Research in the field is proceeding at a pace not seen since the psychedelic boom of the 1960’s. So what exactly is psilocybin, what are its effects, and are there any risks? Let’s take a look.
Psilocybin is a chemical compound that comes from certain types of fresh or dried hallucinogenic mushrooms that can be found all over the world but are particularly suited to temperate and tropical environments. One of the more well-known and studied psychedelics, consumed psilocybin produces a “trip,” or a hallucinogenic and euphoric experience by acting on the 5-HT receptors in the central nervous system.
There are more than 180 species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin, but the chemical can also be produced synthetically. People typically use psilocybin for recreation, ritual, and increasingly, to improve mental health.
Not everyone who consumes psilocybin will have the same experience, and there are a range of physical and mental effects that will vary from person to person.
Physical effects may include:
Now to the mental effects:
Psychedelic research is a burgeoning field, one that is filled with promise for psilocybin and its potential benefits. In the past ten years particularly, there has been a dramatic increase in research seeking solutions to difficult conditions like depression, drug dependency, and anorexia nervosa.
On the forefront of research is Johns Hopkins University, who have been looking into the potential mental health applications for psilocybin since the early 2000’s. Though these studies are not doubleblind – widely considered the gold standard in clinical intervention – researchers have uncovered some intriguing findings.
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in November 2020 showed that in a small study of adults with major depression that two doses of psilocybin – in tandem with supportive psychotherapy – facilitated a large reduction of the cohort’s depressive symptoms, with most participants showing improvement and half achieving remission through a four-week follow up.
In 2016, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis experienced relief from existential anxiety and depression when treated with psilocybin along with psychological support.
The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is an American nonprofit working to raise awareness and understanding of psychedelic substances, and they work closely with organizations such as Johns Hopkins, the Beckley Foundation, and NIDA to further psilocybin research. Some studies that are ongoing include psilocybin-facilitated addiction treatment, its effects on healthy volunteers, and psilocybin’s effects on attention, perception, and cognition.
Magic mushrooms remain an illegal Schedule I substance, defined as having high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. That makes it difficult to know what exactly you’re getting, especially if buying on the illicit market. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for magic mushrooms to be sold as something else entirely and possibly tainted with other hallucinogens such as PCP or LSD.
For those with mood disorders such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, psilocybin may need to be avoided completely. Because of how the substance works in the brain, taking mushrooms could exacerbate previously existing mental health issues.
In a worst case scenario, it is possible to accidentally ingest a poisonous mushroom instead of one with psilocybin. This could occur when buying mushrooms from the illicit market or even when foraging for mushrooms in the wild. Unless you’re a mycologist, it’s easy to mistake a harmful mushroom for one that is hallucinogenic.
Symptoms of mushroom poisoning such as confusion, gastrointestinal distress, delirium, and muscle weakness can be mistaken for a trip’s side effects. At the least you’ll feel terrible. At the worst it could be fatal.
It is not uncommon to have a “bad trip” – an unpleasant experience that can happen during or after consuming a psychedelic, or experience HPPD, or hallucinogen-induced persisting perception disorder.
Some researchers in the field of psychedelics have unequivocally stated that the abuse potential for psilocybin is low. Both human and animal studies have shown low abuse and no physical dependence potential, while major national surveys report low rates of abuse, harm, and treatment seeking.
According to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), abusing psilocybin may lead to poisoning and psychological addiction.
There is no one way to recognize a magic mushroom because they come in many different shapes and sizes, and different species prefer different growing mediums. Most often, you can find mushrooms growing on wood or plant-based materials, on animal dung, and on decomposed plant matter.
Remember, if you decide to go on a magic mushroom hunt, the number one rule to keep in mind is to look but not touch. As mentioned earlier, misidentifying mushrooms can be deadly business so don’t take a chance.
Here are a few species to keep an eye out for in North America:
In the past few election cycles in the U.S. cities such as Oakland, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts have decriminalized the substance, and in November 2020, Oregon voters voted to make psilocybin legal throughout the state. However, on the federal level, psilocybin remains a Schedule I substance.
Myth: People often believe that psilocybin is a kinder, gentler psychedelic so they’re inherently safer and produce a less intense trip than other psychedelics. Just like LSD, mescaline, or any other psychedelic substance, magic mushrooms are unpredictable and affect people differently depending on mindset, personal biology, mental health, and a range of other factors.
Question: Are agaric mushrooms (white spotted red toadstools) the same as psilocybin? The short answer is no. Instead of psilocybin, the chemicals that cause psychoactive effects are ibotenic acid and muscimol, whose effects can include twitching, drooling, sweating, dizziness, and vomiting. Definitely not a “trip” you’d want to take.
Consuming nearly any drug frequently can cause tolerance to develop, meaning that you need more of the substance to achieve the same effect. Some overdose symptoms include paranoia, psychosis, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle weakness, and panic.
Dependence and withdrawal from psilocybin are uncommon and most people who regularly take them are unlikely to struggle with stopping if they feel the substance is causing problems.
It’s easy to find addiction centers ready to cure a “psilocybin addiction,” but the truth is, addiction to the substance is rare. However, if a problematic pattern of use does emerge, such as finding it difficult to stop taking the substance even when it is causing harm or distress, treatment should be considered.