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Psychedelics may have a variety of effects that help improve sexual function, new research suggests. Image credit: Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images
  • A new study showed people who took psychedelics reported a greater enjoyment of sex, arousal, satisfaction, and attraction to their partner as well as their own attractiveness and connection.
  • While psychedelics can decrease inhibitions and make one feel more at ease during sex, there can be harmful health consequences, and mood-altering substances can affect everyone differently.
  • Experts explain there could be issues with violating boundaries and impaired judgment while high could result in getting sexually involved with someone whom they otherwise might view as a poor choice.
  • To improve sexual function without drugs or psychedelics, self-reflection and therapy, in some cases, could be helpful.

Whether it’s boosting libido, improving performance or increasing satisfaction, sexual function is an aspect of health that affects many people.

According to a new study, people who used psychedelics reported an increased enjoyment of sex, arousal, satisfaction, attraction to their partner, their own attractiveness, and their ability to connect.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers provided nearly 300 participants with a questionnaire to report their experiences before and after using psychedelics. They looked at replies from two groups — participants who took psychedelics for recreational reasons and another smaller group from a clinical trial examining psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms) for depression – in relation to how these psychedelics impacted sexual functioning.

On average, results showed improvements among various components of sexual function up to six months after using psychedelics.

“This is a very interesting paper which raises a topic that deserves more study,” said Dr. David Hellerstein, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, who was not involved in the study.

“It’s worth pointing out that the paper contains data from 2 studies: 1) a survey of people who were planning to take psychedelics such as psilocybin or LSD; and 2) a small clinical trial of people with depression who were randomly assigned to take psilocybin or an SSRI antidepressant (escitalopram),” he told Medical News Today.

The first survey was based on self-report and included people without a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. There were no formal diagnoses or assessments by trained professional staff, Dr. Hellerstein explained.

The second trial included some people who had been taken off SSRI medicines before taking psilocybin, but compared the self-reported sexual functioning among people receiving either psilocybin or escitalopram for major depression.

“The results reported in this paper are intriguing but need to be taken with a grain of salt for these and other reasons,” Dr. Hellerstein stated.

“For instance, the people taking psychedelics presumably knew what drug they were taking and there was no comparison group treated with placebo. So their expectations that psychedelics would improve sex could account for the findings described,” he told Medical News Today.

Furthermore, “In the second study comparing two treatments for major depression, it is known that SSRI medications can decrease sexual desire and functioning, so the difference found might not be a result of psilocybin treatment itself but might be only in comparison to a drug that is well known to have some sexual side effects. They could be a result of depression itself improving, not specifically a result of psilocybin. Findings, however intriguing, need to be replicated in other studies in order to be deemed as valid,” Dr. Hellerstein added.

Sexual activity affects us physically and emotionally.

“While we understand the physical part, we tend to overlook or downplay the emotional aspect of sexual activity,” said Dr. Michele Leno, a licensed psychologist and founder of DML Psychological Services, PLLC, who was also not involved in the study.

“This is not to say that everyone feels viscerally connected to sexual partners, but the thoughts and feelings that enter our brains prior to sex can influence its outcome.”

Also, sexual self-consciousness is not uncommon.

“While many substances have calming effects, some come with side effects that are not so great when it comes to sex,” Dr. Leno said. “For instance, excessive alcohol may affect ejaculation or cause fatigue. Psychedelics, on the other hand, can decrease inhibitions and make one feel more at ease, without compromising performance.”

Psychedelics have been shown to have effects such as increasing social/interpersonal connections, Dr. Hellerstein explained. Also, they may decrease self-focused worry and rumination.

They may also lead to some degree of brain ‘plasticity’ in terms of synapse growth and brain network reorganization. People also seem to become more empathic and more meditative and even spiritual after dosing with psychedelics. These effects might possibly account for the findings.

However, it is also important to note that there are extremely high levels of expectation related to psychedelic treatment. And it is extremely difficult to ‘blind’ participants to whether they are receiving psychedelic treatment or a comparator, whether an active medicine like escitalopram or placebo, Dr. Hellerstein added.

“Simply put, psychedelics take individuals into an altered state,” said Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart, Joy from Fear, Aging Joyfully and her upcoming 2024 release, The Joy of Imperfect Love, who was not involved in the study.

“Especially for those who feel that their sexual needs are not met when they are in their natural state of consciousness, psychedelics may have an inherent appeal,” she told MNT.

Although many individuals prefer to enjoy sexual—and other life experiences—in an unaltered state of being, certain people find that feel less inhibited—and more expansive—when using psychedelics, Dr. Manly noted.

On a neurobiological level, a neuroimaging study on psilocybin (a common psychedelic) revealed a pattern of decreased cerebral blood flow and functional disconnections that is similar to what is caused by the use of certain anesthetics.

Engaging in sexual activity under the influence comes with warnings.

“Even if you are familiar with your partner, you may not be aware of how they behave under the influence,” said Dr. Leno.

A substance that is intended to have a positive effect can still cause irritability and moodiness. Also, feeling too uninhibited may lead one to act impulsively only to feel regretful later, Dr. Leno explained. It is important to remember that not everyone will respond to mood-altering substances in the same way.

“Numerous substances, particularly alcohol but also psychedelics and other drugs, can affect judgment and decision-making in sexual situations. Psychedelic effects, including increased suggestibility and impaired reality testing, could put people in particularly vulnerable situations.”
— Dr. David Hellerstein

“There have been issues of boundary violations among therapists and guides for psychedelic treatment which have involved inappropriate sexual behavior. Impaired judgment while high or stoned might lead a person to get sexually involved with someone who they otherwise might view as a poor choice,” Dr. Hellerstein added.

When in an altered state, it can be easy to engage in behaviors—sexual and otherwise—that one may later regret. As well, true consent is a vital part of healthy sexual behavior, and those who are under the influence of psychedelics may not be in the state of mind where informed—actual—consent is possible, Dr. Manly explained.

“Sexual dysfunction often has an underlying cause and substances may provide a quick fix and do little for the cause,” said Leno. To boost your sexual function naturally, she recommends the following:

  • If the thought of sex makes you anxious, working on your anxiety via therapy or self-reflection may help.
  • Are you taking medication that is harmful to your libido? Consider talking with your prescriber about other options.
  • Role-play with your partner. Not everyone can quickly jump into the act, and attempting to do so may create problems.
  • What are your thoughts about sex? If sex makes you feel guilty, engaging in sexual activity may be difficult. Journaling and psychotherapy can help you gain more insight into your concerns.

“Sexual function and sexual connection can be enhanced through a variety of ways, including natural supplements, self-work, and relationship therapy,” said Dr. Manly.

“Partners who are connected intimately—those who feel a deep emotional bond—tend to have high levels of sexual satisfaction. In essence, partners who are deeply attuned to each other tend to feel the most satisfied with their sexual lives.”
— Dr. Carla Manly