“We started our company knowing that women over 40 are prescribed antidepressants at three to four times the rate of men, resulting in one in five women taking an antidepressant to get through the day,” says Juan Pablo Cappello, co-founder. and CEO of ketamine therapy platform Nue Life, which is FDA-approved and raised $23 million in April.
Through platforms like Nue Life, or at one of the hundreds of ketamine therapy clinics in the United States, patients can take a controlled amount of a psychoactive substance under the careful guidance of a trained physician to induce an altered state of consciousness (a journey). Having received tons of air time in recent years for its purported ability to treat PTSD, anxiety, and substance abuse, ketamine is also being studied as an effective way to relieve symptoms of postpartum depression.
A recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that in patients at high risk for postpartum depression, a single dose of ketamine given before anesthesia during cesarean sections could be effective in preventing it. Another ketamine therapy startup, Field Trip, is also about to begin in-person Phase I clinical trials for FT-104, a psychedelic molecule similar to psilocybin but with a much shorter travel time. (Nikhita Singhal’s father, Sanjay Singhal, an entrepreneur who started audiobooks.com, is an advisor to Field Trip.) “FT-104 has all the features that make psilocybin so interesting and attractive from a therapeutic, safety and efficacy, but with a very short duration of action,” Field Trip co-founder and executive chairman Ronan Levy told me. According to Levy, existing preclinical studies from Field Trip indicate that FT-104 will leave the body after 12 hours, meaning breastfeeding could hypothetically resume within 24 hours, which will eventually need to be validated in human trials and undergo scientific peer review.
Kelsey Ramsden, the former CEO of Vancouver-based psychedelic company Mindcure (which was researching MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to help women with a lack of sexual desire until it shut down earlier this year due to lack of funding), he also says that the postpartum depression market is attractive for psychedelic development because there is currently only one drug for the condition (Zulresso). Ramsden is a believer in part because psychedelics worked to ease her own symptoms after having her first child. “The change in my lived experience resulted in recurring depressive cycles, and it wasn’t necessarily a hormonal thing that was the constant 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 at first, but eventually got on a stable footing after trying psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Ramsden believes that the entire psychedelic industry is still in its early days. But you can imagine a culture where it’s normal for women to take psychedelic drugs openly. When something related to health works for women, she believes, good news spreads like wildfire.
Allison Feduccia, Ph.D., neuropharmacologist, believes the best evidence we have on how psychedelics affect women is still mostly anecdotal. For example, there are accounts suggesting that peyote increases milk production, an idea supported by preliminary research from the 1970s. For years, people have reported ways psychedelics have disrupted their menstrual cycles, linking them to heavier periods, a period that comes early or, alternatively, a more regular cycle. Research has shown that estrogen boosts the brain’s dopamine reward pathway, so it’s also possible that a woman’s reaction to a particular medication is more pleasant depending on the phase of her menstrual cycle.
Feduccia posits that psychedelics can be especially helpful for the “rites of passage” that most women go through. “Psychedelics might bring a better perspective when you have your first period, have your first child, and then go through menopause,” she says. “I just hope women can benefit [from psychedelics] without having to drop $20,000 for a guided approach.”
This guided approach is not only expensive, but fraught with ethical concerns. Multiple high-profile cases of abuse in psychedelic therapy have made headlines in recent years. Richard Yensen, an unlicensed therapist who was a MAPS sub-investigator, was accused of sexually assaulting a PTSD patient during a MAPS clinical trial of MDMA. Allegations of sexual abuse were also filed against Aharon Grossbard and his wife, Françoise Bourzat, leaders of a prominent Bay Area group that has practiced psychedelic-assisted therapy for more than 30 years.