Part 3: Magic Mushrooms
Psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound found in certain types of mushrooms, has recently been widely touted as an alternative psychedelic procedure for treating conditions such as depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which are showing promise, when done under careful supervision.
Major research centres, such as the Centre for Psychedelic Neuroscience at Massachusetts General Hospital, are currently investigating psilocybin as a therapy for depression resistant to conventional treatment, as psychedelics may be useful in facilitating new neural connections.
What happens in the brain when psilocybin mushrooms are consumed?
In a June 2022 report on CNN, journalist Sandee LaMotte points out in the interview that, according to Matthew Johnson, professor of psychedelics and consciousness at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
"When someone takes psilocybin, we see an overall increase in connectivity between areas of the brain that don't normally communicate well." "We also see the opposite: local networks in the brain that normally interact quite a bit with each other suddenly communicate less.
According to David Nutt, head of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, a "very, very disorganised brain" is created, which ultimately breaks down the normal boundaries between the auditory, visual, executive, and sense-of-self sections of the mind, creating a state of "altered consciousness".
And it is this disorganisation that is ultimately therapeutic, for, according to Nutt: "Depressed people are continually self-critical, and they are constantly beating themselves up, repeating the same negative, anxious or fearful thoughts over and over again".
"Psychedelics interrupt that, and that's why people can suddenly see a way out of their depression during a session. Critical thoughts are easier to control, and thinking is more flexible. That's why the drug is an effective treatment for depression," according to Nutt. (source)
Although psilocybin is being used in certain specific research and treatment settings, in the United States it is a List 1 substance, i.e. it is not legal for personal use, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Benefits of psilocybin mushrooms
- They promote creativity by stimulating stem cells through neurogenesis from environmental cells, which increases intelligence, creativity, peace, because, according to Stamets, psilocybin mushrooms organically change the mind.
It seems that psychedelics help neurons in the brain to sprout new dendrites, increasing the connection between cells. According to David Nutt,
"These drugs can increase neuronal growth, increase this branching of neurons, increase synapses. That's called neuroplasticity.
"This is different from neurogenesis, which is the development of new brain cells, usually from stem cells in the body. The growth of dendrites helps build and then solidify new circuits in the brain, allowing us, for example, to establish more positive pathways as we practice gratitude."
It should be known that SSRIs (specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors) also increase neuroplasticity, although in a 2022 phase 2 randomised controlled trial comparing psilocybin with Escitalopram, a traditional SSRI, Nutt found that the latter did not work the same 'magic'.
According to Nutt, 'the SSRI did not increase brain connectivity and, in fact, did not improve well-being as much as psilocybin. Now, for the first time, brain science aligns with what patients say after a trip: 'I feel more connected. I can think more freely. I can escape from negative thoughts and I don't get stuck in them. " (source)
- They have been shown to effectively alleviate depression resistant to conventional treatment. According to pharmacologist Brian Roth, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
"Psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD enter the brain through the same receptors as serotonin, the body's 'feel-good' hormone. Serotonin helps control bodily functions such as sleep, sexual desire and psychological states such as contentment, happiness and optimism.”
“People with depression or anxiety often have low serotonin levels, as do people with post-traumatic stress disorder, migraine headaches, anorexia, tobacco addiction and substance abuse. Treatment usually involves selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which increase the levels of serotonin available to brain cells. However, experts say it can take weeks for an improvement to occur, if the drugs work at all.”
“However, with psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, scientists can see changes in the connectivity of brain neurons in the lab "within 30 minutes".” (source)
- Smoking cessation and other addictions. According to Dr Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, psilocybin has the potential to treat substance use disorders, including alcohol and cocaine.
- Psychological distress linked to cancer. An experiment conducted at Johns Hopkins in 2016 found that a single dose of psilocybin substantially improved quality of life and decreased both depression and anxiety in people diagnosed with life-threatening cancers.
- To treat migraine and cluster headaches. According to research conducted in 2017, psychoactive substances such as psilocybin may help relieve cluster headaches and migraines. (source)
Use of psilocybin since ancient times
Personally, with this research, I have been struck by the fact that psilocybin mushrooms grow all over the world, with slight differences in appearance, but with the same medicinal potency. It has even been speculated that magic mushrooms are a kind of missing link by which we went from hominids to intelligent humans. (source)
In the article The Stoned Ape Hypothesis: Did Magic Mushrooms Influence Human Evolution? author Robert Lamb quotes Dennis McKenna, author of "Food of the Gods", who states that,
"Brain size is known to have increased threefold in size since 2 million years ago, and the ecosystems that bring together hominids, cattle and mushrooms were probably about that old," referring to the dungs from which psilocybin mushrooms emerge.
According to Dr Thomas Falk, professor of philosophy and education at the University of Dayton, the hypothesis provides an explanation for the supposed "creative explosion" that occurred 40,000 years ago during the Homo sapiens period, prior to the migration from Africa to Europe. It is there that an apparent leap in human cognitive ability is perceived.
"For the first time these humans lived in worlds of their own creation, symbolically and materially. They were able to create worlds in their minds and recreate those worlds in external environments both physically and socially."
"Although other Homo species would have harnessed nature efficiently, they remained passive. The key to this major distinction between Homo sapiens sapiens and all other hominids appears to be language."
Terence McKenna's text "Food of the Gods" strengthens this argument based on the enhanced qualities of psychedelic experience (such as heightened empathy and sensory perception), shamanic traditions in ancient cultures, and the recognised and hypothesised range of psychedelic plants and mushrooms in ancient times, states Lamb.
Indigenous and historical use
Attention towards psilocybin in modern times begins with the discovery of Aztec ceremonies during Spanish colonisation. It is complex to determine when or where these traditions began, although some researchers estimate that religious practices involving psilocybin mushrooms occurred in the valley of Mexico and the rest of Central America around 3500 years ago.
Present-day use of psilocybin mushrooms
Today, pharmaceutical companies are trying to implement psilocybin in capsule form during a session in which the patient lies on a stretcher, eyes covered with a mask and wearing headphones with selected music, while the person facilitating the session holds the patient's hand.
However, according to Paul Stamets, people prefer to consume it within the ceremonial setting, where the person conducting the ceremony also consumes it and assists the participants, in the style of the Mexican shaman Maria Sabina, with her chants of invocation, music and eventually, depending on the need, a healing. This obviously enhances the effects of psilocybin.
The Mazatec ceremony with psilocybin mushrooms or "teonanacatl"
The text ELSI Research Report: State Regulation for Psilocybin: Recommendations for the Oregon Heath Authority mentions a photo report published in LIFE magazine in 1957, where Robert Gordon Wasson, an American banker and amateur mycologist, describes a ceremony conducted by the Mazatec healer Maria Sabina and her daughter:
In the report Wasson recounts an evening with a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian elements. "The ceremony took place at night, almost in total darkness, before a simple altar adorned with Catholic images in the basement or sub-basement, like a ceremonial room inside a private house.” According to Wasson, 20 participants arrived dressed in their best clothes and, like the Aztecs, began the ceremony by drinking chocolate. Children were present, although they did not participate in the ceremony.
After Maria Sabina and her daughter cleaned the mushrooms, they passed them through the smoke of copal resin incense and then the curanderas handed out cups with their personal doses to the participants. Wasson and his photographer received 6 pairs of mushrooms each. The healers received 13 pairs each. Then, with a solemn chant in her native tongue, Maria Sabina began her invocation of the spirit of the mushrooms in the name of Christ and the saints before reciting her good intentions and then impatiently pleading with the spirits: "You are a mouth that seeks you, but you do not attend me. Come!”
The psilocybin mushrooms they referred to as dangerous were never eaten frivolously and never sold in the market. According to Wasson, congregation is indispensable for the rite, although this does not mean that the mushrooms lose their potency if they are not eaten together with other people.
The Mazatecs used mushrooms in a particularly therapeutic way, not as a cure but rather as a way to determine "what led to the illness and whether the patient will live or die, and what should be done to hasten recovery". For example, by ingesting the mushrooms, the curanderos reported that they could learn the location of wild herbs that they could find and apply to their patients. The Mazatecs also consult the mushrooms for information on non-health related issues. Sometimes a ceremony or "Velada" is requested by someone who wishes to consult the mushrooms about a serious family concern.
How does the body react once psilocybin mushrooms are consumed?
The following are the effects some minutes after consuming psilocybin mushrooms during a ceremony:
- Increased positive energy.
- Feeling of well-being and satisfaction.
- A vision of the world from a different perspective.
- Alteration in the perception of space-time.
- Feeling of oneness with the universe. Feeling that we are one with every living being.
- Increased musical perception
Are we ready for a paradigm shift?
These medicines and substances are a gateway to a higher dimension and to ignore the ceremonial phase or what the traditional indigenous form of use brings would stagnate or at least make incomplete the healing patients go in search for.
Psilocybin mushrooms offer more components than a pharmaceutical molecule that can be effective against diseases.
In the words of Françoise Bourzat, "in the Mexican tradition, communion with this medicine establishes a relationship with ancestors, with people who have passed away, with the other side of the veil".
By being in the space of medicine, according to Bourzat, María Sabina and this tradition have become an ally not only for people with problems of depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome, or alcoholism, among others, but also for people who find themselves in psychological discomfort at the end of life.
Controlled use under the supervision of a therapist or ceremonial guide
Psilocybin affects the cardiovascular system and may cause an increase in blood pressure or heartbeat.
For these reasons, it is currently recommended that psilocybin be administered in a clinic by doctors or therapists specially trained for this purpose. It should not be available on the street, where people can sell it or take too much, or take too many pills from a doctor's prescription. It should not even be used outside a ceremonial setting.
How long do the results last?
In studies so far, Professor Nutt notes that "it depends on the individual's body: two people have had it work for eight years with a single session of psilocybin". However, people with chronic depression can regain symptoms after 12 months, according to Dr Natalie Gukasyan of Johns Hopkins. (source)
With chronic patients, the possibility of giving another dose of psilocybin or returning to SSRIs once mood improves to keep depression under control is still being studied.
Although genetics may play a role in many mental disorders, due to variations in serotonin receptors in some cases, it is unlikely that a person's DNA is the only factor influencing response to psychedelic treatments.
How a person responds to psychedelic treatment may also include their willingness to participate in psychotherapy, their willingness to be compassionate towards themselves, as well as the severity of their trauma and the early stage of their life at which it began.
These factors affect not only mental health treatment, but any treatment. But especially in this one, the person's willingness to undergo a procedure that alters their consciousness is crucial. That is, once a person has made the decision to go for a healing process 80% of the effort has already been accomplished.
 Francisco J. Carod-Artal, Hallucinogenic Drugs in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Cultures, 30 NEUROLOGIA 42 (2015). See also Ralph Metzner, Visionary Mushrooms of the Americas, in SACRED MUSHROOM OF VISIONS: TEONANÁCATL 11 (2004) (discussing the miniature mushroom stones, some of which date back to 1000 BCE, that have been found in the lands of the ancient Maya in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Southern Mexico and noting that they are currently understood to be effigies of a mushroom deity).
 Harvard Law School. Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.12-12-2021.