Psychedelic Therapy Could Be Beneficial in Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder

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Key Takeaways

  • Psychedelic therapy could help treat alcohol use disorder, new research suggests.
  • Researchers found that taking psilocybin, the compound found in psychedelic mushrooms, could help reduce heavy drinking.
  • Previous research has found that psilocybin therapy could help people with addiction disorders as well as depression and anxiety.

A new study suggests that psychedelic drug therapy may help in treating alcohol use disorder.

Researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine found that two doses of psilocybin, found in psychedelic mushrooms, reduces heavy drinking by an average of 83% in people with the condition.

Ninety-three men and women took part in the study and were given either two doses of the compound or a placebo, and researchers monitored their drinking over an eight-month period. Whereas those who took the psilocybin reduced their drinking by 83%, those who took the antihistamine placebo reduced their drinking by an average of 51%.

David Golding, recovery coach and founder of Sober Lifestyle Coaching LLC

The recent trial, although positive, would have to be compared to decades of success for millions of alcoholics who have entirely recovered using an abstinence program such as AA.

— David Golding, recovery coach and founder of Sober Lifestyle Coaching LLC

“Our findings strongly suggest that psilocybin therapy is a promising means of treating alcohol use disorder, a complex disease that has proven notoriously difficult to manage,” said Michael Bogenschutz, MD, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine and senior author of the study in a press release.

Discussing the study, David Nutt, DM, the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, describes it as “an important follow-up to Bogenshutz’s previous open-label study with psilocybin.

“In the present study, they use a stronger randomized controlled trial design with active placebo and confirm the efficacy of psilocybin treatment in what is a difficult to treat disorder – a landmark piece of research,” he continues. 

What We Know About the Role of Psychedelics in Therapy

As well as Dr. Bogenschutz’s previous research on psilocybin and alcohol use disorder, other studies have suggested that psilocybin treatment could be used to help treat anxiety and depression in people with cancer, and research around psilocybin treatment for tobacco dependency has also been carried out. Another study found that adults who had used psilocybin at some time in their life were 30% less likely to have opioid use disorder. 

David Golding, recovery coach and founder of Sober Lifestyle Coaching LLC, explains that “these are early days for the use of psychoactive medicines in treating depression, anxiety, and even alcohol use disorder,” but that research around psychedelic substances like psilocybin has been around for a long time.

Trials were halted over half a century ago due to legislation brought in under the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. However, in the last 30 years, there’s been something of a revival in terms of human psychedelic research.

 “It is thought that the use of psychedelics somehow ‘resets’ the brain, via the impact on serotonin receptors in the brain,” explains Golding. “Serotonin is considered a natural mood regulator, and mental health conditions such as depression also have their roots directly in the areas of the brain involved in the uptake of serotonin.”

“Although the mechanism is not fully understood, there is ample evidence to suggest that psychedelics have a positive impact on the action of serotonin in the brain.”

Considering the Future of Psychedelics in Rehab and Recovery

In the US, psilocybin is federally classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, and was banned by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. However, the compound has been decriminalized in some cities.

In May 2019, Denver became the first city to do so, followed by the cities of Oakland and Santa Cruz in California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Washington, DC. There have been discussions around psilocybin therapy in Oregon, too.

Existing treatment for alcohol use disorder tends to involve a combination of medication, behavioral treatment, and support—though as Golding explains, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The treatment that comes to mind first might be the 12-step recovery program originated by Alcoholics Anonymous, which is also used to help treat other addictions, as well.

While there’s certainly potential in terms of psychedelic therapy, “the recent trial, although positive, would have to be compared to decades of success for millions of alcoholics who have entirely recovered using an abstinence program such as AA”, explains Golding. “The reduction in the percentage of heavy drinking days is not a measure of abstinence nor recovery.”

There may well be a place for psychedelic therapy in addiction treatment, but there are obstacles. More research is needed, and if psilocybin treatment is to become more widespread, its legal status would need to change more widely. 

That said, there’s definitely potential there. “A combination of clinical psychology, psilocybin, and meetings in the rooms of AA could be the best recipe?” suggests Golding. “Time will only tell.”

What This Means For You

Psychedelic therapy is just one potential treatment for addiction. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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