Psilocybin has literally mushroomed. Scientific studies now echo what ancient anecdotes have stated for ages – psilocybin mushrooms can help alleviate mental health conditions. The mushrooms have recently reached the mainstream through multiple Netflix documentaries including Fantastic Fungi and How to Change Your Mind.
Due to the few to no adversary effects of psychedelics – when taken appropriately – compared to pharmaceuticals, it’s seen as a revolutionary treatment for PTSD, OCD, and addictions. And this is also the remarkable impact of psilocybin, and psychedelics in general: one single dose seems to have lasting effects.
Still, the mushrooms have faced controversy and are still banned in most countries and states. Is the taboo dissipating or not? Let’s look at what’s growing in the magic mushroom field!
What is psilocybin?
Psilocybin is a tryptamine and the active component found in over 200 species of psychoactive mushrooms – one of the most common ones is Psilocybe cubensis.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been found on all continents, and the traditional use in Central America and Mexico dates back thousands of years. The Aztecs called them teonanacatl, flesh of the Gods, and used them in religious and healing rituals. In Australia, murals depicting mushrooms have been found from 10,000 BCE.
When ingested, psilocybin is converted into psilocin, which causes the hallucinogenic and healing effects. Interestingly, in alignment with IONS mission statement, the healing effects seem to stem from increased interconnectedness in the brain, rippling out to a sense of increased interconnectedness with oneself, others, and nature.
Research on psilocybin
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act became law and prevented research on psilocybin and other psychedelics. This happened despite promising results from early studies. No studies were done until 1997, when the University of Zurich in Switzerland conducted the first study of what can be considered the psychedelic renaissance.
And the results seem mind-blowing – in particular since one or a few doses can give long-lasting effects. In a John Hopkins University study from 2016, psilocybin treatment showed to be 4 times more effective than antidepressants in alleviating anxiety and depression for people with terminal cancer. Two psilocybin doses were given together with psychotherapy.
Psilocybin has also shown to have effect on treatment-resistant depression. Another 2016 study was conducted on treatment-resistant depression. Even there, people saw lasting results 3 months after taking psilocybin. A study from the following year, including brain scans (fMRI), showed structural changes in the brain post-psilocybin, suggesting a “reset” mechanism.
The lasting effects seem to occur thanks to the increased interconnection in the brain, which – among other things – helps process emotions. As the brain becomes more malleable, it’s literally easier to let go of painful memories and limiting beliefs that may have been present for a lifetime.
Psilocybin is reported to guide users to the root cause of mental health conditions rather than masking the symptoms. Since nearly one in five adults experience mental illness (USA, 2020), something with little side effects, lasting results, and that seem to work where everything else has failed should at least be considered worth exploring.
And you don’t have to go on a full journey to harness the benefits: microdosing, or taking a sub-perceptual quantity of a psychedelic compound, has boomed among Silicon Valley techies and exhausted toddler parents alike. A microdosing experience does not take you on a psychedelic trip, but users report benefits like reduced anxiety and depression and increased creativity and focus.
There’s little research done on the topic of microdosing. Currently, the world’s first controlled microdosing experiment is being conducted by the company Wake Network.
How does psilocybin work?
Chemically, psilocybin belongs to a class of compounds called tryptamines which interact with the serotonergic system (mainly the 5-HT2A receptors).
While the exact mechanisms are unknown, psilocybin is believed to alter the brain’s default mode network, which connects different regions. Under the influence of the molecule, parts of the brain that are usually separated from each other enter into communication which is believed to be the cause of the reported sensations – decreased or dissolved sense of self and a feeling of oneness.
This is one of the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin: intellectually knowing that we’re all interconnected, or all one, is one thing. Directly experiencing it is another thing – and what has people report drastic shifts in consciousness and beneficial effects on mental health.
Veterans and athletes are two groups where representatives have stepped forth and shared their stories on how psilocybin helped with PTSD and brain injuries.
Traditionally, psilocybin mushrooms are used in spirituality and medicine by indigenous people. The Mazatec people in Mexico have used psilocybin for centuries. They take a holistic view of healing by considering unprocessed emotions as the cause of sickness – and use psilocybin to reconnect to the suppressed parts of themselves and release the stuck emotions.
Seen through that lens, any human experiencing emotional distress could benefit from psilocybin mushrooms – in micro or macro doses.
Psilocybin mushrooms are predicted to follow the footsteps of cannabis and the decriminalization and legalization that have taken place in many states.
In most states, and the world, psilocybin is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no therapeutic benefits and is highly addictive. As we have seen, research shows the opposite. Classic psychedelics (tryptamines) like psilocybin and LSD increase neuroplasticity in the brain, which helps rearrange patterns and break destructive habits. In fact, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous used LSD to break his alcohol addiction. He even considered including it in the 12-step program but excluded it due to the controversy.
And things are changing in the political landscape – perhaps due to the mental health concerns caused by the pandemic and lockdowns. In 2019, some municipalities in California decriminalized psilocybin. Oregon legalized possession of personal amounts of all drugs in 2020. In 2021, the movement Decriminalize Nature persuaded governors in six municipalities to decriminalize all plant medicines.
In Canada, psychedelic dispensaries are popping up everywhere, despite technically being illegal. It is happening due to the police having bigger fish to fry.
Although psilocybin is physically very safe – it has one of the highest safety profiles among mind-altering substances – it is a potent compound that can cause disrupting and even traumatic experiences if used mindlessly and in the wrong context. In psychedelic communities, set and setting are often mentioned, referring to the importance of the user’s mindset and mood when taking the substance and the surrounding environment.
There are some contraindications, such as schizophrenia – at least for macrodosing.
With a focus on education and harm reduction instead of criminalization, and access to safe containers, people can reap the benefits without worrying about lawsuits. Since users enter a vulnerable state where normal mental functions can be lowered, it’s important to choose a legit therapist or trusted friend.
It is crucial to see that politicians rather than scientists were behind the ban on psychedelics. In the 70s, and the turbulent times of the Vietnam War, the last thing the government wanted was rebels. The ban was thus based on concerns for civil rather than physical safety.
What the future holds
Dr. David Luke, co-founding director of the psychedelic conference Breaking Convention, suggests that psychedelics can be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology. They seem to treat the root cause and may prevent the occurrence of mental health conditions.
And the mainstream is slowly warming up – in January 2022, the National Institute on Drug Abuse hosted a conference on psychedelics as therapeutics. In 2021, they granted a $4 million award on psychedelics for tobacco abuse. Perhaps a small step for the experts – but a big step for the expansion of consciousness!
All in all, it seems like the taboo surrounding psilocybin indeed is dissipating. That said, it is paramount to consider the risks while legalizing – otherwise, negative experiences could counteract the efforts to dispel the stigma. Another important aspect is respecting and honoring the indigenous use and ensuring the usage is not reserved for a specific socioeconomic status, but is available to everyone.