Women and Psychedelics: The Big Picture

As psychedelic research moves ahead, some have started to identify several topics of significant interest to women.

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Psychedelic research is continuing to show promising results for treating conditions like anxiety, depression, and addiction.1 But what about women when it comes to psychedelics? There are many unanswered questions about how and why some psychedelic drugs affect women differently. Also, little attention is being paid to how these compounds could provide therapeutic and life-enhancement opportunities for the challenges women face every day and throughout their entire lives. One interesting and overarching question is whether there is a uniquely female entourage effect.

Scientists don’t yet know how a woman’s physiology (both pre- and post-menopausal) may influence the pharmacology of psilocybin, LSD, and other psychedelic drugs. With research still in its early stages, it’s essential to remain aware of women-specific considerations throughout the process of studying people in general.

The study of women and psychedelics is a wide-open area. Almost nothing is known about whether psychedelics work differently in women’s bodies. The entourage effect is likely different in women due to the influence of hormones like estrogen and progesterone. More women scientists are needed in psychedelic studies to ensure female data is broken out and analyzed separately as well as totally female-focused research.

Women Have Been Underrepresented in Medical Research

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. But that doesn’t mean that mistakes and bad decisions in the past are never repeated, even if it’s a matter of life and death. Historically, studies aimed at representing the general population have failed to represent female issues adequately. From 1997 to 2001, eight out of ten prescription drugs that were withdrawn from the US market had greater health risks for women than men.

Early research on heart disease in the 1970s and 1980s focused primarily on men. One of the main reasons for this focus is the reluctance to include women because of possible risks to their future reproductive capabilities, pregnancy, and growth and development of their children. At that time, it was just easier to gather data on men and extrapolate the results to women.

In an interview with BU Today, Julie Palmer, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said,

Some [research results] do translate, but men and women have different hormones. There are many pathways affected by hormones in the body. Cardiovascular disease, in particular, and some of the cancers are affected by hormones.

For hundreds of years, many women have been told “it’s all in your head” when it comes to their health issues and therapies that don’t work. Women are unique. They have hormones that make their physiology different, and thus, what is true and effective for men does not always translate into the same potency, dose, and ultimate quality of care for women.

Limited Female-Focused Psychedelic Research

Psychedelic research studies examining women independently from men are scarce. One study from 2000 funded by the Heffter Research Institute pooled and analyzed data from three controlled studies.2 The studies examined the psychological and physiological effects of MDMA (aka 3,4-methylenedioxyemethamphetamine, ecstasy) on healthy volunteers (54 male and 20 female) who had never used the drug. The data showed that the psychoactive effects of MDMA in women were more intense than those of men, possibly due to women being more susceptible to the serotonin-releasing effects of MDMA. The effects reported included perceptual changes, thought disturbances, and the fear of loss of body control. The dose of MDMA was positively correlated with the intensity of the effects. Women also had more adverse effects and outcomes from MDMA than men.

The 2016 US Global Drug Survey found that female British clubbers were 2-3 times more likely to seek emergency treatment than men after using MDMA.3 There was also a 4-fold increase in the last three years in emergency room visits for women who had used MDMA. Researchers theorize that the cause may be related to women’s unique body chemistry. Also, it’s possible that women are more risk-averse than men overall.

In a recent interview with Chacruna.net, psychedelic research historian Erika Dyck, Ph.D. summed up what she has discovered when it comes to the recognition of female scientists in psychedelic research and its impact on the current paradigm:

My historical research suggests that women were almost always involved in the counseling sessions, recruitment, etc., but are very rarely identified in the published work. The legacy of that history continues to distort our understanding of who does the work, and what kind of work is valued.

Everyone Benefits When Women Are Involved in Research

Gender equity in science is not only a matter of justice and rights, but is crucial to producing the best research and the best care for patients.

The quote above comes from Dr. Jocalyn Clark, executive director of the journal The Lancet, in a 2019 interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Focusing on female participation on both sides of research is essential—not just as study subjects but also as researchers. Some recent research on the latter shows there is some good news for women when women scientists are involved in research work. It’s now understood that female co-authorship of research papers makes it more likely that gender-based differences in the data will be discussed.4 Dr. Clark said,

These findings corroborate discussions of how women’s participation in medical science links to research outcomes, and illustrate the mutual benefits of promoting both women’s scientific advancement and the integration of gender and sex analysis into medical research.

It’s also interesting to consider the possibility that female-focused research could improve the development and effectiveness of drugs (including psychedelic drugs) for men. Segregating women into a pool of study participants removes any physiological variables they may introduce into the data for men. This may improve the accuracy of study data for all people, subsequent drug development, and result in more positive therapeutic outcomes for all people.

Some Top Women in Psychedelics – Past and Present

So, where are the female psychonauts and psychedelic researchers? The spotlight doesn’t often fall on them these days, but they’re out there. Recognizing the unsung female psychedelic pioneers in the past who have made significant contributions in the field is important. As the new era of psychedelic research is taking shape, looking at a who’s who of women currently occupying the psychedelic space is an excellent way to come up to speed.

Here are just a few female researchers, businesswomen, therapists, and psychonauts who have influenced psychedelic research and are in the psychedelic space.

Ekaterina Malievskaia – Chief medical officer and a co-founder of COMPASS Pathways.
Amanda Feilding – Founder and executive director of the Beckley Foundation in Oxford, United Kingdom.
Julie Holland – Psychopharmacologist and author of “The Pot Book,” “Ecstasy: The Complete Guide,” and “Moody Bitches.”
Ann Shulgin – Artist, author, lay therapist, speaker, psychedelic advocate, and widow of the renowned psychedelic chemist Dr. Alexander Shulgin.
Sheri Eckert – Psychotherapist and co-founder of the Oregon Psilocybin Society and the Psilocybin Service Initiative ballot petition.
Ayelet Waldman – Lawyer, public defender, former adjunct professor at US Berkeley Law School, and author of “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life.”
Valentina Wasson – Wife of R. Gordon Wasson and the first to suggest psychedelic therapy for the dying.
Zoe Helene – Promoter of medicinal plants, founder of Cosmic Sister, and originator of the term “psychedelic feminism.”
Mabel Luhan – New York socialite in the early 1900s who was the first woman to document her experience on peyote.
• Kat Harrison – Once married to Terence McKenna, Kat is an independent scholar and ethnobotany teacher. She and her late husband founded Botanical Dimensions, a non-profit organization that collects medicinal and shamanic plants and documents their history and uses.
Maria Sabina – The first contemporary Mazatec shaman to allow Westerners to participate in psychedelic mushroom veladas. She gave R. Gordon Wasson samples of Psilocybe mexicana  from which Albert Hofmann first isolated psilocybin.

Research Overlooks Many Female-Specific Issues

Another aspect of women and psychedelics encompasses the things that make it amazing, unique, and challenging to be female. Pregnancy, menstruation, menopause, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are just a few of the life-changing events women can expect in their lives from just being women. Women’s health and mental health issues women face include ovarian and breast cancers, miscarriage, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from rape and sexual assault, postpartum depression, anxiety, and addiction. Historically, the one-size-fits-all mindset in medical research has overlooked many of these issues. The new era of medical research into the benefits of psychedelics is poised to change this paradigm by optimizing psychedelic drugs and therapies for women.

Speaking about the current state of women and psychedelics, Zoe Helene told Vice,

We’re sure as hell not going backwards. That’s not going to happen.

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