Mushrooms Shown to Provide “Magical” Mental Health Benefits
BY KIM WHITING
Zach thought he was a sponge and stayed in a shower for several hours, terrified that if he dried off, he would die.
Evie squatted on top of a low bookshelf for the duration of a party, paralyzed with fear because (we would later learn) she thought the un-popped popcorn kernels on the floor were alive and after her.
Nearly 40 years ago, in the early 1980s, I tried to soothe and reassure these college friends through terrifying trips on psilocybin mushrooms—also known as “magic mushrooms.”
Granted, it’s likely Zach and Evie consumed edible mushrooms laced with PCP (a dangerous and cheap manufactured hallucinogenic commonly used in those days by drug dealers to imitate other drugs) instead of real psilocybin mushrooms, which also cause hallucinogenic experiences but grow naturally and have been shown by research to be much safer.
However, according to studies on psilocybin—as well as some mushroom users in my own social circle—it’s not uncommon for “shrooms” to cause anxiety-filled or highly emotional trips if a person has underlying negative emotions going into the experience, or is in an environment that is overstimulating.
After helping my college pals get through those crazy experiences, my view on psilocybin mushrooms went from “not interested,” to “Yikes! I wouldn’t try them if you paid me.”
These days, however, the abundance of data coming from studies at top ranked institutions that demonstrate the mental health benefits of shrooms, along with accounts from friends of their positive experiences with them, has led me to a complete turn-around in my perceptions of shrooms. Not only would I consider trying them as a means of alleviating the mild depression that I’ve cycled through since early childhood—a depression that has been resistant to prescribed antidepressants—but I’d even pay someone for the chance.
If only they were legal.
The illegality of psilocybin mushrooms, however, isn’t stopping more than 30 million other Americans from seeking them out—according to a 2010 survey on psychedelics by Krebs and Johansen, published by the National Institute of Health. (Psilocybin mushrooms fall under the category of psychedelics, meaning drugs and compounds that cause hallucinogenic effects.)
The hordes of people watching YouTube videos on the subject of magic mushrooms also point to many being, at the very least, curious to learn more about them. These videos have garnered hundreds of thousands of viewers, and some, more than a million. One video, titled “Microdosing Psychedelics,” has collected 1.5 million views. Another video, called “How Magic Mushrooms Affect the Brain” has 1.2 million viewers.
And Netflix is now streaming How To Change Your Mind, a docuseries on the history and politics of psychedelics, including mushrooms, and their benefits as demonstrated by studies both decades-old and new. Current studies on psychedelics are being conducted at the psychedelic research centers of such prestigious institutions as Johns Hopkins, Yale, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard, NYU and UCLA. Findings point to psilocybin and other psychedelics being beneficial for treating depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, addiction/substance abuse, and even migraines—and that even a “bad trip” can have significant and long-lasting therapeutic benefits.
What’s more, through the use of microdosing, many of these benefits can be had without any trip at all.
What is Microdosing?
While microdosing protocols differ, the central premise is that a mushroom dosage should remain low enough to receive the benefits of psilocybin (and other psychedelics) without hallucinogenic effects. This is achieved by weighing and eating a tiny piece of dried psilocybin mushroom (there are over 180 different types of psilocybin mushrooms with different tastes and potency) or taking a capsule containing pulverized pre-measured mushroom. In official research, the psilocybin is generally isolated from the mushrooms in a lab, and subjects are given a pill containing just psilocybin.
Dr. Jim Fadiman is founder and Director of the Microdosing Institute and has been researching magic mushrooms for more than two decades. His Institute’s website provides six microdosing protocols from which to choose, including what’s known as the Stamets Stack, designed by Paul Stamets, the world’s most well-known mycologist (studier of mushrooms).
Stamets recommends microdosing psilocybin mushrooms in tandem with niacin (vitamin B3) and lion’s mane mushrooms (studied extensively for their neurohealth benefits), for four days on, and three days off. Both Fadiman and Stamets claim to have compiled thousands of stories from people who have benefitted from microdosing psilocybin.
Then there’s YouTube vlogger Julianne Keu, who says she struggled with depression, anxiety and complex PTSD (rooted in childhood trauma) that caused her weekly flashbacks and terrifying nightmares. By her late 20s, she maintains that she’d been on some form of antidepressant for half her life.
After engaging in psychotherapy for four years, along with EMDR therapy (a simple treatment involving rapid eye movement that’s used to treat PTSD and was first used successfully large-scale after the Oklahoma City bombing and then 9/11), Keu worked to slowly get herself off antidepressants. Despite the doctor-supervised weaning schedule, however, Keu spent six weeks suffering from nausea and migraines. “It was a debilitating experience, she says in one of her videos, explaining, “I vowed never to take conventional antidepressants again.”
A friend then referred Keu to an underground company (a.k.a. an illegal drug dealer) selling raw psylocibin mushroom in capsules, measured for the purpose of microdosing. Keu had never heard of microdosing, nor did she know of the growing body of research regarding the benefits of psychedelic mushrooms. But after just two doses of the capsules, she maintains that her social anxiety and ruminations all but vanished and she found it “much easier to get things done,” when no longer plagued by mental health issues.
Unlike standard psychopharmaceuticals, that only address symptoms, and which a person can expect to take every day for life, psilocybin mushrooms actually change the brain. Studies have shown that they typically cause significant decreases in mental health issues within several months, with positive effects enduring for years after use. These same enduring benefits have been experienced by research subjects after one or two macrodoses (enough to “trip”) of psilocybin in a therapeutic setting.
As for Keu, after five months of microdosing using a one day “on” and two days “off” protocol, she says she no longer felt the need to take psilocybin regularly. Since then, she takes just small doses of the psychedelic infrequently, when she needs what she calls a “mental re-set.” One year after ceasing regular microdosing, Keu says she continues to be free of anxiety and depression, and experiences only occasional traumatic flashbacks.
These are heartening results for those suffering from mental health issues.
But again, there’s one big problem.
A Schedule 1 Drug
As I mentioned, psilocybin is illegal—in almost every state. It’s not just illegal, but really illegal. The federal government, along with most of the 50 states, classifies psilocybin as a Schedule 1 Drug, in the same category as heroin, LSD, Ecstasy (MDMA) and Bath Salts, among others. This is particularly ironic, because psilocybin has been found to be beneficial in freeing heroin addicts, for example, from their addiction
Despite the law, indigenous cultures have utilized psilocybin mushrooms in their spiritual rituals for more than 10,000 years. Common sense says that if the effects of psilocybin hadn’t been positive, their use wouldn’t have continued for centuries. Like other magic mushroom users, once psilocybin became illegal, these cultures simply went underground with their psilocybin use and rituals.
What’s more, studies on psilocybin and other psychedelic/hallucinogenic substances done in the 1950s and ‘60s showed them to have great promise as a treatment for addiction and mental health issues. In fact, according to work published by Italian researchers Maurizio Coppola, Francesco Bevione, and Raffaella Mondola earlier this year in Journal of Xenobiotics, “Although there were limitations related to the scientific design of many studies, clinical observations performed during the 1950s and 1960s showed a potential therapeutic effect of psilocybin for patients affected by depressive symptoms, anxiety, and conversion disorder.” (Conversion disorder is a condition in which a person experiences physical and sensory problems, such as paralysis, numbness, blindness, deafness or seizures, with no underlying neurologic pathology.)
And as for psychedelics in general, in the 50s and 60s psychiatrists Osmond and Hoffer administered LSD to 2,000 alcoholic patients at the Weyman Psychiatric Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, over the course of more than 10 years. They claimed that a single large dose of LSD was an effective treatment for alcoholism and that, as a result, between 40 and 45 percent of their patients did not experience a relapse after a year. Their LSD therapy was endorsed by the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous of Canada and the director of Saskatchewan’s Bureau on Alcoholism. During the ‘50s and ‘60s the effects of psychedelics were tested on a total of about 40,000 people in several countries, including Switzerland and the U.S., across dozens of studies and with promising results. Half a dozen international conferences on the benefits of psychedelics were also held during this period.
So, how was it that psilocybin (along with the other psychedelics) became so vilified?
A Bad Reputation
By the late ‘60s, media coverage of hippies tripping on hallucinogens, as well as the budding abuse of LSD (including the illegal manufacturing of it), fanned flames of negative perception, particularly in the U.S. In 1970, President Nixon, as part of an effort to shut down the anti-war and anti-government hippy movement, enacted the Controlled Substances Act, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. In one fell swoop, psylocibin went from being totally legal to being classified as the most illegal type of drug, and research on psychedelics came to a halt—or went underground.
The criteria that define a Schedule 1 drug are as follows: (A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse; (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
Jerrod Rosenbaum, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, Mass General’s Chief of Psychiatry Emeritus, and founder and director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics, said in a June 2021 edition of the Harvard Gazette, “I don’t think it makes sense for psychedelics to continue [as a Schedule 1 drug]. When you talk about harm to self or harm to others, they’re way down the list, below things you can buy in your pharmacy or that your doctor can prescribe. They’re not addictive, though they do create an intense emotional experience that can be distressing if people are not prepared for it or if it’s not done with the right mental set and in the right setting. But millions of people have used these substances.”
He continued, “Some of these substances may have some brief cardiac stimulation, but otherwise, they’re remarkably safe and non-addicting.”
In 2021, a “Rapid Evidence Review” by the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board concluded that even unsupervised psilocybin use “is associated with decreased risk of mental health symptoms in population-based surveys.” In other words, psilocybin is proving to be low on risks and strong on benefits.
Rosenbaum goes on to say, however, that further research needs to be done in order to learn more about the science behind psychedelics. And, in terms of legalizing psychedelics, he says, “…we’re not so much advocates or fighters for access; we’re trying to understand how they work.”
Potential Hazards of Psychedelics
According to Medical News Today, some people who take psilocybin may experience persistent, distressing alterations to the way they see the world. These often take the form of a visual flashback, which is a traumatic recall of an intensely upsetting experience. People can continue to experience flashbacks anywhere from weeks to years after using the hallucinogen. Physicians now diagnose this condition as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder.
Some individuals who use psilocybin may also experience fear, agitation, confusion, delirium, psychosis, and syndromes that resemble schizophrenia, requiring a trip to the emergency room.
In most cases, a doctor will treat these effects with medication, such as benzodiazepines. Symptoms often resolve in six to eight hours as the effects of the psilocybin wear off.
However, in its 2021 review the Oregon Advisory Board on Psilocybin also reported that negative effects were normally “dose dependent,” meaning that low doses did not typically cause these adverse reactions.
How DO psychedelics work?
In a 2021 Harvard Gazette Q&A with Rosenbaum, he said, “I spent a little less than 20 years as chief of psychiatry at Mass General and toward the end of that term, I was talking to a patient about his suffering, and what was really bothering him. He was very vivid, and I had this ‘aha’ moment. Much of the burden of all the different conditions that we treat in psychiatry, whether it’s OCD, anxiety disorders, addiction, or depression, a main source of suffering is a kind of repetitive, stuck, painful dwelling on things: rumination. I made a practice of asking every one of my patients about rumination and found that it was a substantial part of their suffering.” (By definition in psychology, rumination refers to obsessive repetition of thoughts or excessively thinking about problems.)
Rosenbaum continued, “[Psychedelic] drugs create a mental state where psychotherapy, processing of emotional material and past traumas, can be handled so that you can be free of them. If managed well, you can make profound changes in how people think, feel, and behave—in some cases abruptly, after years of suffering.” Other researchers describe the benefit as getting people away from their ego and out of their mental and emotional “rut.”
What is this mental “state” that relieves or eradicates ruminations and traumas? In 2021, Yale published a study demonstrating psilocybin’s ability to create “brain plasticity” in the form of new neuronal connections. The significance of this is that chronic depression and anxiety are linked to a decrease in these neuronal connections. According to Alex Kwan, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the author of the study, “We not only saw a 10 percent increase in the number of neuronal connections, but they were on average about 10 percent larger, so the connections were stronger as well.”
And there’s more. Based on the latest studies from NYU, it seems that psilocybin’s effects can be long-lasting. Approximately 60 to 80 percent of people who participated in its 2016 study involving the effects of psilocybin on cancer patients with anxiety and depression (in which participants were administered a single dose of psylocibin) continued to experience significant reductions in depression or anxiety, sustained benefits in quality of life, and improved attitudes toward death in follow-ups up to nearly five years later.
The illegality of psilocybin has made getting approval for its research a long and arduous process, but there’s been progress. The FDA has given some psilocybin studies, such as a Johns Hopkins University study about psilocybin’s effect on major depressive disorders, designation as a breakthrough treatment. The FDA has also approved fast-tracking of these studies. Additionally, in 2021 Johns Hopkins became the first program to receive federal funding for the study of psychedelics and mental health.
However, Dr. Natalie Gukasyan, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with Johns Hopkins Medicine, cautions, “The results we see that are in a research setting require quite a lot of preparation and structured support from trained clinicians and therapists, and people should not attempt to try it on their own.”
This is good advice, but apart from those who are able to participate in approved studies, psylocibin-assisted therapy is not yet available, and, as yet another friendly reminder, the use of psylocibin is highly illegal in almost every state.
However, things are changing.
Slowly but Surely
Dr. Malynn Utzinger is the co-founder of Usona Institute, a Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting and conducting pre-clinical and clinical research to further the understanding of the therapeutic effects of psilocybin and other consciousness-expanding medicines. According to Utzinger, “Nearly one in 15 people in the US experiences an episode of major depression each year, significantly lowering their ability to function at work, to enjoy life, and to live out their full life potential. At Usona, our goal is to contribute to well-being by demonstrating the safety and efficacy of psilocybin as a treatment for depression. This goal fuels us to carry out research of the highest standard, with an aim toward FDA approval for a treatment that could change lives.”
And so, with this aim in mind, the research at numerous institutions continues, creating an ever-growing stack of data demonstrating the benefits of psilocybin (and other psychedelics), and slowly shifting public opinion—which in turn is prompting new legislation to decrease the illegality of psilocybin.
In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy. At the same time, penalties for psilocybin use, possession, and in some cases, even sale, have been reduced in Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington.
U.S. cities that have now decriminalized psilocybin (meaning that it’s been given lowest-level priority for law enforcement), and/or have legalized it for research or therapeutic purposes, include:
- Denver, which has also legalized, but not yet begun psilocybin-assisted therapy
- Santa Cruz, Oakland, and Arcata in California
- Sommerville, Cambridge and North Hampton in Massachusetts
- Port Townsend and Seattle in Washington
- Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County in Michigan
- Washington, D.C.
It’s expected that psilocybin use in Oregon and Denver will be legal under the supervision of a licensed psilocybin professional, but the parameters around licensure and safe use are still being debated and decided.
Compass, a company that’s researching psilocybin-assisted therapy, has designed a three-part therapy program for macrodosing psilocybin (which, again, entails a large enough dosage to experience psychedelic effects) that therapists in Oregon and Denver will be adopting. The steps, as outlined on Compass’ website, are:
1) Preparation: In these first preparation sessions, the therapist and patient get to know each other and form a trusting relationship, so that the patient can feel supported and at ease during the psilocybin session.
2) The psilocybin session: Patients lie down on a bed in a comfortable room, designed specifically for the session. They receive a dose of psilocybin in a capsule. During the experience, patients listen to a specially designed music playlist and wear an eye mask, to help them focus internally. The psilocybin experience typically lasts six to eight hours. A therapist and an assisting therapist are present throughout the session.
3) Integration: Patients are encouraged to discuss their experiences of the psilocybin session. The goal is for patients, with guidance from their therapist, to generate their own insights and ideas from the experience to change unhelpful emotional and behavioral patterns.
But what about people struggling with addiction, anxiety, OCD, depression, eating disorders, or PTSD who don’t live in Oregon or Denver—and who want to seek relief from their mental health issues now—not in a year or two when legal psilocybin-assisted treatment is estimated to begin in cities where it’s been legalized for therapeutic purposes? Fact is that an increasing number of people are using psilocybin unsupervised, obtaining their magic mushrooms through a legal loophole, and getting guidance through online DIY videos, as well as the websites of established experts such as Stamets and Fadiman.
The legal loophole exists because, while magic mushrooms contain psilocybin (which is what makes them illegal), their spores do not—and so technically the spores aren’t illegal. As a result, magic mushroom spores can and are being sold in abundance; “grow kits” can be readily purchased online. Once in their possession, people simply grow their own mushrooms from the spores—and when they mature and thus become illegal, these same people just hope they don’t get caught.
Examples of mushrooms grown from a “grow kit” of mushroom spores, purchased online.
Citizens are becoming their own experts on psychedelics. For example, Keu’s experience with psilocybin was so beneficial that she then spent almost two years researching and educating herself on natural psychedelics, even apprenticing with a natural healer who does plant-based medicine ceremonies.
According to an October 2021 article in Harvard Law, the obstacles to psilocybin at this point are political, not legal. Because of this, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School created the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR). POPLAR brings together representatives of the legal, medical, and political communities to discuss paths forward for psychedelics. At the same time, more politicians are pushing for legislation to loosen legal constraints on psychedelics, such as California State Senator Scott Wiener, and New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker.
However, Graham Boyd, co-founder and executive director of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, said in the Harvard Law article, “It’s important to realize that voters don’t necessarily share our assumptions [about psychedelics], so we need to stay tethered to information that can be validated. [We need to] stay in that balanced place, acknowledging that there is a mental health crisis and solutions need to be explored. To the general public, if we say, ‘If only everyone would take psychedelics the world would be filled with peace and harmony,’ that is setting us up for a backlash.” He also admitted that there are some negative experiences during drug trials, and while these are experienced by a small minority, he says, “We can’t pretend that won’t happen. That’s why data collection is important.”
On the topic of data collection, MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies), in collaboration with Quantified Citizen (an organization devoted to “disrupting and democratizing health research”), is currently orchestrating the world’s largest microdosing study. Participants (both those who microdose and those who do not) can join the study simply by registering for an app. Subjects then fill out assessment forms, and afterwards they record their usage and experiences. As of the third week in July 2022, 19,000 people from 84 countries were participating in the study, and Quantified Citizen reports that these numbers are rapidly growing.
As the research on psilocybin continues and the number of studies increases, so does my personal interest in taking them. I know people who are growing and microdosing mushrooms on their own, and while these people report positive mental health effects that I’d love to experience for myself, I still feel the need to wait until psilocybin gets, at the very least, a little less illegal.
As mushroom guru Stamets said in a June 2022 interview with CNN, “Let’s be adults about this, these are no longer ‘shrooms.’ These are no longer party drugs for young people. Psilocybin mushrooms are nonaddictive, life-changing substances.”
Kim Whiting is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her here on our Team page. She can be reached at .
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