“We started our company knowing that women over 40 are more than three to four times more likely to be prescribed antidepressants than men, leading to one in five women taking an antidepressant to get through the day,” says Juan Pablo Cappello, co-founder and CEO of FDA-cleared ketamine therapy platform Nue Life, which raised $23 million in April.
Through platforms like Nue Life or at one of the hundreds of ketamine therapy clinics across the US, under the careful guidance of a trained clinician, patients can take a controlled amount of a psychoactive substance to induce an altered state of consciousness (a trip). After getting tons of airtime in recent years for its purported ability to treat PTSD, anxiety, and substance abuse, ketamine is now also being studied as an effective way to relieve symptoms of postpartum depression.
A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that in patients at high risk for postpartum depression, a single dose of ketamine given prior to anesthesia during a caesarean section could be effective in preventing it. Another ketamine therapy startup, Field Trip, is also about to start in-person Phase I clinical trials for FT-104, a psychedelic molecule similar to psilocybin but with a much shorter onset time. (Nikhita Singhal’s father, Sanjay Singhal, an entrepreneur who founded audiobooks.com, is an advisor to Field Trip.) “FT-104 has all the properties that make psilocybin so interesting and attractive from a therapeutic perspective – safety and efficacy – , but with a very short duration of action,” Ronan Levy, co-founder and CEO of Field Trip, told me. According to Levy, Field Trip’s existing pre-clinical studies signal that FT-104 leaves the body after 12 hours, meaning breastfeeding can hypothetically be resumed within 24 hours — something that will eventually be validated in human studies and one scientifically needs to be peer reviewed.
Kelsey Ramsden, the former CEO of Vancouver-based psychedelics company Mindcure (which was researching MDMA-enhanced psychotherapy to help women with a lack of sexual desire until it shut down earlier this year due to lack of funds), also says the postpartum depression market is struggling is attractive for psychedelic development as there is currently only one drug for this condition (Zulresso). Ramsden believes in part that psychedelics alleviated her own symptoms after the birth of her first child. “The change in my life experience led to recurring depressive cycles, and it wasn’t necessarily a hormonal thing that was the ongoing problem,” she says. “It was just the change in my experience as a result of becoming a mother in a society that expected me to be a certain way.” She says she tried SSRIs and traditional therapy first, but finally has stabilized after trying psychedelic assisted psychotherapy.
Ramsden believes that the entire psychedelics industry is still in its infancy. But she can imagine a culture where it’s normal for women to openly use psychedelics. If something health is working For women, she believes the good news spreads like wildfire.
Allison Feduccia, who has a PhD in neuropharmacology, believes that the best evidence for how psychedelics affect women is still mostly anecdotal. For example, there are reports that suggest peyote boosts milk production, an idea supported by preliminary research dating back to the 1970s. For years people have reported how psychedelics have altered their menstrual cycles, associating them with heavier periods, an earlier period, or alternatively, a more regular cycle. Research has shown that estrogen increases the brain’s dopamine reward pathway, so it’s also possible that a woman’s response to a particular drug may be more comfortable depending on the phase of her menstrual cycle.
Feduccia posits that psychedelics may be particularly helpful for the “rites of passage” that most women go through. “Psychedelics might offer a better perspective when you get your first period, have your first child, and then go through menopause,” she says. “I just hope that women can benefit from it [from psychedelics] without having to spend $20,000 on a guided approach.”
This guided approach is not only expensive, but also fraught with ethical concerns. Several high-profile cases of abuse in psychedelic therapy have made headlines in recent years. Richard Yensen, an unlicensed therapist who was a MAPS sub-examiner, was accused of sexually assaulting a PTSD patient during a MAPS clinical trial of MDMA. Allegations of sexual abuse have also been leveled against Aharon Grossbard and his wife Françoise Bourzat, leaders of a prominent Bay Area group that has been practicing psychedelic-assisted therapy for over 30 years.