The Use of Psychedelics in Treating Sufferers of Terminal Illness

Recent research suggests that psychedelics can provide physical, emotional, and spiritual relief to terminally ill patients. Discover their therapeutic potential in this article.
The Use of Psychedelics in Treating Sufferers of Terminal Illness
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Terminal illnesses damage the physical and psychological health of patients. Indeed, chronic pain and knowing that an illness has no cure generate a strong negative impact on quality of life. Fortunately, palliative medicine has made important advances in this regard. One of the most promising treatments involves psychedelics in the treatment of terminal illnesses.

These substances, which alter cognition, perception, and the state of consciousness, can provide the necessary relief to sufferers if used properly. They won’t reverse the condition but improve the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or existential anguish that are often present in the final stages of a terminal illness.

The therapeutic potential of psychedelics

Psychedelics are psychotropic substances that induce an altered state of consciousness. While other drugs modify experience in quantitative terms (such as stimulants that speed up the body or depressants that slow it down), with psychedelics, a qualitative change is produced. This brings the sufferer closer to states similar to sleep, meditation, or a trance.

These substances have been used for healing purposes for thousands of years in various indigenous populations. Western medicine has even investigated them as an aid for different psychological disorders. Although this exploration stopped for a while, scientific interest in the subject has resurfaced in recent decades.

But, how do these substances work? Research suggests that psychedelics modify the brain on both a structural and functional level. A study conducted with animals and published in Cell Reports found that these drugs promote brain plasticity, making neurons more likely to branch out and connect with each other.

In addition, another study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that prolonged use of psychedelics is correlated with significant differences in cortical thickness in some areas of the brain.

These changes affect the areas associated with attentional processes, self-referential thinking, and internal mental processing. This explains the changes in personality reported by consumers.

For many people, psychedelics constitute a transcendental experience that generates significant changes in their emotional well-being. This is confirmed in an article published in the journal, Psychopharmacology.

Terminally ill patient receives psychedelic treatment
Although psychedelics don’t reverse the diagnosis, they alleviate symptoms of distress, anxiety, and depression.

Psychedelics and terminal illnesses

Can psychedelics help those suffering from a terminal illness? In the absence of a treatment or cure, the objective of palliative care in these cases is to preserve as much as possible the quality of life of patients and promote a dignified death. Thus, these psychotropic substances contribute in various ways.

Firstly, they’re effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening diseases. For example, a study published in BMC Psychiatry found that, even in single doses, psychedelics offer rapid and sustained reductions in symptoms in patients with terminal cancer.

This may be due to their ability to promote neuronal plasticity, as mentioned in the aforementioned Cell Report study. In addition, this study found that in cases of depression, structural transformations or atrophy are observed in the cerebral prefrontal cortex. This also occurs in anxiety, addictions, and post-traumatic stress.

Therefore, psychedelics, by promoting the growth of neurites (dendrites or axons of the neuron) prevent these processes.

A systematic review also published in Psychopharmacology suggests that psychedelics have positive effects on existential and spiritual well-being, quality of life, and acceptance in patients with terminal illnesses. These effects are achieved with few adverse reactions and no serious kinds.

How to use psychedelics for terminal illnesses

These substances have been investigated as palliative treatment in terminal diseases such as cancer, heart failure, liver failure, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), among others. There are various psychedelics that have been tested. For example, psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA. This is confirmed in an article published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

However, the few short-lived and adverse effects of these drugs can be substantial. For this reason, it’s important that they’re always administered under the supervision of a professional. They can detect whether the patient is suitable for the medication and guarantee the safety of the experience in a prepared and controlled environment.

An article written by the Center for the Advancement of Palliative Care mentions the conditions required for safe psychedelic-assisted therapies. They refer to five specific aspects:

  • Comfortable and calming physical environment.
  • Individualized evaluation of the patient.
  • Qualified accompaniment during the session.
  • Preparation to inform and foster a positive mindset.
  • Providing post-therapy counseling, so the patient can make sense of the experience.
Palliative care patient
Minimizing emotional suffering in terminally ill patients is one purpose of psychedelic treatment.

An interesting and promising alternative

All in all, the association between psychedelics and terminal illness seems promising. Although currently used primarily for research purposes, it’s likely that, in the future, they’ll be established as a helpful pathway within the field of palliative medicine.

Beyond the physical pain, it’s the emotional and spiritual suffering that most anguishes sufferers of terminal illnesses and curtails their quality of life. Therefore, the controlled and supervised use of psychedelics is an interesting alternative.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.