When I walk through nearby woods, I think of how fungi form the underlying fabric of the forest floor. They literally connect trees and plants together through a microrhyzzal network and help send messages, transport food and provide protection for the vast web of aboveground flora. In the woods near my house, fungi such as chanterelles, boletes, Oregon reishi and turkey tail emerge above as delicacies to eat but also as medicinal agents that can improve health and wellbeing.
For thousands of years we have known that medicinal mushrooms can have a tonic effect on the body that help improve physical and emotional health. They can act as prebiotics to help improve gut health, reduce depression and anxiety, fight cancer and improve cognitive acuity and memory. They also have important anti-inflammatory effects that are key to helping heal both physical and mental health problems.
Not only have mushrooms been used medicinally, certain psychedelic species of mushrooms have long been used for sacred and therapeutic purposes. While forest mushrooms help establish deep fungal connections between neighboring plants and trees, psychedelic fungi help make novel connections between different segments of the brain. New research is showing some of these connections on brain scans and helping us understand why psychedelic fungi are powerful tools for helping people deal with emotional illness symptoms such as depression, social anxiety, grief and addiction. In this article I will explore some of this research as well and see how it is changing how we think about mental health and treatment strategies for people who are struggling emotionally.
In the last ten years a revolution has been quietly occurring in the field of mental health. Research into the use of psychedelic compounds, made illegal since the 60’s, has now become legal again. Numerous studies have shown positive results from the use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression, PTSD, end of life grief and even migraines. Because of the positive results, there has been increasing movement to allow their use in therapeutic settings.
Worldwide, there are 209 species of mushrooms that elicit psychedelic experiences but the most popular to consume is Psilocybe cubensis. This mushroom is primarily popular because of the ease of growing it, but also due to its potent effect. At “trip doses” that start at around 1.5-2 grams, cubensis can bring on a kaleidoscope of perceptual and auditory changes, synesthesia, feelings of symbiotic connection with the world around one, as well as deep gnostic and psychological insights.
For a small portion of people at higher doses, the experience of reality bending can become overwhelming and lead to feelings of fear and panic. The importance of “set and setting” are paramount. “Good trips” are more likely to occur when mushrooms are taken in a good mindset with friends in a natural and comfortable environment.
And while people report many positive things about large dose trips, they can be unpredictable and can be especially challenging to anyone who is susceptible to psychosis and extreme states. They also require a significant amount of time away to fully experience the trip. For these reasons a large movement of people have explored how to integrate their benefits at smaller doses- or what are known as “microdoses.” More about that later.
So how do these fungi work?
Psilocybe mushrooms contains the psychoactive constituents psilocybin and psilocin. When ingested that psilocybin is broken down by an alkaline phosphate enzyme into the tryptamine molecule psilocin. Psilocin is what is actually responsible for the “high” one experiences. There are also two other active psychoactive but far less prevalent constituents known as baeocystin and norbaeocystin.
These constituents are extraordinarily similar and stable amongst many different strains from throughout the world. That means consuming cubensis mushrooms from one batch should have about the same percentage of psychoactive constituents as the same dose from a different batch.
—————————————————–% Psilocybin % Psilocin % Baeocystin
Psilocybe semilanceata (Liberty Caps) .98 .02 .36
Psilopcybe cyanescens .85 .36 .03
Psilocybe cubensis .63 .60 .025
Psilocin is a very interesting molecule that resembles the common neurotransmitter serotonin. Most folks know about serotonin because of antidepressants that manipulate serotonin levels.
Serotonin is actually a very ancient molecule, is found in mammals but also insects, plants and fungi and is responsible for a wide variety of functions. In humans, serotonin plays a key role in modulating mood, but is also instrumental in encouraging gut motility, organ growth and regulating bone mass. In plants, serotonin is implicated in regulating growth, flowering and ripening amongst many other functions.
The psychedelic mushroom compound psilocin docks at certain serotonin receptor gates and the most notable one appears to be 5HT2A. That connection leads to a variety of effects- including the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)- a substance that stimulates increased cerebral flow and interconnectivity.
What we are finding from MRIs done on participants who took mushrooms is that the substance transforms the connections happening in the brain. Certain regions of the brain start to connect to other unrelated parts of the brain that normally would not be connected. Essentially the organizational structure of the brain changes to allow for more cerebral connections. This may be one of the reasons for increased perceptual creativity, new insights as well as synesthesia- the experience of crossing senses so that one smells colors and tastes sounds. Unrelated parts of the brain are neurally connecting.
Other changes in the brain begin to occur as well. Areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion located in the amygdala and hippocampus start to neurally connect and become more synchronized. This is similar to what happens to the human brain when one is sleeping and dreaming. The waking state becomes expanded to form new perceptions because of new neural connections.
The other piece that is key is that it looks like psychedelic mushrooms can disrupt a portion of the brain known as the “default mode network” or DMN. This is the networking of parts of the brain that is often overactive in those who are obsessive, anxious and depressed and is associated with excessive rumination, analysis and repetitive thinking patterns. Disrupting the DMN allows for less rigid thinking patterns and creates space for more creativity and divergent “out of the box” thinking.
These research findings are especially important when we discuss mushrooms effects on those who have experienced heavy stress and trauma. We know that prolonged stress and trauma and a heightened sympathetic nervous system leads to the body “freezing” in a number of ways. We all know the term frozen with fear- and that is literally what happens with sustained stressors and trauma. The digestive system freezes up, the heart rate becomes rigid, our muscles can start to tighten and cause painful shoulder, facial and throat rigidity. We now know that the DMN becomes overactive and thinking patterns become ruminative and rigid as well.
We literally lock up. Much of trauma work is about the process of helping people to slowly “unfreeze”, to come out of these armored states in a way that is safe and gentle. For some people under the right conditions, psychedelic mushrooms can act as catalysts for unfreezing rigid mental states.
1- In recent research at the Imperial College of London have focused on the treatment of depression with psilocybin. Participants report much reduced levels of depression- even weeks after ingesting mushrooms. Researchers postulate that one of the mechanisms for improvement is due to reduced cerebral blood flow to parts of the brain that deal with handling stress and fear.
2- Other studies have been done as well. In England, “12 patients with treatment-resistant depression were given two doses of psilocybin one week apart. A week after the treatment, eight patients were completely free of depressive symptoms. Five were still in remission three months later. The drug was well tolerated and there were no unexpected adverse events.”
One study done with 36 people showed that many participants felt lasting anti-depressive and positive feelings for “as much as a year.” Another study was done with terminal cancer patients who “had a transcendent or transpersonal experience during their psychedelic treatment session also had the most dramatic subsequent reduction in anxiety, improved mood and better overall quality of life.”
A very interesting recent study measured the ability of psychedelic mushrooms to help change belief systems. In classic talk therapy, entrenched beliefs of clients are often the hardest things to change- especially if they are primarily negative- which is often the case for those with depression. “For a series of nature-related questions, the researchers reported that the volunteers showed a shift toward more “connectedness to their environment.” For political and social questions, they evidenced a shift toward a more libertarian mindset. That was even true for those who’d originally answered with an authoritarian bent.”
Interestingly, mushrooms seem to also have a marked effect on pain levels for those experiencing cluster headaches and migraines. Researchers are exploring the use of mushrooms and other psychedelics and many sufferers are reporting significant relief from their pain.
Though numerous studies have been done on large dose consumption of psilocybin, there are no known studies on the effects of taking small doses of psychedelic mushrooms. While there is a lack of scientific research around this subject, consumers have shared reports about their experiences on forums and off-line networks. There have been so many reports of good experiences that it has become increasingly popular among a larger segment of people.
The main reports from microdosing are that life becomes more enhanced and the consumer experiences greater cognitive acuity, presence, and greater feelings of relaxation, energy and spaciousness. One of the main effects seems to be that language centers are stimulated- with people often reporting greater articulation, enhanced connections and greater fluidity of speech. The main effects would begin after a half hour and last for a few hours.
There are a number of protocols that have been offered outside of mainstream research. One main method is to dose every fourth day. But in general people have tried a variety of methods including dosing daily for a short period of time all the way to very intermittent dosing schedules.
The goal of microdosing is to offer the benefits of the fungi without causing excessive perceptual disturbances. About .1-.2 grams of psilocybe cubensis- or about a twentieth to a tenth of a “trip dose” would be the start of a microdose- or what is known as a “sub-threshold” dose. Above that level, the dose starts to become aware to the consumer and perceptual changes are more noticeable. Some can tolerate slightly higher microdoses but in general doses in the range of .5-1.0 grams become quite noticeable as a low level “trip.” Though reports have been generally positive, there are some reports of increased anxiety, worsening depression and increased extreme state symptoms.
Medication interactions are another factor to address. There is no sanctioned research on this matter so the only evidence for interaction has been anecdotal so far. That being said, its good to take into account what people are saying with regards to med/mushroom interaction.
The first thing to think about is that mushrooms primarily affect serotonin (5-HT2a) receptors and that many psych medications affect these same receptors. In general what we are learning is that medications such as atypical antipsychotics (ability, risperdal) as well as modern serotonergic antidepressants (celexa, prozac) reduce the effect of mushrooms. In my book this doesn’t mean people should “just take more.” It means its probably a very good idea to avoid taking mushrooms while on these class of meds as they are interacting excessively.
People who are taking old school tricyclic antidepressants as well as mood stabilizers like lithium report increased negative interactions with mushrooms, including having seizures. So again, a definite no. I would continue on to add stimulants (adderall, vyvanse) to this as well as the effect could easily be too stimulating.
So general thoughts on this- psych pharma meds and mushrooms don’t mix. Yes plenty of people do take them on antidepressants- and many with good effect. But I would stay in the range of cautious here and suggest that its better to hold off.
In general its important to acknowledge that for anyone working through any form of severe depression or dealing with extreme states in the form of mania, hearing voices or delusions, its best just to avoid mushrooms in general. They are far too volatile even at microdoses and can lead to worsening mental health.
Psychedelic Fungi pros and cons
There is no doubt that psychedelic fungi can be deeply transformational for many people but its key to acknowledge some of the areas where there can be challenges.
For some people, any dose- even a microdose- can elicit feelings of fear and panic. Those who are susceptible to extreme states, psychosis or who have experienced heavy trauma- can become overly stimulated and triggered into deeply challenging states. The higher the dose, the more risk is involved. Trip doses starting at 1.5 grams of P. cubensis can be destabilizing, confusing and overwhelming to some consumers.
And while mushrooms can lead to strong shifts in perception and help one move through rigid ruminative distress by altering brain chemistry, they don’t address some of the other somatic reasons for anxiety and depression. In the last 10 years we have been moving away from the idea that neurotransmitters are solely responsible for poor mental health. The idea of a chemical imbalance theory of mental illness has been debunked.
Instead we are understanding that mental health has far more to do with a complex interweaving of issues that involve digestive health, the gut microbiota, inflammation, thyroid health and adrenal overstimulation amongst many other physiological issues. These are not directly addressed by psychedelic therapy. That means you can’t just live a deeply stressful life with bad lifestyle habits and diet and expect that psychedelics will make you happy. It isn’t a shortcut.
Psychedelic therapy will also not address the myriad systemic issues and injustice that plague society. Psychedelic fungi will not erase the challenges of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. It will not erase the challenges of wealth inequality that lead to many people living in generational poverty.
Though psychedelic therapy will not solve deeper physiological health issues or systemic oppression, there is no reason they could not be part of a larger multimodal healing therapies. We need to get away from the idea of a silver bullet “curing” distress and depression (such as a single psychiatric drug) and move to the idea that it generally requires a multi-pronged approach.
One of the best aspects of psychedelic therapy is that it often encourages the individual to live their life better and to be more present. One of the key issues in traditional therapy is the challenge of helping clients to make positive changes in their lives. From numerous studies it is apparent that psychedelic therapy often leads to improved ways of living life, from creating more deeper and enriching relationships with friends and family, to better lifestyle choices and even a reduction in addictive behavior.
On a deeper level, psychedelic fungi can bring a sense of wonder and re-enchantment with the ordinary experience of life. For many people who consume mushrooms (at large doses), one is able to feel an intimate connection with the numinous sacred underpinnings of our experience as sentient mammals on this planet. Many people report a deeper sense of meaning, self-knowledge and a sense of being woven into a larger fabric of connectedness and purpose in life.
Notes from a folk herbalist
From my own experiences as a much younger man I experienced long term deeply distressing mental health issues after a period of consuming psychedelics in an irresponsible manner. I don’t want to be cavalier in promoting their use. I personally understand how damaging they can be when used poorly and I don’t want to see them promoted as a magic bullet approach to depression, trauma and anxiety. But from research it is apparent that their responsible use in conjunction with other therapeutic tools could indeed be part of a path of greater healing.
I would also add that I worry that psychedelics are being seen as simply a different type of drug that can be manufactured and processed for therapeutic usage. As a folk herbalist, I listen to the myriad tribal and traditional societies who don’t perceive psychedelic plants and fungi as drugs- but as teachers. And I don’t mean that in a metaphoric sense. Most traditional societies have a sense that these plants and fungi embody an intelligence field that carries distinct sentience and purpose. The idea of certain plants as teachers is common to traditional societies. In modern society we have lost that concept and focus on particular chemical constituents and active principals. We may make drugs of psilocybin or mescaline without connecting to the importance of the plant and fungi ecologically, culturally and historically.
We also are choosing to look at these substances medicinally- as plants that can achieve some good mental health effect. This is far different from traditional notions of psychedelics as underlying voices from the land and the spirits- as sacrament to be consumed with specific intentions and sacred purpose. Deep work with these substances could not be separated from the larger goals of staying healthy and in balance with the nearby forests, streams, meadows and spirits of the land and ancestors.
In our rush to popularize therapeutic psychedelic use, we are disconnecting from these ancient forms of animistic psychedelic usage and communion. I am concerned that their deeper intrinsic value could be negated by trying to make them simple therapeutic agents to be ingested only under the professional guidance of a doctor or therapist only in specific medical environments. Psychedelic plants and fungi should not be only controlled and doled out by an elite guild of medical professionals.
From cave paintings in Tunisia and Italy, to Dionysian rites and Mayan ceremonies, its clear that psychedelic fungi have long played a role in spiritual ceremony, healing rituals and communion with the sacred. At a fundamental level, they are connectors. They literally connect different parts of our brain to bring new neural patterns and to help unfreeze old static ways of thinking . There is fascinating research into their use with helping people in pain such as those with migraines. Research is pointing to their success in helping people recover from anxiety, depression and to working through the dying process.
Like the fungal micorhyzza that weave intricate patterns underground in forests, fungi are the great connectors and alchemists. In forests they help transform dead and rotting wood into mushrooms that provide spores and food for forest creatures. They help plants and trees to share nutrients and to communicate along an underground fungal highway. Internally, medicinal mushrooms can help our immune system to function better by tagging and removing cancerous cells- literally removing death to make room for life.
Working with psychedelic mushrooms is a very personal choice and one that should be undertaken wisely. At this point they are illegal and a schedule 1 drug. Unless one is enrolled in a scientific study, there is no way to access these fungi legally here in the U.S. That means for now that the work of understanding these fungi is an underground exercise. For most people, that is enough to avoid their use. But for a small group of people, the help that they provide has been worth flouting the law. Anecdotal experiences have been recorded and reported widely in websites such as Shroomery, Erowid and Bluelight. Organizations like M.A.P.S.- the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been one of the forefront organizations to promote the study of these fungi. And of course, research on their usage is now booming throughout he country. We are possibly at a turning point where these ancient mushrooms could be legalized in some form.
We are in the midst of a revolution in our understanding of mental health. As we move away from a simplistic neurotransmitter model of mental health, we are looking at traditional tools for helping us to find balance and healing. Much of that is centered around how diet and herbs can act as therapeutic agents for improving mood and wellbeing. Increasingly, psychedelic fungi agents such as magic mushrooms are a part of that conversation as research is showing their efficacy for helping people in distress. The path forward now is to understand how to work with mushrooms responsibly in a way that brings deep healing to people.
Magic Mushrooms Create a Hyperconnected Brain Live Science
How Magic Mushrooms Really ‘Expand the Mind’ Live Science
Magic Mushrooms’ Could Treat Depression & Addiction Live Science
The Life-Changing Magic of Mushrooms – A single dose of magic mushrooms can make people with severe anxiety and depression better for months, according to a landmark pair of new studies. The Atlantic
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.