Magic mushrooms, those with psilocybin, are mostly known for their hallucinogenic effects, but there is also growing research that suggests they can play a role in helping with mental health. This research is still in its early stages, but it seems promising. It shows that magic mushrooms are helpful for mental health under controlled conditions.
What Are Magic Mushrooms?
Before we can get into the research and potential benefits on mental health associated with magic mushrooms, we need to understand what they are. Magic mushrooms contain psilocybin, which is a hallucinogenic compound, and they grow in certain areas of the United States, Mexico, South America, and Europe.
Understanding Psilocybin and How It Works
Psilocybin creates hallucinations by activating the brain’s serotonin receptors within the prefrontal cortex, affecting mood, perception, and cognition. It also affects receptors in other areas of the brain. The most critical brain receptor that psychedelics like psilocybin work on is the serotonin 5HT2A receptor. These receptors help tie our consciousness together with other senses. Stimulating the receptors leads to changes in how the brain processes things.
While psilocybin can cause auditory or visual hallucinations, that is not always the case. It more commonly distorts how people perceive people and objects around them.
Your gut ingests the psilocybin and then absorbs it. From there, your body turns it into psilocin. Hallucinations typically start within about a half-hour of ingestion and tend to last four to six hours. Sometimes, however, changes to thought patterns and sensory perception may last days.
The effects that you experience from magic mushrooms can vary slightly, but they tend to be similar to the effects of LSD and include changes to your perception of space and time as well as changes to feeling and mood.
Other potential effects include spiritual awakening, euphoria, peacefulness, rapidly changing emotions, depersonalization, derealisation, and visual distortion and alterations. You can also have distorted thinking, drowsiness, muscle weakness, dilated pupils, lack of coordination, nausea, confusion, paranoia, vomiting, yawning, and potentially frightening hallucinations.
The effects will vary based on your environment and your mental state.
Experts believe that people have used magic mushrooms for therapeutic effects for thousands of years. It is likely that many ancient cultures, especially in the Americas where the mushrooms grow, used them, but there is not much proof.
Magic mushrooms were not common in the Western world until the 1950s when R. Gordan Wasson and Roger Heim went to Mexico and participated in a ceremony with the Mazatec tribe. Wasson published an article in 1957, and by the 1960s, magic mushrooms were connected to hippies and counterculture. The ban on psilocybin in the United States came in the 1970s. In 2018, the FDA designated it a “breakthrough therapy,” which makes research easier and quicker.
In the United States, psilocybin is a schedule-I substance. This means that it does not have recognized medical purposes and has a high risk of abuse. Some areas, such as Denver, have decriminalized magic mushrooms.
In Canada, it is a Schedule III substance under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This means that buying or possessing it is illegal except in research or clinical trials with approval. However, the law is rarely enforced regarding magic mushrooms in Canada. It is similar to what was done with cannabis before it was legalized.
There is a promise for the legality of magic mushrooms in both countries. In the United States, the FDA gave psilocybin “breakthrough” status. In Canada, Health Canada approved research trials.
Research Into the Connection
Although research into magic mushrooms and mental health is still in the early stages, there are already some studies of note.
Professor David Nutt’s Early Research
Professor David Nutt from Imperial College London is considered a pioneer in the research into the therapeutic potential of using psychedelic drugs. In the beginning, Nutt and his team did not expect to find a connection between depression and psychedelic drugs; they studied the psychedelics because there was minimal research into them.
The connections began with Nutt’s neuroscience research. They would do imaging scans and give participants magic mushrooms during the scans to track changes. Participants would frequently feel better after the experience and even come back later, telling Nutt and his fellow researchers that the world seemed brighter, better, and nicer.
Nutt’s team also noticed that the areas of the brain that are typically responsible for depression were turned off when participants consumed psilocybin. This combined with then-current research into depression that suggested depression occurred because of over-engagement of a brain circuit.
Nutt’s research found that psilocybin disrupted the network that gets over-engaged in depression. That combination of factors led to the idea that psilocybin had the potential to help with depression. The idea was that if that network was overactive in depression, but psilocybin disrupted it, maybe psilocybin could help treat depression.
Nutt’s Focused Research
After struggling to get approval and the psychedelics (due to its illegal status and ethics concerns), Nutt’s team finally received authorization for experiments in people who had treatment-resistant depression. Nutt tested a small dose for adverse effects on the patients, and when that went fine, they gave them 25 mg for a decent trip.
Very importantly, the research always included two therapists with every person during the entire trip. The team also prepared the patients by letting them know what to expect, both good and bad.
The other important part of Nutt’s research was that the participants talked to the therapists in “integration sessions” the day following the trip. This was when they made sense of what they experienced. At this point, participants tended to experience positive effects, and even a single dose typically had positive effects after six months.
This has led to Nutt’s team wondering how psilocybin could impact other mental health conditions. They are specifically interested in OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), addiction, and anorexia, since those conditions, like depression, involve thinking that is not useful.
2016 Study and 2020 Follow Up
A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2016 was led by Stephen Ross, MD from the New York University Langone Health, and looked at the mental health effects of magic mushrooms on those with cancer. There were 29 patients involved, each receiving nine sessions of psychotherapy along with one dose of placebo or psilocybin. The groups also switched halfway through the help with controls.
The original study found that those who took the psilocybin had an immediate improvement in their depression and anxiety, which was substantial and sustained. The participants also noticed reduced cancer-related hopelessness and demoralization and improved quality of life and spiritual well-being. That 2016 study had a follow up after six and a half months. At this point, 60 to 80 percent of the participants were still experiencing less existential distress.
In 2020, researchers published another follow-up regarding the results of some participants after around three years and four and a half years after the initial treatments. Even at this point, 60 to 80 percent of participants had experienced clinically significant improvements in anxiety and depression.
While this research is promising, the study’s authors caution that these results required a psychologically-safe and controlled setting that included counselling from a mental health professional. They specifically caution that you should not expect the same results if you take magic mushrooms by yourself.
Predictions for the Future
Researchers into magic mushrooms and their ability to treat depression are optimistic that they could eventually be adopted as a potential treatment. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris has conducted and is leading more research at Imperial College London’s new Center for Psychedelic Research. According to Carhart-Harris, psychedelic therapy might become licensed within five or 10 years, although a lot of progress would need to be made before that could happen.
Given that 11.3 percent of Canadians have depression a minimum of one time in their lifetimes, there is undoubtedly a need for other treatments. This is particularly true since a 2014 study indicated that a fifth of depression cases are resistant to treatment.
It Will Have to Be Controlled
Those in favour of psilocybin’s use for treating depression and other mental health conditions stress the importance of controlled sessions. Most argue that it would be best if regulated to some extent, as guiding a trip and helping a patient make sense of it afterward is not easy. While medical professionals may be qualified, a life coach may not be, for example.
Use Caution When Using Magic Mushrooms for Mental Health
There are a few essential things to keep in mind if you decide to try magic mushrooms for your mental health. Most importantly, remember that all the research and most of the positive anecdotal evidence involves supervised use of magic mushrooms with a trained mental health professional present. Experts believe this is important, as they can help guide your trip and the overall process.
You should also remember that without the proper environment for your trip, there is a higher risk of a bad trip if you have mental health problems. It is fairly common for those with depression to have bad trips because of the traumas they are repressing.
Because of this, you should always take precautions before using magic mushrooms, including setting up a safe, comfortable space and ensuring you have a guide with you.
It is also smart to remember that if you regularly use psilocybin, you may start to become tolerant of its effects. In other words, you would need to consume more to get the same impact. Cross-tolerance can also occur, including mescaline and LSD. To avoid this, make sure to wait a few days before using psilocybin.
The good news is that psilocybin is not classified as chemically addictive.
Researchers Use Caution
The researchers investigating the connection between magic mushrooms and mental health are also being cautious with their testing. They typically exclude participants who have a family or personal history of psychotic disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. This is because of speculation that psilocybin and other psychedelics could accelerate episodes or onset.
What Typically Happens During the Research Sessions
There are some commonalities among the research into psilocybin to treat depression in terms of the setup. There are always therapists in the room with the patient, with most studies opting for two therapists. By having two therapists present, the researchers can ensure that the participant is never alone.
During the trip, the patient can be as quiet as they want, and the therapists help talk them through the experience. Instead of avoiding things that bother the patients, the therapists help them confront them in a calm manner, approaching it. Throughout the sessions, patients are encouraged not to label and describe things; instead, they should be focusing on relaxing.
How to Use Magic Mushrooms
There are several ways to consume magic mushrooms, with the most common options being turning it into tea or mixing it with food. It is common to include ingredients that help mask the mushrooms’ flavour as they are bitter. You can also buy capsules of powdered magic mushrooms or even cover them in chocolate.
What Affects Potency
Whether you are considering using magic mushrooms for recreational use or in hopes of helping your mental state, there are a few critical factors that affect their potency. It will depend on whether you have them dried or fresh, their growing conditions, the harvest period, the origin, and the species.
Dried mushrooms have about 10 times the amount of active ingredients compared to fresh mushrooms.
Magic mushrooms have the potential to help people overcome mental health issues based on a range of early research. The research indicates that the psilocybin in the mushrooms turns off the part of the brain that is overactive in depression. The caveat is that people with depression and anxiety have a higher risk of experiencing a bad trip. To get the potential positive effects of psilocybin, patients need to be with therapists during the trip and discuss it afterward. Early research shows that in those conditions, magic mushrooms can improve mental health for even years in the future.