Psilocybin therapy is a rapidly evolving trend thanks to recent changes in legalization. Specifically, Oregon legalized therapeutic psilocybin use in November 2020, while many other areas have decriminalized small amounts of the substance.
To be clear, people have been using psychedelics for medical and spiritual purposes since ancient times. In 1959, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann isolated psilocybin and sold the compound to clinicians for therapeutic use.
In the 1960s, psychologists Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert self-experimented with the pure substance until fired from their jobs at Harvard University for dangerous practices. Psilocybin became illegal in the early 1970s when President Nixon introduced the Controlled Substance Act. As of now, psilocybin is a Schedule I narcotic.
To this day, the FDA insists that psilocybin has no medical value, despite research repeatedly proving that it may induce long-term positive psychological changes in people who experience treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.
So, what gives? Are psychedelic mushrooms therapeutic? And if so, how does psilocybin therapy work?
Are Magic Mushrooms Therapeutic?
Though research is young, preliminary studies suggest that psilocybin could be therapeutically beneficial for treating some mental health conditions. For example, a representative sample of more than 100,000 US adults showed that those who used psychedelics were less likely to seek psychiatric treatment, take psychiatric medications, or experience severe psychological distress. Psychedelic use also resulted in fewer suicidal ideations and attempts, even in those with a history of depression.
The mechanisms behind psilocybin’s therapeutic potential are murky, but scientists believe that it relates to enhanced brain plasticity during a “trip.” As this Frontiers in Psychology article explains, “…enhanced plasticity via psychedelics, combined with a psychotherapeutic approach, can aid healthy adaptability and resilience, which are protective factors for long-term well-being.”
To explain, let’s look at the hippocampus, or the part of the brain responsible for things like learning, emotions, and memory. The hippocampus is also where neurons form, which are cells that send information throughout the brain and body.
Though most neurons are present at birth, neural development continues throughout life. The process occurs when stem cells divide to produce either another stem cell or a progenitor cell. A progenitor cell then differentiates to perform a more specialized function. After birth, they migrate to the proper brain location to mitigate the transport and uptake of neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages throughout the brain.
Interestingly, only about 1/3 of neurons make it to their designated location. Sometimes, disruptions caused by trauma or disease cause them to die early, which may explain why people with depression have fewer neurons in the hippocampus.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Research suggests that neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt to change, increases our ability to drop old habits and replace them with new ones.
How Psychedelics Increase Neuroplasticity
Research suggests that psilocybin therapy may help develop new neural pathways to help the brain become more flexible and unique. People make associations easier, think more creatively, and discover new ways of thinking about themselves and their environments.
It also seems to “reset” our Default Mode Network (DMN), which connects neural groups to help our consciousness function. Our DMN largely affects the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us as well as how we view our past, present, and future. Notably, those who suffer from chronic depression and anxiety often have an overactive DMN. Fortunately, research suggests psilocybin may be able to shut down an overactive DMN and reset it to a more healthy level.
Can Doctors Prescribe Psilocybin Mushrooms?
Oregon not only legalized psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in November 2020 but also vowed to establish a framework to regulate it in clinical settings. Notably, only licensed therapists and manufacturers may grow, extract, or synthetically create psilocybin. Moreover, only licensed clinicians may establish psychedelic therapy centers or provide mushroom therapy to patients.
Additionally, only adults qualify for psilocybin therapy, and they may only consume it in a clinical setting under licensed supervision. The state will establish legal psilocybin centers as early as 2023 but still does not allow recreational psilocybin use. Notably, Oregon’s Measure 109 requires a minimum two-year lawmaker review period before legal psilocybin clinics may open.
Some Canadian healthcare facilities already offer psilocybin therapy, thanks to a handful of exemptions granted through Health Canada. The exemptions protect 16 end-of-life patients select from restrictive psilocybin laws and allow them to possess and use psilocybin without fear of prosecution. Though the exemptions do not allow doctors to prescribe psilocybin or provide it to their patients, it does grant them the ability to guide them through a psychedelic session.
Notably, some physicians that work in areas with decriminalized magic mushrooms operate in a grey area by offering spores (which are legal because they don’t contain psilocybin yet) and consultation services. These doctors only provide their services via word-of-mouth, as they risk significant fines for promoting a technically illegal substance.
Doctor-Guided Psychedelic Therapy; What to Expect
Set (beliefs, expectations, and mental state) and setting (cultural environment) play a crucial role in the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy. As such, clinicians must establish the proper environment to conduct psychedelic therapy. This generally begins anywhere from one day to a few weeks before the psychedelic session takes place.
To prepare for psilocybin therapy, two clinicians will review the patient’s mental state, build rapport, and answer any questions the patient has about their upcoming session. Next, they will establish a therapeutic environment using comfortable seating, calming lighting, and soothing music. Finally, they invite the patient to a four-to-six-hour psychedelic session. The patient consumes a pre-calculated dose of psilocybin then waits for the substance to take effect. The clinicians remain in the room for the whole session asking questions and guiding thoughts as necessary. However, the bulk of the work occurs in the patient’s mind as the psychedelics open it up for more malleable thinking.
The following day, the patient will engage in an after-care session during which the patient and clinicians discuss any breakthroughs and maintenance advice.
Notably, the experience can be quite extreme, causing some patients to scream in agony as they come to terms with baggage or traumas they need to unpack. However, the result is often much more profound – and longer-lasting – than traditional medications and talk therapy. In fact, some research suggests that psychedelics can have a positive effect for up to six to eight weeks after a single session. Importantly, this is significantly longer than any other form of therapy available today.
Conditions that May Benefit from Psychedelic Therapy
- Anxiety: Psilocybin therapy shows promise as a treatment for anxiety in those who have terminal illnesses. A small 2012 study looked at 12 end-of-life cancer patients and found that those who consumed psilocybin had significantly lowered their anxiety and improved their mood compared to placebo.
- Addiction: Numerous small studies show that psychedelics may reduce substance abuse problems, including alcoholism and tobacco addiction. Interestingly, observational studies suggest that people who consume ayahuasca, another plant-based psychedelic substance, were more likely to experience improved mental health and a reduced prevalence of substance abuse.
- PTSD: Recent research suggests that magic mushrooms may help reduce the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. A 2013 study found that low doses of psilocybin helped mice overcome fear-based responses better than placebo. Researchers, therefore, suggest that the substance may help break traumatic cycles common in PTSD patients.
- Depression: Recent clinical trials suggest that psilocybin may improve depressive symptoms better than other traditional means. For example, one 2017 study administered two doses of psilocybin to 20 patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Researchers assessed depressive symptoms between one week and six months post-treatment. They discovered a significant reduction in depressive symptoms for at least five weeks after treatment.
- Eating Disorders: Psychedelics may also improve eating disorders due to their ability to affect our Default Mode Network (DMN). Notably, those who suffer from anorexia often have impaired cognitive functioning and tend to be very rigid in their thinking. For example, they may have strict rules about what, when, and how much they can eat. They also tend to hyper-focus on details rather than consider the whole picture. Fortunately, psychedelic therapy may help people with eating disorders break away from this rigid mindset.
- Traumatic Brain Injury: The effects psychedelics have on brain plasticity may positively impact traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Recent research suggests that psychedelic pharmacotherapies may help regulate neuroinflammation, improve neuroplasticity, and promote neurogenesis in vitro, in vivo, and in a small number of case studies. Moreover, psychedelic administration is relatively safe, as was proven in phase 0 and phase 1 studies. Numerous publicly-traded psychedelic companies are currently collecting resources to help fund further psychedelic research for TBI.
- Existential Distress: Psychological distress is very common among cancer patients. Fortunately, early studies from the 1960s and 70s suggest that psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD may effectively reduce existential suffering. Since then, 10 more clinical trials have confirmed that psychedelics may improve cancer-related anxiety, depression, and fear of death.
Featured Psilocybin Therapy Clinics
Mind Cure Health Inc.Mind Cure Health Inc. is a Canadian biotech company that produces and distributes mushroom powders and supports synthetic psychedelic research. The company boasts its multi-dimensional approach to therapy through psychedelic medicines, clinician support, and mobile technology.
Final Thoughts on Psilocybin Therapy
We’ve only just begun to understand the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms. Fortunately, recent legislation changes have opened the door for psychedelic therapy research. In time, psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms may become commonplace to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders.
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