The Magic of Mushrooms

“My shroom experience was a very unique one. Everything that you see (even inanimate objects) [seems] alive. It put my life in a whole new perspective. I remember seeing a line of ants and thinking about how we probably think of an individual ant’s life to be very insignificant. Then I kinda zoomed out and thought that in the grand scheme of things, our lives are just as, if not even more, insignificant, like no one would care that I was here tripping my mind away.” 

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Figure 1: Artistic depiction of magic mushrooms [Photo_Link]
That was Hubert’s description of what it’s like to be on shrooms. Maybe you’ve heard of shrooms as a psychedelic substance, or maybe you’re currently wondering what I’m talking about. A special class of the mushrooms that @chaconine loves, psychedelic mushrooms contain psilocybin, a natural psychoactive substance we can consume and break down into psilocin. Psilocin is structurally similar to serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and appetite; it helps individuals feel happy and emotionally stable. Because of the similarity in chemical structure, psilocybin binds to serotonin receptors and prevents them from receiving the neurotransmitter. Although we don’t know how exactly the blocking of serotonin receptors works to create the “trip,” or psychedelic experience, we do know that taking shrooms causes hyperconnectivity in the brain, linking parts of the brain that wouldn’t have been connected before. This is what causes the “magical” side effects of taking shrooms that include synesthesia, hallucinations, mood changes, and altered sense of time, among others. Many also report having transcendental experiences after taking magic mushrooms, citing profound spiritual and personal insights during the altered state of consciousness that lead to an overall meaningful event. Of course, everyone’s experience with psilocybin is different, so we can’t predict what would actually happen if you or I were to take shrooms, not that I’m suggesting we do.

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Figure 2: Chemical structures of psilocybin, psilocin, and serotonin [Photo_Link]
So we know what this means for people who use shrooms recreationally, but what possibilities does psilocybin present for others? For some, it could be a treatment of sorts. Recent studies have demonstrated that psilocybin can alleviate symptoms of depression, even in individuals who hadn’t responded to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the category of drugs typically prescribed for depression and anxiety. [1][2] One study even found that psilocybin can be more effective than SSRIs! Similar boosts in mood and life satisfaction were found in patients with life-threatening cancer when compared to SSRI usage after they took controlled doses of psilocybin.[3] These positive effects on mood are discernable after the psychedelic effects wear off, and can last from a few weeks up to 6 months. These findings suggest that in the future, psilocybin may be a treatment option for patients with major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there may also be challenges associated with such a treatment; for example, psilocybin is easily abused, not because it’s physically addictive (it’s not), but because it’s not entirely difficult to accidentally overdose on psilocybin, resulting in a full-on trip instead of a smaller dose for therapeutic effects. This type of accidental overdose can cause trips or general sickness such as headaches or nausea, and is not to be confused with the fatal overdose, in which toxic state or death occurs. In addition, trials for psilocybin as a pharmaceutical drug would be held in tightly controlled settings, which means we can’t know for sure how patients taking it in uncontrolled settings would react, and how intense any side effects would be. Such uncertainty is associated with any possible drug on trial, but it’s important to mention that as a psychoactive drug, psilocybin has a wide and sometimes unpredictable range of psychological and physiological effects on its users. Despite all of the foreseeable drawbacks, psilocybin may still be something worth looking into as a more natural and effective antidepressant.

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Figure 3: An example of psilocybin mushroom as suggested by @chaconine [Photo_Link]
Okay, now let’s say you’re not a recreational user and you’re not looking to take shrooms as a therapeutic remedy and instead just want to boost your everyday mood and productivity. Microdosing just might be the answer for you! In this context, microdosing is taking sub-perceptual doses of a psychoactive drug every few days in order to temporarily achieve higher levels of creativity, energy, and spirituality. This concept, although anecdotally supported, has little to no scientific backing. Currently, there aren’t many studies on microdosing psychedelics, and the few that exist are interview studies. Most subjects stated that after microdoses, they felt better in terms of emotion, cognition, and productivity, and that they seemed to function better in society. [4] With that being said, skeptics have argued that the self-reports of microdosing are subjective. While the research on the effect of psilocybin on patients with depression involved subjects’ self-reports, clinicians’ ratings, and outside observers’ ratings, the interview study on microdosing psychedelics only include subjects’ stories of their experiences. Since the interview study was self-reported by subjects and lacked an empirical rating system, it opens up the possibility of bias and placebo effect, which then call into question the apparent usefulness of microdosing. As mentioned above with psilocybin as a potential treatment option, certain challenges are also associated with microdosing, the most common challenges being accidental overdosing and resulting trip. Again, the variability in each individual’s response to psilocybin means that for some, microdosing can actually aggravate certain symptoms, and for others, the benefits of microdosing quickly dissipate. Moreover, there currently isn’t any research on the long-term physiological effects of chronic psilocybin use, so we can’t be sure that the pro of a temporary mood and energy boost outweighs the cons of possible health effects further down the line. So, even though I said microdosing might be the answer for you, I personally wouldn’t recommend it until experimental studies demonstrate that it is safe and effectual.

Are psychedelic mushrooms only good for the occasional high, or do they hold the key to happiness and well-being in those who struggle with mental health? There is also potential that they could be integrated into our daily lives to help bring out our best selves, although we don’t know for sure yet. Perhaps you’re just curious about the psychedelic trip, or you want to try shrooms for its supposed mental healing and energy boosting properties. Either way, if you do decide to take shrooms despite its status as an illegal substance, let me know about your experience and your opinions about its potential as an antidepressant.

References:
1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2215036616300657
2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-13282-7
3. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881116675513
4. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1455072517753339

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