Once again, we turn to nature to heal the ailments we struggle with. This time, we’re taking a look at magic mushrooms, or rather, their active ingredient – psilocybin.
Psilocybin is a classic hallucinogenic compound produced by over 100 species of mushrooms across the world. It has a strong effect on serotonin receptors in the brain, including some in the cerebral cortex and thalamus regions.
Although mushroom use – casually referred to as “shrooming” – is commonly associated with hippies, artists and others that tend to live a more alternative lifestyle, their consumption actually dates back thousands of years. Historically, they’ve been used to aid in religious ceremonies and are still considered a gateway to some very profound spiritual experiences.
Psilocybin mushrooms also have some powerful therapeutic benefits, and have already been decriminalized in a few locations around the world as researchers dive into their potential to treat numerous disorders. Areas of interest include conditions such as mood disorders, anxiety, OCD (obsessive complusive disorder), and substance addiction.
What is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin is the main psychedelic compound in mushrooms and truffles. It’s a basic tryptamine hallucinogen, with properties similar to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and DMT, although the chemical structure and effects are different. Research shows a common mechanism of action through serotonergic (5-HT) pathways. Psilocybin is a strong agonist at 5-HT receptors which are located within the thalamus and cortex of the brain.
The onset of hallucinogenic effects typically kicks in around 20 to 40 minutes after consumption, and they last up to 6 hours. Psilocybin’s threshold for intoxication is approximately 40 mcg/kg of body weight. In wild mushrooms with lower levels of psilocybin, this translates to about 2 grams, although some people use up to 4 grams for a good psychedelic trip.
Psilocybin was first isolated by swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann in 1958, using the Psilocybe Mexicana mushroom species from Central America. Psilocybin is found in both wild and cultivated mushrooms, although just like with cannabis, cultivated mushrooms tend to be more potent. Through cross-breeding, cultivated mushrooms can have up to 10 times higher levels of psilocybin than wild species.
Research and Legal Roadblocks
In the United States, use of psychedelic mushrooms has been illegal since the Controlled Substances Act was implemented in 1970. Since then, clinical studies have pretty much ceased, but recreational use definitely has not.
However, in 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse linked up with an FDA advisory team to revamp research efforts of psychedelic agents – albeit extremely limited research. In 1993, the Heffter Research Institute in New Mexico was founded. It’s one of the only institutes in the world the is entirely dedicated to uncovering the medical benefits of psychedelic compounds found in nature. Despite these developments, psilocybin is still banned in the U.S.
Around the world, novel and alternative treatments for mental illnesses becoming increasingly sought after, new resources are being aimed at age-old therapies including cannabis, ketamine, mescaline, and psilocybin. Dr. George R. Greer, co-founder and president of the Heffter Research Institute, “Our mission is two-fold: one to do research that helps us understand the mind, the brain, how all that works, and number two, to help reduce suffering through therapeutic use of psychedelics.”
Although there are many possible uses for psilocybin, at the moment, it’s most frequently used to treat conditions relating to mental health. Depression and anxiety are among the most researched indications for psilocybin treatment.
“There’ve been some promising preliminary results in such areas such as the treatment of overwhelming depression and existential anxiety in people who are facing the end of life, who have diagnoses of advanced-stage cancer,” Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, stated in an interview with Healthline. “The thing that we have the most evidence for is cancer-related depression and anxiety. That seems really strong, and I’d be surprised if those results didn’t hold up,” he added.
Another possible use for psychedelic mushrooms is in the cessation of smoking, drinking, and other addictions. In a small pilot study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, people who partook in psilocybin therapy successfully abstained from smoking cigarettes over the following 12-month period.
“The general idea is that the nature of these disorders is a narrowed mental and behavioral repertoire,” says Matthew Johnson, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at John Hopkins. “So, in well-orchestrated sessions, there is the ability to essentially shake someone out of their routine to give a glimpse of a larger picture and create a mental plasticity with which people can step outside of those problems.”
It’s also being looked at as a possible treatment for certain types of cancers, heart disease, inflammation, and many other conditions.
Applications Around the World
As mentioned above, psilocybin-containing mushrooms are illegal in the United States and are listed as a Schedule 1 drug. Even mushroom spores, which don’t contain any psychoactive chemicals yet, are illegal in many states. A few cities – Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz – have decriminalized mushrooms, meaning you won’t get arrested for possessing them but there are no legal avenues through which to purchase or sell them either. Oregon has plans to legalize mushrooms entirely, however, these plans have been put on the backburner amid the current pandemic.
Some countries have a much more liberal approach when it comes to hallucinogenic mushrooms though. In Austria, Brazil, Samoa, Jamaica, the Netherlands, and the Bahamas, mushrooms are legal. Recreational use is quite popular in many of these regions and you can purchase mushrooms, truffles, and spores for both from select online retailers based in some of these countries.
In Israel, mushrooms are being studied for their medicinal properties. One of the pioneers in this field is Prof. Solomon Wasser of Haifa University, who runs a mushroom research lab and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.
Last year, his lab took out a patent on a product derived from Cyathus striatus, a type of mushroom found in Israeli forests. In animal trials, the drug appeared effective against pancreatic cancer, which is considered a particularly lethal cancer for which no new drugs have been discovered in recent years.
Another Israeli company, medical cannabis firm Cannabotech, is currently looking at how certain blends of cannabinoids, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms could effectively treat a variety of chronic medical conditions. So far, they have developed five proprietary blends intended to treat colon cancer, infertility, fatty liver disease, inflammation, and heart or vascular disease. These products are all currently awaiting clinical trials.
Microdosing Magic Mushrooms
When used in a therapeutic setting, the best way to get medicinal benefits without any intoxication or risks is by microdosing, which just means taking an extra small, or sub-perceptual, dose. This should ideally be administered in a medical setting by a trained professional, but that’s not always the case.
Many health enthusiasts have incorporated mushroom microdosing into their daily or weekly routines report higher levels of creativity, increased energy and focus, and improved relational skills. Some even claim that microdosing psilocybin mushrooms helps to heighten spiritual awareness and enhance their senses.
That said, there are some risks associated with the use of psychedelic mushrooms. “Psilocybin is a lot more psychologically dangerous than cannabis, and it’s especially dangerous for a small percentage of the population who have had an episode of psychosis or mania, manic episode, or even, say, a close family member whose had those problems, because it can trigger a psychosis or manic episode in a person who is vulnerable to that,” Greer said.
If you’ve ever heard the term “bad trip”, that’s exactly what he is referring to. Some people can move past it easily, but for others, a bad trip can cause irreparable psychological damage.
Although some are optimistic that psilocybin mushrooms will follow the path of cannabis in MDMA, with approval in the next 5 to 10 years, the truth is, the future remains very unclear. There is really no realistic timeline for when this class of drugs might be legalized, especially given the current circumstances.
“There needs to be more FDA-approved clinical research with psychedelics,” mentions Grob, “exploring both how to optimize their therapeutic potential but also trying to get a better understanding of the range of medical effects, which may be problematic… There’s still some questions that need to be answered.”
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