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Spriggs, M. J., Kettner, H., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2020). Positive effects of psychedelics on depression and wellbeing scores in individuals reporting an eating disorder. Eating and Weight Disorders — Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 26.

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The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

Published by:
Author: Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. She has published in scientific journals and co-authored health research books. Her bylines include Verywell Mind, CBC Parents, Family Education, Mamamia Australia, HuffPost Canada, and CafeMom. Check out her books at Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.

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