Psilocybin is the active, hallucinogenic ingredient found in certain mushrooms such as the liberty cap mushroom. You may have heard them referred to as magic mushrooms, caps, mushrooms, shrooms, psilocybin and psilocyn. The Aztecs called them “flesh of the gods.” The latin name for these mushrooms (psilocybe cubensis) roughly translates as “bald head” which sounds far less mystical and appealing than their common name, magic mushrooms.
There is no denying the mind-altering effects of magic mushrooms. However, there are growing reports which claim that these fungi actually provide certain health benefits, usually surrounding forms of mental illness, the mind or the head. Is there any scientific backing for these claims? Can magic mushrooms really help improve one’s health? In this article, we’ll look at relevant research and bring you the answers.
Uses of psilocybin
Magic mushrooms have been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies since prehistoric times and their mind-altering properties are well-documented.
Studies show that the use of psilocybin can help improve brain connectivity.
A recent study using mice showed that a low dose of psilocybin meant that the animals were not frozen by fear despite hearing the familiar noise that signified they were about to get an electric shock.
There have also been reports of magic mushrooms lifting depression, treating headaches and helping with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
According to John Hopkins University School of Medicine, those involved in their clinical trials experienced “positive changes in attitudes, mood, life satisfaction and behaviour that persist for more than a year.”
The following findings have been reported too:
- increased capacity for self-care
- increased spiritual devotion
- more empathy
- Becoming less judgemental
- better relationships
- better understanding of self and others
- spiritual insight
- improved creativity
- a deep sense of pleasure
Generally, magic mushrooms are still considered more of a recreational drug and many people believe that it is far more dangerous than drugs such as marijuana. While the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and the therapeutic benefits of cannabis oil are becoming more recognised, class A drugs such as magic mushrooms still have a lot of stigma and fear associated with them.
Psilocybin and depression
A small study in the UK involving the use of psilocybin was conducted on 12 individuals with persistent depression and who would not respond to treatment. Just one week after treatment with psilocybin, 75% of the people had fully recovered and showed no signs of depression. After three months, five people from the trial were still depression-free. By the end of the study, six people had mild depression and one still had severe depression.
Although this clinical trial seems to indicate that psilocybin could be useful in the treatment of depression, it was conducted on such a small group of people that it is difficult to draw any useful conclusion. It is important to recognise that the study was done using a low dose of psilocybin extract and was carefully monitored in the presence of psychiatrists. This is very different from individuals using magic mushrooms in a self-medicating attempt to shift depression.
It is well known that external stimuli and settings can affect the “trip” people have on magic mushrooms. Long-time users know to create a safe environment to ensure that the experience is pleasurable. If someone is already known to have mental health concerns, then a trip could be catastrophic.
A 2015 study revealed that just 5 weeks after receiving a single dose of psilocybin, cancer patients had significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression. These positive effects lasted for six months. The idea of using hallucinogens to help cancer sufferers deal with the emotional and mental implications of the disease has been around since the 1960s. However, it is only recently that strong evidence has been linked to this concept.
Participants in the study spoke of out-of-body experiences and feeling a sudden end to their anxiety, much like a light being switched off. To participate in the study, the individuals had to exhibit signs of significant anxiety. It is interesting that cancer sufferers were used as they have a genuine cause for worry which still persisted post-treatment. In some ways, this results of this study were even more powerful than it would be on people who suffered anxiety with no known cause. There are also reports of psilocybin having positive results in those scenarios too.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The University of South Florida study which concluded that psilocybin had a positive effect in reducing fear in mice also recognised brain and cells regeneration. Psilocybin acts on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming memories and learning. In people with PTSD, it is difficult to differentiate between external stimuli or triggers and past events. Experts believe that the psilocybin in the study erased memories of the fear response in the mice, meaning that it could also help people with PTSD to reprocess past trauma. Many scientists believe that the drug has a great potential in cases of PTSD and other mental conditions. Despite the demonstrable success, the US government have banned the drug as they believe it to have no medical value.
It is important to remember that these studies have yet to be carried out on humans. Although the structure of a mice’s brain is similar to ours , we are, of course, very different from mice. It is also worth noting that the study was highly controlled and monitored to assure safety and consistency. The mice were also given very low doses of psilocybin. Using psychedelic mushrooms to treat PTSD without medical supervision could be highly dangerous, especially as the use of hallucinogens can transport people to places that could cause further emotional trauma and stress. In the case of serious mental illnesses, it is always advisable to avoid taking any risks.
Similar claims have been made about the use of psilocybin on other serious mental and cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In fact, testing at the Imperial College London concluded that the use of psilocybin caused a reduction of blood flow to the cingulate cortex area of the brain. This is the region that is associated with extreme thoughts and impulsive actions and behaviour. Scientists believe that limiting blood flow to the cingulate cortex could help people to control extreme behaviour or dangerous urges.
As is the case with PTSD, anyone wanting to use psilocybin to treat mental illness should volunteer to take part in a study to ensure that it is administered in a safe, controlled environment. Self-medicating with something as dangerous as magic mushrooms could cause significant problems.
Negative effects of magic mushrooms:
- persistent anxiety
- psychological disturbances
- post-traumatic stress style flashbacks
- post-hallucinogen perceptual disorder
These effects are more common in people with pre-existing psychological disorders and after long-term or heavy use.
Post hallucinogen perceptual disorder is when someone’s visual field is affected after long-term or heavy use of a specific hallucinogen, such as magic mushrooms. This can include sensitivity to light and movement, and these changes are permanent.
A recent medical paper documents how 22 out of 26 psilocybin users believed the drug stopped a cluster headache attack from developing. Although this seems like a significant number, the patients were interviewed about their personal use of psilocybin and the results were not part of a medical study or clinical trial. The research could only conclude that the effects of psilocybin on cluster headaches may be warranted. The use of LSD to treat cluster headaches was also documented in the same paper. The results for both were positive. LSD and psilocybin are often used in the same studies as they are both classed as hallucinogens or psychedelics. Some people believe that this association is a dangerous one as LSD is chemical-based and is known to have more severe side effects and problems. On the other hand, psilocybin is natural and has been used for thousands of years. Unfortunately, flashbacks and post-hallucinogen perception disorder are common in the long term use of both substances.
Some of the most dramatic results in the use of psilocybin for medicinal purposes have been in relation to addiction.
A recent study by Dr Michael Bogenschutz at the University of New Mexico, revealed that psilocybin was very effective when used to treat alcohol dependence. Unfortunately, the study was small and only involved 10 volunteers. However, drinking decreased significantly two months after the psilocybin was administered and this improvement remained consistent for six more months.
Dr Matthew Johnson at John Hopkins used psilocybin in a similar way on 15 smokers who had been smoking heavily for many years and had struggled to kick the habit using other methods. After 6 months of psilocybin treatment, 80% of the participants had stopped smoking completely.
All research that has been conducted so far has been conducted by non-profit organisations. Pharmaceutical companies have the funds to engage in larger scale studies but they have shown no interest in exploring the medicinal effects of psilocybin. This may be due to the fact that psilocybin mushrooms have been around for a long time, are readily available and are relatively inexpensive. The studies have also concluded that many patients only need a single dose to see dramatic results.
Pharmaceutical companies make their money off drugs that are regularly administered and not on single dosage options. This is bad news for psilocybin. With stringent drug laws in place around the world and corporations with the money refusing to fund any scientific studies, it looks like psilocybin is off the menu in terms of medical use. Unfortunately, people may still turn to magic mushrooms in desperation after hearing about the limited studies that have been conducted. This casual use of the drug could be more dangerous than helpful if its use is not advised and monitored by a qualified medical personnel.