Written by Pedro Teixeira, Director of Research at The Synthesis Institute.
Recent research shows how psychedelic experiences could improve your inclination to live a more healthy life such as maintaining a balanced diet, being physically active, and refraining from smoking, all of which contribute to physical and psychological health.
“As a result of these lessons [from psychedelic treatment for depression], there were some major lifestyle changes; nearly half of the sample reported improvements to diet, exercise, and cutting down on drinking alcohol. One [participant] described the improvement to his diet that happened after the dose as ‘life-changing’, although he was not sure how these changes came about as he did not receive direct ‘lessons’ about diet.” (Watts et al., 2017).
Psychedelics are considered powerful ‘change catalyzers’ since they often are part of episodes of deep and relatively rapid personal transformation. These changes can be wide ranging, encompassing people’s worldviews, relationships, attitudes, emotions, and habits of thought and behavior.
While psychedelics’ transformational potential has been explored in scientific studies for conditions like depression, commonly associated with excessive rumination and negative self-thoughts, as well as addictive behaviors like smoking and excessive alcohol drinking, researchers are beginning to explore whether psychedelics can also be used to assist in changing other health-related behaviors. Included are diet and nutrition (closely linked to body weight management, like under and over-eating), all types of physical activity - from light exercise like walking or yoga, all the way to vigorous sports like running, martial arts, or surfing -, meditation and other contemplative practices, even oral health and sleep-related behaviors.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Along with major depressive disorder, chronic illnesses such as cancer, type II diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases (heart disease, stroke) are the leading causes of premature mortality, individual suffering, absenteeism, and rising health care costs across nearly all societies. Importantly, many of these conditions are known to be closely related with individual behavior choices, with plenty of studies showing how good diets, regular physical activity, successful weight control, and stress management behaviors (among others) are linked to longevity, good health, and quality of life.
In other words, it is widely accepted that to prevent (and sometimes even reverse) most chronic conditions affecting today’s population health, behavior changes are almost invariably needed. Unfortunately, there is also a clear scientific consensus around the fact that, simply put, long-lasting behavior change is really hard – failed diets, high dropout rates in fitness clubs and other exercise settings, and life-long battles to manage one’s body weight are the norm in many people’s lives.
In a recent review article titled ‘Psychedelics and Health Behaviour Change’ (published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology), and featured on Lucid News, a group of researchers originating from Imperial College of London and Johns Hopkins University – two of the leading centers for psychedelic science in the world –, and led by Professor Pedro Teixeira (University of Lisbon, Director of Research at the Synthesis Institute), propose that psychedelic-assisted therapies and interventions may be more broadly beneficial than presently thought. They suggest that a continuum from positive health and wellbeing to dysfunction or disease is better apt to describe the targets of future psychedelic-assisted interventions.
The central idea is that psychedelic therapies could become applicable to a large spectrum of conditions and behaviors via transdiagnostic (i.e. shared or common) neurobiological and psychological mechanisms. In other words, underlying a wide range of psychological and behavioral problems would be the fact that people often develop rigid habits of thought, emotion and behaviour, which become too influential across their lives. The authors cite some examples, such as negative cognitive bias in depression, specific cravings in addictions, specific fears in anxiety disorders, and specific bodily beliefs in body image and eating disorders. They state that, possibly, “psychedelics afford the individual respite from weighty beliefs and thus a window of opportunity for change that can be exploited if combined with a commitment to therapeutic development”.
WHAT MECHANISMS MIGHT BE INVOLVED?
More recently, in the article ‘Does Psychedelic Therapy Have a Transdiagnostic Action and Prophylactic Potential?’, another team of researchers also argued for a transdiagnostic understanding of the future of psychedelic therapy. Kočárová and colleagues suggest that mechanisms like increased neuroplasticity, the relaxation of prior beliefs, and enhanced learning processes can lead to long-lasting changes in psychological and cognitive flexibility, and a higher capacity for mindfulness. The authors go one step further and indicate that psychedelic-assisted therapies can not only be used to treat or ameliorate existing conditions but may also possess a “prophylactic or preventative potential in mental healthcare”, precisely due to their transdiagnostic action focused on increased brain and mind plasticity.
In turn, Teixeira et al. drew on previous work using ‘self-determination theory’, a leading theory of human motivation, which has been successfully applied to different areas such as psychotherapy, health promotion, education, and work/organizations, to emphasize the potential for psychedelic experiences to increase one’s autonomous motivation for change. In this case, key mediating mechanisms (which, arguably, psychedelics could influence) are an enhanced sense of personal autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Additional mechanisms which may also be involved in this process are increases in creativity, resilience, capacity for psychological insight, and connectedness, all of which have been documented to result from psychedelic experiences (see Kočárová et al., 2021).
SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR CHANGES AFTER PSYCHEDELICS
One indication that psychedelics have the potential to help improve health behaviors is that, well… they often do. For example, in a US survey of 343 people who claimed to have stopped or reduced alcohol consumption after a psychedelic experience, 63% of the sample also endorsed ‘improved diet,’ and 55% reported ‘increased exercise’ as a result of their psychedelic experience.
Similar results were found in a study of 444 participants who claimed to have stopped or reduced cannabis, opioid or stimulant misuse after a psychedelic experience. Also, when compared to the general population, regular ayahuasca users in Spain were found to be more physically active, have a healthier diet, and show lower obesity rates.
In a different setting, considerable percentages of participants engaged in the Johns Hopkins psilocybin studies for depression and smoking cessation also reported “positive behavior changes” like more time spent in nature, taking time for oneself, prosocial behaviours such as volunteering and joining community groups, and greater engagement with art. A follow-up study showed that many of these changes (which were confirmed by participants’ family members) were maintained for several years.
Finally, in a recent survey study, microdosing psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms was associated with spontaneous improvements in meditative practice (49% of participants), exercise (49%), eating habits (36%) and sleep (29%); and with reduced use of caffeine (44%), alcohol (42%) and tobacco (21%).
Despite limitations in the current body of research, there is clearly the potential that psychedelic-assisted therapies, for instance using psilocybin, may soon be developed and evaluated with outcomes like diet, exercise, and obesity in mind, whether as treatments, or preventive measures.
There is an increasing consensus that enhanced psychological flexibility and higher brain plasticity are key mechanisms associated with the healing potential of psychedelics, namely for addiction and mental health. Whether these and maybe other processes (e.g. self-determination, connectedness) will also translate to, or even predict improvements in self-regulation and motivation to change lifestyle habits is something future research will need to address. Clearly, society would largely stand to benefit if new and more effective tools were found to fight conditions like obesity, diabetes, chronic stress, and sedentary lifestyles.