Psychedelic substances, including psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and others, may improve sexual function—even months after a psychedelic experience, according to a new study.
The findings, published on Wednesday in Nature Scientific Reports, are based largely on a survey of 261 participants both before and after taking psychedelics. Researchers from Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research then combined those responses with results of a separate clinical trial that compared psilocybin and a commonly prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) for treating depression.
Authors say it’s the first scientific study to formally explore the effects of psychedelics on sexual functioning. While anecdotal reports and and qualitative evidence suggest the substances may be beneficial, the study says, “this has never been formally tested.”
“It’s important to stress our work does not focus on what happens to sexual functioning while people are on psychedelics, and we are not talking about perceived ‘sexual performance,’” said Tommaso Barba, a PhD student at the Centre for Psychedelic Research and the lead author of the study, “but it does indicate there may be a lasting positive impact on sexual functioning after their psychedelic experience, which could potentially have impacts on psychological wellbeing.”
“Both studies and populations reported enhanced sexual functioning and satisfaction following psychedelic use.”
Authors noted that sexual dysfunction is a common symptom of mental health disorders as well as a common side effect of certain medications, such as SSRIs.
“On the surface, this type of research may seem ‘quirky,’” Barba said in a statement, “but the psychological aspects of sexual function—including how we think about our own bodies, our attraction to our partners, and our ability to connect to people intimately—are all important to psychological wellbeing in sexually active adults.”
Co-author Bruna Giribaldi said that while most studies ask whether depression treatments cause sexual dysfunction, this study attempted to go further.
“We wanted to make sure we went deeper than that and explored more aspects of sexuality that could be impacted by these treatments,” Giribaldi added. “We were interested in finding out whether psychedelics could influence people’s experiences of sexuality in a positive way, as it appeared from existing anecdotal evidence.”
The team’s analysis found that respondents typically experienced improvement in sexual function for as long as six months after a psychedelic experience, observing upticks in reported enjoyment of sex, sexual arousal, satisfaction with sex, attraction to their partners, their own physical appearance, communication and their sense of connection.
“Naturalistic use of psychedelics was associated with improvements in several facets of sexual functioning and satisfaction, including improved pleasure and communication during sex, satisfaction with one’s partner and physical appearance.”
The most striking improvements were around seeing sex as “a spiritual or sacred experience,” satisfaction with one’s own appearance and one’s partner as well as the experience of pleasure itself.
“Sexuality is a fundamental human drive. For example, we know that sexual dysfunction is linked to lower well-being in healthy adults, can impact relationship satisfaction, and is even linked to subjective happiness and ‘meaning in life,’” Barba said.
The only marker of sexual function that did not go up significantly was “importance of sex,” which could be read to mean that psychedelics did not cause hypersexuality or an excessive focus on sex.
In the clinical trial portion of the study, which compared psilocybin therapy to the SSRI escitalopram, authors found that while both treatments showed “similar reductions” in depressive symptoms, “patients treated with psilocybin reported positive changes in sexual functioning after treatment, while patients treated with escitalopram did not.”
Barba said that’s especially significant because “sexual dysfunction, often induced by antidepressants, frequently results in people stopping these medications and subsequently relapsing.”
David Erritzoe, clinical director of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, said the findings “shine more light on the far-reaching effects of psychedelics on an array of psychological functioning” but said more study is still needed, especially in light of the currently illicit nature of psychedelics.
“While the findings are indeed interesting, we are still far from a clear clinical application,” Erritzoe said in a release, “because psychedelics are yet to be integrated into the medical system. In future, we may be able to see a clinical application, but more research is needed.”
As the study itself says, “These findings highlight the need for further research utilizing more comprehensive and validated measures to fully understand the results of psychedelics on sexual functioning. However, the preliminary results do suggest that psychedelics may be a useful tool for disorders that impact sexual functioning.”
“Use of psychedelic drugs might foster an improvement in several facets of sexual functioning and satisfaction, including experienced pleasure, sexual satisfaction, communication of sexual desires and body image.”
The new study comes just a few months after a study published by the American Medical Association reported the apparent “efficacy and safety” of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of bipolar II disorder, a mental health condition often associated with debilitating and difficult-to-treat depressive episodes.
Both studies are part of a growing body of research demonstrating the potential of psilocybin and other entheogens to treat a range of mental health conditions, including PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and others.
A recently published survey of more than 1,200 patients in Canada, for example, suggested use of psilocybin can help ease psychological distress in people who had adverse experiences as children. Researchers said the psychedelic appeared to offer “particularly strong benefits to those with more severe childhood adversity.”
And in September, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University and Unlimited Sciences published findings showing an association between psilocybin use and “persisting reductions” in depression, anxiety and alcohol misuse—as well as increases in emotional regulation, spiritual wellbeing and extraversion.
A separate study from the American Medical Association (AMA) came out in August showing that people with major depression experienced “clinically significant sustained reduction” in their symptoms after just one dose of psilocybin.
As for other entheogens, a separate peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature recently found that treatment with MDMA reduced symptoms in patients with moderate to severe PTSD—results that position the substance for potential approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Another study published in August found that administering a small dose of MDMA along with psilocybin or LSD appears to reduce feelings of discomfort like guilt and fear that are sometimes side effects of consuming so-called magic mushrooms or LSD alone.
A first-of-its-kind analysis released in June, meanwhile, offered novel insights into the mechanisms through which psychedelic-assisted therapy appears to help people struggling with alcoholism.
At the federal level, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently started soliciting proposals for a series of research initiatives meant to explore how psychedelics could be used to treat drug addiction, with plans to provide $1.5 million in funding to support relevant studies.
As for other research into controlled substances and sex, a report last year in the Journal of Cannabis Research found that marijuana could also enhance sexual enjoyment, especially for women—findings authors said could help close the “orgasm inequality gap” between men and women.
A 2022 study out of Spain, meanwhile, found that young adults who smoke marijuana and drink alcohol had better orgasms and overall sexual function than their peers who abstain or use less.
An earlier 2020 study in the journal Sexual Medicine also found that women who used cannabis more often had better sex.
Numerous online surveys have reported similar positive associations between marijuana and sex. One study even found a connection between the passage of marijuana laws and increased sexual activity.
Yet another, however, cautioned that more marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean better sex. A literature review published in 2019 found that cannabis’s impact on libido may depend on dosage, with lower amounts of THC correlating with the highest levels of arousal and satisfaction. Most studies showed that marijuana has a positive effect on women’s sexual function, the study found, but too much THC can actually backfire.
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