How Magic Mushrooms Can Treat Depression and Anxiety

How Magic Mushrooms Can Treat Depression and Anxiety

Magic mushrooms have been used for centuries as a traditional medicine, but only recently have scientists begun to study their potential as a treatment for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Although research is still in the early stages, initial studies show promising results that magic mushrooms may be an effective alternative to traditional antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

What Are Magic Mushrooms?

Magic mushrooms, also known as shrooms or psilocybin mushrooms, are a group of fungi that contain the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin. There are over 200 species of mushrooms that fall into this category, the most common being Psilocybe cubensis.When ingested, psilocybin is converted to psilocin which acts on serotonin receptors in the brain, leading to altered thinking, emotional effects, and perceptional changes. The effects typically last 4-6 hours.Unlike many other recreational drugs, magic mushrooms are not addictive or toxic to the body. However, they can cause negative effects like anxiety, paranoia, nausea, and disorientation, especially when taken in high doses.

How Do Magic Mushrooms Work to Treat Mental Health Conditions?

Researchers believe psilocybin works to improve mental health in a few key ways:
  • Increases connections between brain regions - Brain imaging studies show psilocybin temporarily decreases activity in brain networks and increases connectivity between regions. This may allow the brain to break out of rigid thought patterns associated with depression.
  • Releases dopamine - Psilocybin prompts the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and reward. Low dopamine levels are linked to depression.
  • Decreases blood flow to the amygdala - This almond-shaped structure deep in the brain is involved in processing emotions, anxiety, and fear. Decreased blood flow to the amygdala may reduce symptoms of anxiety.
  • Increases feelings of well-being - Users commonly report positive mood changes, life satisfaction, optimism and openness after taking psilocybin, especially in a therapeutic setting.
These effects combine to shift negative thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors that underlie conditions like depression and anxiety. The changes appear to be long-lasting in many people.

Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy

In recent clinical trials, patients do not simply take magic mushrooms on their own to self-medicate. Instead, psilocybin is used as an adjunct to psychotherapy in a model called psilocybin-assisted therapy.Participants undergo extensive screening and preparation with a psychiatrist before undergoing a session. During this session, they take a dose of synthetic psilocybin in a comfortable, supervised setting. They may wear eyeshades and listen to music while therapists provide guidance and support as needed.Follow-up integrative therapy helps participants process the experience and adopt new perspectives. Multiple sessions may be conducted over time.This therapeutic model allows users to benefit from the mind-expanding effects of psilocybin while avoiding potential dangers of taking it recreationally. The careful screening and preparation helps minimize adverse reactions.

Evidence for Effectiveness in Treating Depression

In small studies by research institutions like Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London, psilocybin has rapidly reduced depressive symptoms in participants for over 3 months after treatment.One study followed patients for over 4 years. At the 4 year mark, over 70% remained depression-free after a single dose of psilocybin.Participants also commonly say the treatment gave them a new perspective and worldview - that life seemed more meaningful and worthwhile after their experience.However, the existing studies are small with only around 20-30 participants. Larger randomized controlled trials are needed to truly determine effectiveness.Researchers also emphasize that psilocybin-assisted therapy should not replace conventional therapy and medication which are still the front-line treatments for depression. But it may be a promising supplemental option for those resistant to other treatments.

Evidence for Effectiveness in Treating Anxiety

Research also indicates potential for psilocybin to treat generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and anxiety related to serious illness like cancer.In one study, a single dose of psilocybin led to decreased anxiety and depression for up to 8 months in patients with life-threatening cancer. MRI scans showed reduced blood flow to the amygdala, correlated with lower anxiety levels.Several other trials show psilocybin can reduce anxiety, hopelessness, and distress in cancer patients while improving quality of life.For generalized anxiety disorder, a 2017 trial found psilocybin with therapy led to marked improvements for 6 months after treatment. However, more rigorous research is still needed.

Potential Risks and Side Effects

Despite promising research, psilocybin does come with short-term risks like anxiety, confusion, paranoia and panic, especially in uncontrolled settings. There is also a very low risk of long-lasting psychosis.For this reason, experts believe psilocybin should only be administered in a medical setting after careful screening for mental health disorders that could be exacerbated. Patients with a family history of schizophrenia or psychosis are often excluded from trials.Psilocybin can also interact with medications like antidepressants. Patients should consult their doctor before pursuing this treatment option. And as with any antidepressant, psilocybin is not a cure-all. It may not work for everyone and should be pursued cautiously.

Is Psilocybin Legal?

Psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical purpose. Possession is a felony in most U.S. states.However, public opinion on psilocybin is shifting. Several cities like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz have decriminalized magic mushrooms. Oregon legalized psilocybin therapy in 2020.The FDA has also granted "breakthrough therapy" status to psilocybin for depression, acknowledging more research is still needed. This shift could pave the way for federal approval in the future.

Looking Ahead

After decades of prohibition, research is finally demonstrating magic mushrooms' potential to safely and sustainably treat mental health conditions like depression and anxiety when administered with proper protocols.While larger, longer-term studies are still needed, current research shows psilocybin-assisted therapy could provide long-lasting relief after just a single or handful of sessions. This would provide a welcome alternative to daily medications that cause side effects and withdrawal symptoms.However, psilocybin is not a cure-all and carries risks if used recreationally. It shows the most promise when administered by mental health professionals in a therapeutic setting.If future research continues to demonstrate safety and efficacy, psilocybin therapy could enter psychiatric practice and give patients a new option for treating stubborn depression and anxiety.
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