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Could MDMA-Assisted Therapy Help Treat Anorexia?

Photography by D. Picard

A Toronto psychedelic therapy clinic has been selected as a trial site for a new study on MDMA-assisted therapy for eating disorders.

Can MDMA-assisted therapy help treat eating disorders, like anorexia? That’s what a new study, funded by the U.S.-based non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is looking to find out.

While the safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted therapy is still being investigated (and it is not approved by Health Canada for treatment of any mental health conditions), Ronan Levy, founder of Canadian mental wellness company Field Trip Health – the Toronto location of which has been selected as one of the trial sites for the study – points to previous trials that showed promise in the treatment for those diagnosed with PTSD: In a phase two trial conducted by MAPS, 54 percent of trial participants in the active treatment group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD after completing treatment.

It’s important to note that this is MDMA-assisted therapy, i.e. using the psychedelic molecule to enhance the work of traditional therapeutic techniques. Patients in the trial will work with therapists before, during and after the treatment.

“As with most psychedelic-assisted therapies, what MDMA does is enable people to look at their lives and see things from different perspectives,” explains Levy. “Very often, these mental health conditions are rooted in trauma or past experiences that people aren’t able to confront or process the emotions around. Psychedelics can enable people to more objectively revisit those moments.”

After using psychedelics, says Levy, there’s a period of neuroplasticity that allows for more cognitive flexibility to change their outlooks and/or habits. He likens it to an analogy Michael Pollen makes in his book, How to Change Your Mind: “Imagine two ski tracks in snow,” says Levy. “The more you ski on those tracks, the more entrenched they become, but psychedelics come along and shake the snow globe. All of a sudden you have fresh powder on top of those ski tracks to carve new paths. In very, very simplistic terms, that’s how psychedelic therapies seem to have such profoundly positive effects on treating these mental health conditions.”

There is a particular urgency in finding treatments for Anorexia Nervosa, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. “The trial is going to have significant impact on the quality of lives of number of people,” says Ronan. “It’s why we’re so excited to be participating.”