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    She tried everything to overcome an eating disorder. Then, she found ‘magic’ mushrooms.

    Danielle Meinert, 31, finishing a salad. For most of her life, she had ARFID, a restrictive eating disorder.

    Danielle Meinert

    Danielle Meinert, 31, developed a restrictive eating disorder when she was two.She could only eat bread and cheese, and exposure to new foods through therapy was very distressing.Meinert tried psilocybin and now eats salads, sushi, and fruit.

    The Mediterranean diet, considered the healthiest in the world, emphasizes whole foods like fruits and vegetables with limits on red meat, sugar, white bread, and dairy.

    But some people with Avoidant /Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) can only eat ultra-processed ones. ARFID is defined by extreme aversions around food, which could stem from a fear of vomiting to disgust with certain textures.

    Danielle Meinert, 31, was one of them. As a baby, her family affectionately called her the “garbage disposal” because she would eat anything given to her. But that changed when, aged two, she underwent ear surgery because she was born mostly deaf.

    “The moment that I woke up and my parents gave me food for the first time after the surgery, they said that I didn’t eat and I refused all the food that they had given me,” Meinert told Business Insider.

    Meinert said she became afraid of most foods, and most of them read as inedible to her. The list of what she could eat was a lot shorter than what she couldn’t: various forms of bread and cheese, such as grilled cheese, buttered toast, and plain cereal.

    People with ARFID can experience severe consequences to their health, including starvation, malnourishment, and intense anxiety around eating in public.

    Meinert started going to food therapists at five years old, but it wasn’t until she tried psilocybin — the psychedelic property in “magic” mushrooms — that she felt her symptoms fade.

    A lifelong struggle with food

    Danielle Meinert eating Mexican food with ingredients that she used to find scary.

    Danielle Meinert

    When Meinert was eight and going to food therapy twice a week, her therapist brought in chicken nuggets for her to try that day.

    “There was an immediate gag reflex for me,” Meinert said. When her therapist or other adults pushed her to try the food anyway, she felt a fear set in. “It was like I was being forced to do something that my body thought would hurt me,” she said.

    She started to feel self-conscious that her food preferences stood out to people. Growing up, she coped by making jokes about herself to “try to get to the punchline faster.”

    As an adult, she would order a small side of mac and cheese at company steakhouse dinners. When that wasn’t an option, she’d find some safe food to eat alone in her hotel room later on work trips.

    Eating only gluten and dairy, she had “a stomachache pretty much all the time,” she said. “I would feel bloated and then in an hour or less, I’d be hungry again.” She took iron supplements and drank low-sugar protein shakes to compensate for the lack of vitamins she was getting.

    In 2022, she found an ARFID therapist who helped her introduce 16 new foods to her diet such as seaweed. Still, Meinert felt progress was agonizingly slow and involved “force-feeding” herself foods that scared her. She didn’t look forward to spending the rest of her life that way.

    An eating disorder treatment in ‘magic’ mushrooms?

    In 2022, Meinert watched Michael Pollan’s documentary, “How to Change Your Mind,” which explores the potential uses for psychedelics like psilocybin. Meinert wondered if psilocybin could treat her ARFID.

    While some early research suggests psilocybin can help with eating disorders like anorexia, there are no existing studies on its effects on ARFID, since ARFID itself is a fairly new term (it was only added to the DSM-5, the bible of psychiatry, in 2013).

    Meinert knew that if she was going to use psilocybin to treat her disorder, she would have to do it on her own. She spent about six weeks reading clinical trials, therapist guides, and Johns Hopkins’ research on psychedelics to compile a 12-page plan for her and her partner.

    There are some disadvantages in taking it outside a clinical setting, Dr. Natalie Gukasyan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Business Insider. Gukasyan led a pilot study of psilocybin-assisted therapy for people with anorexia nervosa, and has seen first-hand how delicate a treatment it can be.

    “Psilocybin is not without risk, and some of the more serious risks include possibly precipitating a manic or psychotic episode,” Gukasyan said. Cardiac episodes are also possible — one person in her pilot study was sent to the hospital for cardiac monitoring a week after taking her dose. Milder side effects include headaches, nausea, anxiety.

    Meinert said she felt safe trying because her family had no history of certain mood disorders and she doesn’t have any heart conditions.

    To prepare for the session, Meinert and her partner went grocery shopping, adding foods she was always afraid of like nectarines, kale salad, and “a million ingredients” for a sandwich.

    They set up their home to be as cozy as possible, cleaning the house and putting all devices on airplane mode. During the experience, she wore an eye mask and listened to a psychedelics playlist curated by Johns Hopkins researchers. Her partner sat beside her, feeding her foods she couldn’t fathom eating before, like oranges.

    Unlocking motivation to do hard things

    Danielle Meinert happily eating a range of foods after her psilocybin session.

    Danielle Meinert

    While Meinert could still hear her brain’s “protective voice” during the session, she said it became easier to tune it out. “I felt calm and I found that so hilarious because my whole life, that’s what I’d wanted,” she said. “I wanted to just try a food and be able to take a second bite and a third and to be fine with it.”

    This area of research is still in its infancy stage. Still, Gukasyan said it is promising. We are starting to understand how psilocybin helps to treat patients with complex psychiatric disorders.

    Some early psilocybin research indicates “increased cognitive flexibility” that can “reopen critical periods for learning,” she said. Plus, in her pilot study on anorexia, Gukasyan saw multiple patients experience “a big shift in perspective and renewed motivation to carry on the work of recovery.” That’s crucial, Gukasyan said. Confronting an eating disorder is tough, and requires stamina to keep doing hard things.

    After one session, Meinert resolved to try one new thing with every meal, such as eating the basil on top of a frozen pizza instead of plucking it off. Oranges, which once smelled disgusting to her, are now among her favorite foods — she could “eat a whole bag” in a day. Friends and family are shocked to see her order salads. And she always wants to have her birthday dinners at conveyor belt sushi restaurants, where she can “try so many different kinds in a short period of time.” Meinert said that she feels like she has been re-learning to eat, almost like she’s a toddler again.

    She still ended up disliking some new foods. The difference was that it was driven by personal preference, not by distress. “I don’t have to get joy from eating a raw cucumber or banana slice,” she said. “I just have to know that I can try new things.”

    While psilocybin helped Meinert, she also acknowledged that it took mental preparation and perseverance to make real changes. “I knew that psilocybin can open the door for these positive experiences,” she said. “But you’ve got to keep walking through that door every day, regardless of whatever it is you’re trying to heal in yourself.”

    Read the original article on Business Insider

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