Sure, we enjoy the relaxing benefits of lighting up and indulging in munchies. And weed products continue to make strides in the health, wellness, and beauty space—to the point of oversaturation, honestly. From pain relief to PTSD and anxiety management, it’s hard to ignore the health benefits that are stacking up. Psychedelics are starting to follow in the medical footsteps of Mary Jane. The mind-altering effects of magic mushrooms are being studied in a therapeutic setting to treat addiction and mental health issues.
Shrooms had a moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s and made their big pop culture debut in the muddy hills of Woodstock. Hippie culture fused the connection between psychedelics and music. But once the War on Drugs took hold, the use of shrooms in the West receded. It wasn’t until marijuana use became mainstream—and legal in some countries—that magic mushrooms started inching into the wellness space. Microdosing, life-altering experiences, changes in ego, and creativity are being openly discussed by public figures such as Joe Rogan and Post Malone (while on shrooms, see full podcast here.) Is legalizing shrooms in the West next?
We had to know more about the studies being conducted on the positive impact of magic mushrooms, so we reached out to our friends at YAWN—a psychedelic culture brand and educational platform. Dr. Lindsay Mackay is an expert in psilocybin use as a form of therapy for addiction and mental health issues, and provided some telling information. We would like the clarify that the recreational use of mushrooms remains illegal and we are in no way endorsing it, all the information in this feature relates to therapeutic treatment and is for educational purposes.
Below, Dr. Mackay weighs in on the positive effects of psilocybin, the stigma surrounding its use, and the importance of mindset and setting when taking them.
What is psilocybin?
Psilocybin is the active substance found in “magic mushrooms” that causes temporary changes in thinking, mood, and perception by acting on serotonin receptors in the brain. Although research is still ongoing to determine exactly how psilocybin works, some studies have used MRI imaging to measure brain activity after healthy volunteers have taken psilocybin.
How does it affect your brain?
One predominant theory suggests that psilocybin disrupts and then re-integrates the “default mode network” in the brain. The default mode network is a connected area of the brain involved with thought, memory, and ego and has been associated with mental health conditions like depression. These changes to brain activity are thought to result in expansion and flexibility in thinking and could change how someone relates to past memories. The theory is that these temporary changes during an experience with psilocybin may have lasting effects on behavior and self-image.
Based on the current research, what are the potential positive effects of psilocybin?
Preliminary studies with small groups of people show that psilocybin could be useful for [the] treatment of certain mental health conditions and addictions. A Johns Hopkins study showed that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy reduces end-of-life anxiety among patients with advanced cancer—some reported their experience as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. An Imperial College London study showed that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy reduced depressive symptoms in patients with treatment-resistant depression. Another Johns Hopkins study using two or three psilocybin-assisted therapy sessions with people who were heavy, long-term smokers resulted in remarkable quit rates of approximately 70% one year after treatment.
Although much of the research is early and uses small numbers of people, the results are promising and are also consistent with much of the previous research done in the ‘50s and ‘60s before psychedelics were made illegal. I think research is just starting to scratch the surface of the potential benefits of psilocybin. Research in this field has been increasing dramatically over the last few years and it’s going to be exciting to see how psychedelics can improve the way we treat mental health and addictions.
Why is there a stigma surrounding the use of psilocybin?
Albert Hofman synthesized psilocybin in the late 1950s, which allowed for research to flourish using psilocybin as an adjunct to therapy for a number of different mental health conditions. Unfortunately, due to socio-political factors and [the] spreading recreational use of psychedelics associated with the counterculture movement, psychedelic substances including psilocybin were made illegal in the early 1970s. Much of the stigma comes from false information spread about psychedelics throughout the War on Drugs and psilocybin’s current classification as a controlled substance in most jurisdictions. As more research continues to be published demonstrating the safety and benefits of psilocybin, I think the collective view of psilocybin and other psychedelics will shift and the stigma will be reduced.
There are already signs of this shift occurring in places like Oregon, where psychedelic-assisted therapy has been legalized. In Canada, approval has been granted for [the] compassionate use of psilocybin-assisted therapy for end-of-life distress and for [the] training of therapists. It’s also extremely important to note that naturally occurring psychedelics such as psilocybin have been, and continue to be used in other cultures as part of traditional practices for centuries.
How can mindset and environment impact the effects of psilocybin?
Mindset is commonly referred to as “set” within psychedelic medicine and the environment someone is in when taking psilocybin as “setting”. Set and setting are important in influencing someone’s experience with psychedelics; having a fearful mindset in a stressful, unsupported, or chaotic environment could result in a negative experience while having a calm and open mindset in a supportive, safe environment helps to create a positive one. Challenging experiences can occur in any set and setting so it’s important to have the support of a therapist who is experienced with psychedelic medicine.
What is the ideal mindset and environment?
In psilocybin-assisted therapy research studies, participants go through multiple preparatory sessions with a trained therapist prior to taking psilocybin. During these sessions, the relationship with the participant and therapists is developed, goals and intentions are set and there is ample time to discuss what is to be expected with the psilocybin experience. This helps to create an appropriate mind “set” prior to taking psilocybin. Care is taken to create a supportive environment for research participants by choosing music specifically created for psilocybin experiences and incorporating art, plants, and comfortable furniture in the therapy room. Anecdotally, people who use psilocybin report that being in nature can be very therapeutic and healing.
What does the future of psilocybin look like?
I think if further research demonstrates the benefits of psilocybin and how it can be used safely for other mental health conditions and addictions, we will see access expand further within a therapeutic setting. If access is expanded, I think it is essential that there systems in place to ensure equitable and fair access to this type of therapy, especially for vulnerable and marginalized populations.
The future of psilocybin and other psychedelics should also focus on diversity within research studies in order to represent our diverse population appropriately. It’s important that culture and spirituality be an integral aspect of psilocybin-assisted therapy and research.
My everyday work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside involves treating the symptoms of so many people’s underlying trauma—their addiction, which claims the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians every year. Psilocybin has the potential to address the underlying root cause that leads to addiction in the first place and I believe it may have the potential to reduce the suffering I witness daily.