- Psychedelic drugs bear the stigma of recreational use and abuse.
- Researchers believe psychedelic substances like psilocybin may rewire the brain and cure depression.
- Psilocybin may ease the mental health issues cancer and its treatment can cause.
- Psychedelic substances may cause side effects like persistent hallucinations, permanent brain changes, and worsening depression.
- For now, the benefits of these drugs don’t outweigh their risks for most people, but research continues.
Psychedelic drugs, also called hallucinogens, are a class of substances that cause changes in mood, perception, and thought. In 1973, the U.S. government outlawed the possession of these substances. However, psychedelic medicine has resurfaced over the last decade, promising a new approach to psychiatric treatments.
“Psilocybin is that spark that will lead to a quantum leap in our consciousness.”
– Paul Stamets, mycologist.
Psychedelic Medicine: A Definition
The term psychedelic medicine refers to the use of hallucinogens, such as psilocybin, LSD, or DMT, in a therapeutic or medical context.
Hallucinogens induce altered states of consciousness, leading to profound changes in perception, thoughts, and emotions. Psychedelic medicine involves the deliberate and controlled administration of these substances under professional supervision, with the goal of facilitating psychological healing, personal growth, and improved well-being.
The therapeutic application of psychedelic medicine has gained attention in recent years for its potential in treating various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, and cancer-related mental health issues.
Research studies have shown promising results, suggesting that psychedelics may have a profound impact on neuroplasticity, facilitating neural connections and promoting emotional processing and introspection.
Psychedelic medicine is a growing field that aims to harness the therapeutic potential of these substances while adhering to strict safety guidelines and ethical considerations. It involves integrating the use of psychedelics into a comprehensive treatment approach, combining them with psychological support, therapy, and integration practices to optimize the therapeutic outcomes and minimize potential risks.
The ultimate goal of psychedelic medicine is to enhance mental health, foster personal growth, and improve overall well-being through the responsible and evidence-based use of psychedelic substances.
Brief History of Psychedelic Medicine
The use of psychedelic plant medicine and drugs is by no means a recent phenomenon. Ancient, pre-Colombian cultures had an affinity for these substances. Shamanism relied heavily on hallucinogens that allowed tribal healers and shamans to conjure up vivid visions and hallucinations. They would use this imagery to foretell the future or find solutions to their people’s problems.
Priests and healers used consciousness-altering substances during religious rituals. The Maya drank balche, an extract from the lonchocarpus plant, to achieve a trance state.
The Zapotec, Aztec, Olmec, and Maya people all used psychedelic substances extracted from plants or the skin of poisonous toads. The substances they obtained this way included psilocybin, mescaline, and lysergic acid amide, which is synthesized to make LSD.
In addition to the Americas, where traditional drug cultures were widespread, peoples in central Africa and the Pacific Islands also used hallucinogens as part of their rituals.
The History of Psychedelics in the US
Psychedelics were popular in the U.S. in the 1950s. The hippie movement popularized psychedelic drugs, leading to a stigma that persists to this day. During the early heyday of these drugs, their effects on the brain were popular topics of scientific research.
To end the abuse of psychedelic drugs, the U.S. Government reclassified these substances as Schedule I drugs. As a result, the possession of psychedelics became illegal, and psychedelic research stopped.
In the 1990s, a handful of researchers reignited scientific interest in these consciousness-altering substances.
Researchers found that plants like peyote, ayahuasca, and “magic mushrooms” can offer relief to patients struggling with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Since then, other studies such as this one, published in 2022, have confirmed the findings.
As a result, psychedelic medicine is making a comeback as a cancer care and mental health treatment solution. The FDA has recently designated psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy, allowing researchers to speed up the process of developing a usable drug based upon it.
Since then, some states are relaxing the laws that prohibit the possession and use of hallucinogenic substances like psilocybin. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to allow the supervised use of psilocybin.
The “Magic” Behind the Mushrooms: The Science
We now know that psilocybin, the substance that puts the “magic” in magic mushrooms, can relieve anxiety and depression for patients with terminal illnesses, such as cancer.
A majority of test subjects with life-threatening cancer have reported significant reductions in depression and anxiety along with a marked improvement in quality of life. Patients on psilocybin have also experienced reduced fear of death.
So, how do these hallucinogenic mushrooms work their magic?
How Psilocybin Works
Psilocybin acts on the serotonin receptors in the brain, tricking them into “thinking” they are dealing with serotonin. Psilocybin is a potent serotonin 2A receptor agonist. Researchers now speculate that its antidepressant effects may not be dependent on its hallucinogenic properties.
If scientists can refine psilocybin to retain its antidepressant properties while eliminating the hallucinatory effects, it would allow for the development of a medically acceptable version of the compound while helping to overcome the stigma associated with psychedelics.
Psilocybin Rewires the Brain
Psilocybin has been found to have remarkable physiological effects on the brain. Studies conducted on mice have demonstrated that psilocybin therapy alters brain cells by increasing the number and length of dendritic spines, the protrusions on neurons responsible for connecting with other neurons.
This enhanced connectivity leads to the formation of new connections that increase the brain’s ability to adapt and learn.
The Magic Doesn’t Stop There
Researchers noticed the modifications of the mice neurons within a day after they received psilocybin — and the near-instantaneous effect is lasting. In mice, the enhanced connections last more than a month. In humans, they may last more than a year.
From the perspective of anxiety, PTSD, and depression caused by terminal illness, these findings offer the promise of a one-time treatment. Instead of relying on daily antidepressants, patients could potentially experience symptom relief for a year — possibly longer — with a single dose of psilocybin, LSD, or DMT.
Microdosing: Psychedelics Without the “Trip”
As researchers try to find ways to retain the anti-depressive effects of psychedelics and eliminate the hallucinations they cause, a potential solution has surfaced: microdosing.
To achieve a “trip,” recreational users of psychedelics take a very small dose of psilocybin, LSD, or DMT. Two to three grams of dried mushrooms can achieve the desired effect, depending on the type, concentration, etc.
Patients looking to improve their mental health without hallucinations take a fraction of that dose. About 0.3 grams of dried mushrooms is often enough to improve depressive symptoms without triggering hallucinations.
But there’s a problem with microdosing: There are no standardized mushroom or plant extract doses. The potency of a dose of psilocybin depends on many factors, including:
- The harvest period of the mushrooms
- Whether the mushrooms are fresh or dried
- The mushroom species
- The origin
To prove the effectiveness of microdosing scientifically, researchers must first develop a way to standardize psychedelic doses.
Psychedelic Medicine and Cancer Treatment
While most evidence of the impact of psychedelic medicine on cancer treatment is still anecdotal, the success stories of patients who have used it are hard to ignore. Consider the following case studies.
Victor — Reduced Anxiety and Restored Faith
Victor is a young man who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his 20s. Despite successful treatment and remission, Victor found himself spiraling into a depressive state characterized by panic attacks and constant fear of cancer’s return.
The trauma of battling cancer had left him emotionally scarred, and he lost his faith in God. Medical professionals diagnosed him with chronic adjustment disorder with anxiety.
In search of a solution, Victor turned to psilocybin therapy. What unfolded was a life-altering experience for him. The therapy session took Victor on a spiritual journey, allowing him to reconcile with his faith, his place in the world, and the impact of his illness. He emerged with a newfound conviction in the existence of a spiritual realm, where he could connect with departed loved ones and glimpse a higher power.
Victor’s anxiety decreased, and his overall quality of life improved significantly following the psilocybin session.
“I would say (I have) less anxiety about my body and my sickness coming back, my cancer coming back.”
Chrissy — Improved Hopelessness and Reduced Fear of Death
Chrissy, a stage IV metastatic cancer patient in her 50s, had a strong response to a psilocybin session.
Her psilocybin session triggered a transformative journey through the cycle of life, eradicating her fear of death and invigorating her will to live. It also deepened her spiritual beliefs and provided her with the answers she needed to accept her place in the universe.
Chrissy’s experience significantly improved her purpose in life, spirituality, and overall quality of life, while simultaneously reducing her anxiety, fear of death, hopelessness, depression, and demoralization.
Effective Depression Treatment Leads to Better Cancer Outcomes
Evidence is clear that treating depression in cancer patients leads to a better quality of life and better survival and treatment outcomes.
An improved psychological state may improve the course of disease in four ways:
- Patients in good spirits tend to take better care of their health.
- Psychologically healthy patients are more likely to use available healthcare options.
- Patients’ psychological state influences their hormones.
- Being in good spirits can boost the immune system.
Research has found psilocybin to be effective for treating depression and anxiety related to breast cancer, colon cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma patients. In some cases, the use of psilocybin together with conventional cancer treatment can lead to impressive results.
For example, in one case study, a 49-year-old woman with stage IV breast cancer saw her disease go into remission following the addition of cannabis and psilocybin treatment to her standard care regimen.
Psilocybin Research Limitations
Although promising, psilocybin research concerning depression in cancer patients has its limitations. Only 29 people took part in the case studies cited above, which is a small sample size. And isolated case studies are little more than anecdotal instances of positive medical outcomes, not proof of cause and effect.
Psilocybin may be a potent solution for anxiety relief, and it may have a place in palliative care. It could be a drug doctors may give patients in addition to regular cancer treatment to manage their symptoms and improve their lives. It may even be a wider-scope solution for depression management.
Unfortunately, much more research is needed before we have a full understanding of the benefits and risks of psychedelic medicine in general and psilocybin in particular.
The Risks of Psilocybin
The body tolerates psychedelic substances like psilocybin relatively well. Still, psilocybin can have adverse effects on mental health that affect some people more than others. Here’s what can go wrong for psilocybin users.
Worsening anxiety and mood disorders: Individuals with anxiety and bipolar disorder may experience intensified symptoms and distressing “trips” that exacerbate their existing mental health conditions.
The risk of fake drugs: Consuming psilocybin puts individuals at risk of unknowingly ingesting counterfeit substances sold as magic mushrooms. It can be challenging for the average user to verify the authenticity of purchased mushrooms.
The risk of misidentifying a mushroom: Mistaking a magic mushroom for a poisonous variety is relatively easy, posing the risk of mushroom poisoning. Symptoms of poisoning can resemble a “bad trip,” potentially hindering victims from seeking timely medical assistance.
Overdose potential: Mushroom consumers can overdose by taking a large single dose or multiple smaller doses consecutively. Overdosing can lead to seizures, panic attacks, paranoia, and other adverse effects.
Permanent brain changes: Psilocybin has the capacity to permanently alter the brain. While some changes may be positive, others can result in persistent disruptions in perception, cognition, and mood, i.e., a lifelong “bad trip.”
Impaired judgment: Lasting effects and side effects of psilocybin can impair judgment, potentially compromising an individual’s overall quality of life.
Hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD): Prolonged hallucinogen use can cause hallucinations and flashbacks that persist for years after consumption.
Chemical addiction: While magic mushrooms are not typically addictive, frequent users may develop a dependence on the chemicals they provide to the brain.
Drug desensitization: Frequent use of psilocybin can lead to a tolerance to psychedelic medications. Attempting to achieve the desired “high” may increase the risk of overdosing.
Drug interactions: Like other drugs and supplements, hallucinogens can interact with other medications, potentially leading to unpredictable effects and complications.
Will Psychedelic Medicine Deliver on Its Early Promise?
Psychedelic medicine, including psilocybin, holds immense potential as a therapeutic approach for mental health conditions and cancer care. The ability of psilocybin to rewire the brain, alleviate anxiety and depression, and provide profound spiritual experiences has been observed in numerous cases.
However, caution must be exercised due to the associated risks and potential long-term consequences. With further research, standardization of dosing, and responsible use, psychedelic medicine may offer a unique and transformative path to healing and well-being for those who stand to benefit the most.
Psilocybin and Sexual Health
So, what does all of this mean from a sexual functioning perspective? While psychedelic substances like psilocybin don’t directly affect erectile function, because they can enhance mood and promote feelings of connection and empathy, these substances can indirectly influence sexual function.
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James spent the better part of the last decade studying and writing about the physiology of sleep and its correlations with dreams. He studied various drugs, natural substances, and hallucinogens that can impact the intensity and frequency of dreams.
For two years, he busted dietary supplement scams, analyzing various performance-enhancing compounds, nootropics, etc.