Recently, psychedelic drugs – along with other previously illicit substances – have been seeing something of a comeback in the scientific world. Their usage has been associated with better mental trauma recovery and improved outcomes in overcoming addiction; a slew of studies have been published analyzing the psychedelic experience by personality type and genre, and everyone from scientists to billionaires to entire states have been talking about the potential benefits of tripping balls.
While it ostensibly makes sense that a psychoactive substance might have some use in psychological therapies, it turns out there may be some more physical benefits of psychedelics. That’s according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, which has revealed that people who try the drugs even just once have a lower incidence of both heart disease and diabetes.
“In our previous research, we have found associations between lifetime classic psychedelic use and lower odds of being overweight or obese as well as lower odds of having hypertension in the past year, both of which are risk factors of cardiometabolic disease,” study author Otto Simonsson told PsyPost. “We therefore wanted to look specifically at the link between lifetime classic psychedelic use and cardiometabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.”
The study looked at data pulled from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-sponsored initiative, giving the researchers a healthy sample size of over 375,000 respondents. Participants were asked whether they had been told that they had heart disease or diabetes in the past year, and also to report whether they had ever – even once – used “classic” psychedelic substances such as tryptamines (DMT, ayahuasca, or psilocybin), LSD, or phenethylamines (mescaline, peyote, or San Pedro).
Even when the researchers controlled for possible confounding variables such as age, sex, ethnicity, income, education, and so on, the results were clear: lifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with nearly one-quarter lower odds of heart disease, and nearly one-eighth lower odds of diabetes, in the past year.
“[The study] indicates that classic psychedelic use might be beneficial for cardiometabolic health,” the authors wrote. “It demonstrates the need for further research to investigate potential causal pathways of classic psychedelics on cardiometabolic health (i.e., lifestyle changes, mental health benefits, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory characteristics, and affinity to specific serotonin receptor subtypes).”
While encouraging, the team caution that “there are several limitations inherent in the study design that merit consideration.” This was a cross-sectional study – that is, it considered a “snapshot” of a large population at one point in time – and that makes it impossible to infer causation. It might be that A causes B, in other words, but it could equally be true that B causes A, or that A and B just happen to occur at the same time for an unknown reason.
“The regression models controlled for several potential confounders, but the associations could have been affected by latent variables that were not included in the dataset and could not be controlled for,” explains the study. “[For instance], a common factor that predisposes respondents to classic psychedelic use might also predispose them to salubrious lifestyle behaviors associated with cardiometabolic health.”
Another important caveat is that the study relied on self-reported, rather than objectively measured, responses. There was no ability to control or even understand the meaning behind “psychedelic use” – what dose, background, frequency, and so on was left an unknown – and neither were there any such restrictions on the terms “heart disease” or “diabetes.” All this information, therefore, was at the mercy of how broadly, precisely, or well the respondents happened to interpret the questions – not to mention things like how honest they were feeling that day, or how good their memories were.
Nevertheless, the study raises some intriguing possibilities – and Simonsson believes these limitations can and should be overcome.
“The direction of causality remains unknown,” Simonsson told PsyPost. “Future trials with double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled designs are needed to establish whether classic psychedelic use may reduce the risk of cardiometabolic diseases and, if so, through which mechanisms.”