• Leah Hess

Psilocybin Therapy: Using Magic Mushrooms To Treat Mental Illness?


What are psilocybin mushrooms? You may have heard them called by another name, like “psychedelic mushrooms”, “magic mushrooms”, or simply “shrooms”. There are more than 180 psilocybin-containing mushroom species around the world and, although illegal in most states, they are often used recreationally. However, a new wave of psilocybin therapy proponents say they are not simply seeking a good time; the psychedelic effect has therapeutic properties that can aid in the treatment of mental illness.


Although often associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s, these mushrooms have been used for thousands of years across diverse regions and cultures. In fact, there is evidence that the use of magic mushrooms may date all the way back to 10,000 B.C.E. Ethnobotanist Terrance McKenna theorizes that primates may have consumed psilocybin mushrooms which actually led to the enhancement of their cognitive abilities and, possibly, the growth of the human brain and acceleration of Homo erectus evolution. He also proposes that our African ancestors may have used mushrooms for hunting purposes and that, consequently, psilocybin changed the course of linguistic, technological, and cultural development.


More recently, magic mushrooms have been linked to ancient therapeutic and spiritual practices. According to a study published in Neurologia, psychoactive substances were used by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures for therapeutic and religious purposes. Similarly, a study in Karstenia documents the Siberian religious practice of drinking the hallucinogenic urine from animals who had consumed the spotted Amanita Muscaria mushroom, shown below.


The red and white spotted Amanita Muscaria mushroom


As previously stated, these were popularized in western culture due to 1960s counterculture. The “baby boomer” generation were mostly responsible for this movement, and promoted mushrooms as a means of expanding consciousness and introspection. The legality of this movement was short lived, as these psychedelic drugs were ultimately banned in the 1970s during Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” campaign. Despite this, psychedelic use is still extremely prevalent. Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that overall rates of lifetime psychedelic use are roughly the same among baby boomers and other generations, with 17% of all American adults between ages 21 and 64 reporting using psychedelics at least once in their life.


Psilocybin functions in the body by activating serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Serotonin is the primary hormone that stabilizes mood, feelings of safety and well-being, and happiness. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for changes in mood, cognition, perception, attention, and impulse inhibition. This explains the sensations a person may experience when under the influence of psilocybin. Changes in the prefrontal cortex allow for possible hallucinations where users may see, hear, feel, or taste things that are not real. Users may also utilize this change in perception to approach problems, trauma, memories, or thoughts from a different angle, and this can be spiritually enlightening for many. The effects of psilocybin occur within 30 minutes and last between 4 and 6 hours for most people.


This leads into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin. Because too little serotonin is associated with depression, the activation of serotonin receptors caused by the drug may help to treat it. Similarly, a study in Neuropharmacology found that psilocybin increased amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for experiencing emotions) responses, which treats depression by reviving emotional responsiveness. One might wonder how these effects fare long-term. Another study by the same researcher found that a high-quality psychedelic experience is predictive of positive long-term changes in mental health. Psilocybin has also been used therapeutically to treat eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. The best results have come from an approach that combines psilocybin use with psychotherapy (talk therapy).


However, as with any drug, there are risks. Because hallucinogens also affect regions of the brain responsible for regulating arousal and panic responses, there is potential for users to experience what is known as a “bad trip”. This is characterized by paranoia, panic attacks, psychosis, and possibly physiological effects such as vomiting and (in rare cases) seizures. Although shrooms are held to be the safest recreational drug because of their low rates of hospitalization and a nonexistent death rate, the quantity of the drug taken, past experiences, stress level and mindset, and expectations about the experience can shape the outcome of a trip. For this reason, honest personal reflection is necessary for prospective users. Those suffering from schizophrenia, in particular, or other mental health issues are advised to speak to a professional before use. All users should consider using the drug under supervision of a sober friend.


Nonetheless, the potential negative side effects and the cultural stigma of the drug have barred their widespread legalization. In 2020, Oregon became the first (and currently the only) state to legalize medicinal (not recreational) psilocybin. This makes access to safe, standardized psilocybin therapy difficult, but not impossible. Countries such as Jamaica, Nepal, Brazil, and the Netherlands have more lax laws around psilocybin, making consumption possible.Those seeking shrooms can also, of course, purchase them illegally. This, however, leaves a lot of the experience up to the user, making a high quality outcome less likely. Those looking for well-planned and expertly supervised trips may opt for a psilocybin-assisted retreat. These exist in countries where psilocybin is unregulated (such as MycoMeditations in Jamaica) and even in countries where it isn’t (like the U.S.) via legal loopholes. These include religious legal exemptions if the retreat is founded as a church and claims the hallucinogens to be part of its worship (e.g. the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Warrior in Alabama and The Divine Assembly in Utah).


Things are changing that may eventually make these loopholes unnecessary. Along with the plans to legalize medicinal mushrooms in Oregon, California, Colorado, and Washington D.C. have pursued measures to decriminalize the substance. There is also a growing push for research in psilocybin therapy. In 2018, the FDA granted the mental health care company Compass Pathways special permission to study psilocybin as a treatment for depression. In 2019, Johns Hopkins opened its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Similarly, multiple other universities and research institutes such as the University of Toronto, the Heffter Institute, and the Beckley Foundation, are contributing to this field of study.


 

Speaking Plainly:

  • Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic chemical found in many species of wild mushrooms, which are often consumed recreationally for their psychedelic effects.

  • Psilocybin works by altering the chemistry of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, binding to serotonin receptors and inducing changes in perception, cognition, and mood.

  • There is evidence that these effects can be useful in the treatment of mental disorders such as depression, addiction, eating disorders, and PTSD, but more research is necessary to confirm these findings before advocating for widespread use.

  • Because this drug is still illegal in most places, therapy is often sought out in countries other than the U.S. or through legal loopholes like religious exemptions.

  • As with any drug, there is potential for negative side effects and many accredited institutions are currently working on studies to validate or invalidate psilocybin as a medicine.