The Hidden Healer: The Science behind Psilocybin
If you don’t know or haven’t heard the news about the power of the mycelium, or magic mushrooms, then you are behind the times. Recent claims state minimal use can transform mental states, addictions and bring about epiphanies and revelations that are almost hard to believe. And this year—2020, Oregon approved a pair of ambitious drug-policy reform ballot measures: one to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for use in therapy; and a second, separate ballot measure that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of all drugs. This is similar to the law in Portugal which began decriminalization of all drugs.
What is psilocybin?
Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic compound found in 200 species of mushrooms. Specifically, it is a prodrug that is quickly converted by the body to psilocin, which has mind-altering effects similar to DMT. Psilocin is also a substance that acts similar to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which regulates mood amongst other things. Psilocybin is known to activate a specific type of serotonin receptor in the brain that triggers its psychedelic effects, such as euphoria, mental and visual hallucinations, sensory and perceptive changes, a distorted sense of time and even spiritual experiences. The downside is that some people, increasing serotonin can provoke nausea, panic and even temporary psychosis.
According to the DEA, psilocybin mushrooms have long, slender stems with caps with dark brown underneath. In the USA, these mushrooms grow wild in the southeast and in the Pacific Northwest, growing in cow pastures on cow feces. They can also be found in central and south America.
Magic mushrooms have been used for esoteric ceremonies and in tribal communities. In fact, some reports claim that psilocybin was actually the “manna” described in religious texts as the Bible or “flesh of the gods,’ as the Israelites were instructed to look for it in the morning when there was frost on the ground.
It wasn’t however, until 1957, that psilocybin was isolated and made synthetically. After the uproar of the 1960s and despite findings showed promise for treating anxiety, depression and addiction, research in the U.S. came to a halt in 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. This law was viewed as a political response to a growing fear of psychedelic drug use in young people and the spread of the counterculture movement. The DEA labeled it a Schedule 1 drug, illegal and with no medicinal benefit, with high potential for abuse.
If you have ever partaken in shrooming, you know this is far from the truth. This mushroom is a teacher, and not always a gentle one.
In fact, many report lifechanging experiences that change their perspective about the world and themselves. But just how can this be?
So just what can psilocybin do, (since it’s illegal), based on the science?
We don’t have the research needed to say everything that psychedelics, including psilocybin, have the potential to help with. Since the plant is restricted, this also restricts proper research studies.
Of the studies that we do have, there is great promise shown. Once psilocybin enters the body, there is a sharp increase in certain areas of the brain that normally don’t talk to each other, which may partly explain the new insights people experience. There’s also a quieting of deeply entrenched thought patterns that contribute to addictions, anxiety and depression. Likely, a quieting of the ego. People report a feeling of oneness with nature and a dissolving of self.
A study from 2017 published in Neurotherapeutics, showed extremely promising results for the use of psilocybin for the treatment of addiction, namely tobacco. Just one to three drops of psilocybin given with cognitive behavioral therapy have helped people quit smoking. And in a 2013 study in Psychopharmacology, alcohol addiction was also surprisingly helped and sustained for 36 weeks after a psilocybin session. Plus, there were no adverse effects! Interestingly, with psilocybin comes a change in your confidence and ability to resist further tendencies or addictions in the future. The plant also seems to aid in situational anxiety and depression that comes with a cancer diagnosis. In a 2006 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, psilocybin was safely used in subjects with OCD and was associated with acute reductions in core OCD symptoms in several subjects past the 24 hour time mark.
And then in November 2020, JAMA Psychiatry published a well documented study involving 24 participants with major depressive disorder who had two supervised psilocybin sessions for treatment. The results were groundbreaking. In the randomized clinical trial of all 24 participants with major depressive disorder, participants who received immediate psilocybin-assisted therapy compared with delayed treatment showed improvement in blinded clinician rater–assessed depression severity and in self-reported secondary outcomes through the 1-month follow-up. In the overall sample, 16 participants (67%) at week 1 and 17 (71%) at week 4 had a clinically significant response to the intervention (≥50% reduction in depression score), and 14 participants (58%) at week 1 and 13 participants (54%) at week 4 were in remission! This means there was no waiting four weeks for an antidepressant to kick in, as the participants felt immediately better and results were sustained for a month. This is MUCH better results than any antidepressant the medical field has seen, could muster.
Empathy and mental state
Published in 2017 in International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, it was discovered that psilocybin can actually increase emotional empathy but has no change on moral decision making. Psilocybin does this again via activation of serotonin 2A/1A receptors.
What seems to occur is that people’s minds are expanded due to new neuronal connections and firings under the influence of the plant. It is estimated that it may induce new insights and perspectives which promote mental flexibility that can last up to a year or longer.
A series of studies did also investigate the effects of psilocybin in healthy volunteers. The first was a double-blind study evaluating the psychological effects of 30 mg/70 kg psilocybin relative to methylphenidate or Ritalin, 40 mg/70 kg administered under comfortable, supportive conditions to 36 hallucinogen-naive adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities. After psilocybin, 61% of the volunteers met pre-established criteria, as measured on standardized scales, for a full mystical experience, and 31% reported significant fear sometime during their psilocybin session. Two months after sessions, 71% of the volunteers rated their psilocybin experience as among the five most “spiritually significant” experiences of their lifetimes. 79% percent of volunteers rated that it had increased their current sense of personal well being or life satisfaction.
My story with psilocybin and psychedelics
In 2013, after a painful divorce, I followed one of my dear friends to the west coast. Portland, Oregon to be exact. Little did I know that this would be the first place I would be introduced to magic mushrooms. This was a very difficult yet rapidly evolving time in my life and in hindsight, I can say with confidence that this was the beginning of my personal awakening. In the pacific northwest, you can pick them on the coast yourself if you have a trained eye. Although I didn’t personally pick them, I had friends who definitely went mushroom hunting at dawn. It was a thing there.
First of all, they taste like shit. Probably because they are grown there, but put them in peanut butter and down them—because they are well worth it. I’ll never forget when I felt them kick in. There was a brief intermittent period of nausea for me and yawning (yawning is a sign they are kicking in) before I felt the effects. You begin to see colors brighter and feel an immense, indescribable feeling of oneness with the people you are with right down to the blades of grass in your front yard. It really is hard to put into words. You feel underlying joy, warmth, and for a brief period of time your guard comes down and you forget your earthly woes. The easiest way to say it is that this medicine allows you to be the highest version of yourself. It allows you to say the loving things you always wanted to say to your friends and family. It removes the veil.
How do you prepare psilocybin?
Magic mushrooms can be made into a tea, eaten raw or dried, ground into a powder and put in capsules, or coated in chocolate, to mask their bitter flavor and disguise them as candy. They can also be ground down and encapsulated. The hallucinogenic effects usually begin within 30 minutes of use and last up to 6 hours.
How to Start:
One of my favorite remedy to recommend to my patients who are ready and open is microdosing with psilocybin. A regular dose of mushrooms can be up to an 1/8 of a gram for some experienced trippers. However, microdosing allows you to carry on with your activities of daily living. It does not alter you drastically, hence the small dose which is around 0.1-0.3 grams, depending on the person. This small dose allows the person to see through a different lens and perhaps, make better connections with the people around them. I know from personal experience it can absolutely have a powerful impact on your mood and attitude for the day (and probably all of those who encounter you). Studies have already shown us the positive psychosocial effects that psilocybin has in a controlled environment on volunteers.
Many of the psychedelics have gotten a poor rap.
As Terrence McKenna once eloquently said, “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
I couldn’t agree more.
When used in the proper set and setting and doses, these natural plants are healers and have the potential to connect us back to what is important in life. There is always the chance of fear or a bad trip, which in my opinion, is the universe asking you to work out your shadow side. Just start slow. Set and setting is extremely important here. There is little potential for abuse as these are tough teachers.
The Other Psychedelics 101:
Other healers I have had the chance to partake in include 5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine), which is an entheogen or hallucinogen that is found in a variety of plants and at least one Sonoran Toad (where my medicine came from) as well as Ayahuasca. How do all these plants and even an animal, possess a tryptamine that has activity in our brain with our own neurotransmitters?
5-MeO-DMT lasts approximately 20 minutes and blasts your consciousness from your body into the spiritual realm. I was not permitted to remember what I brought back from there, but when I awoke on the floor, I was nodding my head and tears were streaming from my face. This is by far my favorite medicine as it brought pieces of my life together at just the right time. A 2019 European study with 42 volunteers showed that a single inhalation produced sustained satisfaction with life, and easing of anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
I have also been fortunate enough to participate in 6 different Ayahuasca ceremonies. This ancient South American entheogenic brew is made out of the Banisteeriopsis caapi vine or the Psychotria viridis shrub. DMT again is the active ingredient in ayahuasca which lasts longer than 5-MeO due to the addition of a monoamine inhibitor. Mother Aya lasts approximately four to five hours and caution should be taken with those who have heart conditions as it can modulate the heart rate and blood pressure. For example, in 2018 it was reported that a single dose of ayahuasca significantly reduced symptoms of treatment-resistant depression in a small placebo-controlled trial. More specifically, statistically significant reductions of up to 82% in depressive scores were observed between baseline and 1, 7, and 21 days after ayahuasca administration. Veterans suffering from PTSD have improved with the use of this medicine.
The whole ceremony takes a week to prepare for as one is advised to eat extremely organic and clean, avoid any recreational drugs or tobacco/alcohol. A shaman typically oversees the entire ceremony (usually 2-3 day experience) and protects the energetic space for all participants. Life changing revelations have occurred due to this medicine. People who have consumed ayahuasca report having mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe and deep insight into who they are.
MDMA, 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as ecstasy or molly, is a psychoactive drug primarily used for recreational purposes. The desired effects include altered sensations, increased energy, empathy, as well as pleasure. However, recent studies performed by MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) show there may be therapeutic potential. In fact, recently the FDA granted breakthrough designation for MDMA assisted psychotherapy for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is currently in phase three trials.
What does all of this mean?
Well, we aren’t really sure yet. All of this research looks promising and very exciting for all of us. But we need the schedule one classification lifted to conduct proper studies without jumping through all the red tape and approval processes. Could it be that earth provided us with necessary plants to heal on our own? I do believe this is the case. With mental health in shambles in the USA, I believe the future of psychology may be in plant medicine. We all, at the very least, need to keep an open mind while science continues to blow our minds.