Psilocybin Questions: Psilocybin Mushrooms vs. LSD–What You Need to Know

In the recent wave of decriminalization and media focus on psychedelics, a common question concerns the differences between two common psychoactive substances: psilocybin mushrooms (aka “magic mushrooms”) and LSD. Both act in the brain as serotonin analogs, meaning that their resemblance to the neurotransmitter serotonin allows them to bind to serotonin receptors, triggering a process of heightened euphoria and introspection.Anecdotally, many people describe the two substances as capable of provoking similar feelings and sensations, yet there are some key differences. 

Psilocybin Mushrooms

There are over 180 species of psilocybin mushrooms, colloquially known as shrooms or magic mushrooms. This naturally occurring fungi can be found all over the world, containing the psychedelic compounds psilocybin and its derivative, psilocin. The mushrooms can be found readily available in nature by experienced foragers capable of proper identification, or cultivated at home by anyone who possesses spores or tissue samples from a mature fruiting body.

A Brief History

Although we have no first-hand accounts of how long psilocybin mushrooms have been around, some historians expect that North African indigenous people may have used them in rituals and ceremonies as far back as 9000 B.C. Across the world on another continent, many Mayan and Aztec ruins of Central America show numerous representations of psychoactive mushrooms.  

The Aztecs used a substance called “teonanacatl” which translates into “flesh of the gods”  along with San Pedro cacti, morning glory seeds and other psychedelics. It is believed that teonanacatl was the Aztecs’ term for psilocybin mushrooms due to their usage in trance induction. There is also confirmed use of psilocybin mushrooms among the Mazatec, Mixtec, Nauhua and Zapatec tribes of Central America.

In 1955, a mycologist (individual who works with fungi) named R. Gordon Wasson witnessed and participated in a magic mushroom ritual in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico.  He wrote an article about his experiences, which was published as a photo essay in Life magazine in 1957.

Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in mushrooms, was isolated from samples grown by Roger Heim and then isolated and named by Albert Hofmann, in 1958. This discovery acted as a catalyst for Timothy Leary to begin his experiments with psilocybin mushrooms through the Psilocybin Project, shortly before mushroom use was linked with the hippie movement in the 1960s.

What is Psilocybin?

Psilocybin is the naturally occurring compound found in psilocybin mushrooms. It is a tryptamine alkaloid and a structural analog of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

In your body, psilocybin is broken down into psilocin, its psychoactive derivative. Psilocin acts much like the neurotransmitter serotonin and, in doing so, binds to a specific serotonin receptor in your brain, triggering various psychedelic effects.

There is growing scientific evidence for the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin in humans, particularly in individuals suffering from PTSD, depression, or facing terminal illnesses. Interestingly, we may soon move away from mushrooms as a psilocybin producer, as scientists have only recently modified E. coli bacteria to successfully generate up to 1.16 grams of psilocybin per liter of culture medium.

Ingestion

There are many ways to ingest mushrooms, the easiest being to simply chew and swallow them. Without laboratory equipment to accurately measure the psychoactive material inside the mushrooms, dosing typically involves eating only a small amount until one achieves a better sense of the potency. Many people recommend to avoid eating anything before ingesting mushrooms, as mushrooms can sometimes cause an upset stomach as it tries to digest the material.

Depending on a wide range of different factors (mushroom genetics, species potency, stomach contents, your own genetics and tolerance, dosing method etc.)  you should be able to start feeling the effects in about 45 minutes

An alternative to simply chewing and swallowing the mushrooms is to grind them into dust particulate with a coffee grinder.  You can then mix the dust into something more palatable, rather than having to chew the entire mushroom, which people find unpleasant.

Tea

A cup of tea is both a tasty vehicle for mushroom ingestion, as well as a relaxing experience that will only add a positive flare to the start of a psychedelic trip. All you have to do is add your desired dosage to a simmering cup of water, as boiling may destroy the active compound. After about 10-15 minutes, optionally strain the organic matter from the liquid, and add what you like for taste. Many people recommend a bit of honey, ginger, or lemon (or all three!) for flavour.

Capsules

This method takes advantage of grinding the mushrooms into dust particulate, so that you can use a capsule machine to create mushroom pill capsules that can be swallowed just like any other medication. This is a particularly effective strategy for always knowing your dose, since people don’t typically travel around with microgram scales. Additionally, capsules only contain a minute amount of mushroom material, which makes this strategy ideal for people who intend to microdose – a practice of ingesting sub-threshold amounts of mushrooms throughout the week to boost one’s mood without the perceptual impairments that can sometimes accompany a trip.

Capsules are also discreet and portable, and because they are created by grinding up many different mushrooms and mixed together, it makes the dosing between capsules much more consistent than it would be between eating whole mushrooms. However, they create an inability to tell what organic matter is inside the capsule if you weren’t the one that made them, and therefore they are open to  manipulation from unscrupulous dealers. Always obtain psilocybin from a trusted, known source.

Edibles

If you already have mushroom dust, you can add it to any recipe you can imagine. The only caveat is that high temperatures will destroy the psychoactive compounds in the mushrooms, so the dust needs to be added to recipes after the actual cooking process. 

Lemon Tek

The idea behind the Lemon Technique (“Lemon Tek”), is that the acidic nature of citrus fruits (not just lemons) will catalyze the process of breaking psilocybin down into psilocin, taking some of the workload off your stomach. To accomplish this, add a desired amount of mushroom dust to a bowl of fresh lemon juice (for example), letting it soak, while occasionally stirring, for 20 minutes. The benefits of this technique include a rapid onset of a strong psychedelic trip (within 20 minutes). The downside of this method is that, although the trip happens much faster and much stronger, it is also much shorter in length. 

This method can functionally be used to trip for shorter periods of time if a longer psychedelic experience seems daunting. 

Dosage and Trips

Enthusiasts report that the type of trip or mood you experience will depend on the amount of mushrooms you ingest. There are various terms experienced participants have to describe various dosage amounts. The main two are simple microdosing and macrodosing. 

Microdosing 

Microdosing is designed to limit the visual component while enhancing the focused, relaxed portions of the psilocybin mushroom experience.  It is recommended at a dosage of 0.2-0.5 gram of dried mushrooms or 2-5 grams of fresh mushrooms. Dosages are typically referred to by the weight of a mushroom after it has been dried, which is about 10% of its weight when fresh due to 90% of the fresh mushroom being water. 

Anything above 0.5-1.0 grams of mushrooms is typically considered a macrodose. As an individual experiments with higher doses of psilocybin mushrooms, they will move further away from the functional creative space that microdosing offers and into a much more euphoric, introspective, and visually imaginative experience. 

LSD

LSD, or  Lysergic acid diethylamide, is synthesized from lysergic acid, which is found naturally in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. It is produced in either crystalline form, which is then mixed with other inactive ingredients, or as a liquid. It is odorless, colorless and has a slightly bitter taste.

A Brief History

LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company, while attempting to isolate a compound that would stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. The hallucinogenic properties of LSD were only identified five years later, in 1943, when Hofmann accidentally ingested some of his own creation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA oversaw Project MK-Ultra, where they experimented with LSD and other substances on volunteers and non-volunteers alike. It was hoped that LSD could be used as a psychological weapon in the Cold War. Ken Kesey, a volunteer in Project MK-Ultra and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, became an advocate of LSD, occasionally throwing “acid parties” involving LSD and live music. Other proponents of the time were Harvard psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who administered both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms to students in a series of experiments.

Even though the research done in the 50s and 60s overwhelmingly showed that LSD is a non-addictive substance with substantial medicinal value, political pressures led the the US government to contend that LSD, in particular, was having a negative impact on the values of the Western middle class. LSD was classified as a controlled substance in 1966. In 1970, Richard Nixon introduced the Controlled Substances Act, arguing that psychedelics have no accepted medical use. We knew in the 1960s, as we know today, that this is patently false. Unfortunately, the impact of this legislation was far-reaching, and many people today have misconceptions regarding psychedelics, including the myths that they are addictive, have harmful symptoms, and feature withdrawal patterns similar to heroin and methamphetamine.

What is LSD?

LSD is a man-made, synthetically produced chemical. It begins either with ergot, a natural fungus found in grains, or with morning glory seeds, both of which are extremely toxic. Using various laboratory-grade chemicals, the lysergic acid compound is synthesized and the molecules are rearranged through an additional chemical process. Once the mixture has been heated and cooled, the process of evaporation leaves behind a crystal-like substance, which is then purified to become LSD.

LSD, like psilocybin, interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain. However, the difference in molecular structure between LSD and psilocybin allows the LSD molecule to bind to the receptor in a way that causes the receptor to fold over, trapping the molecule for 10-15 hours, the typical length of an LSD experience. 

Ingestion

There are also many ways to ingest LSD, the most popular being to simply swallow a blotter tab that has been soaked with LSD, made by dropping a specific amount of liquid LSD onto a sheet of perforated blotting paper. The tab is then placed under the tongue, where the LSD is absorbed through the mucous membrane and into the bloodstream before being swallowed. Any remaining LSD will be absorbed by the stomach. 

Liquid LSD can also be dropped onto a sugar cube, cookie, gelatin cube or gummy candies.  Since as little as 25 micrograms is enough to feel the effects, the medium used can be extremely small. Regardless of the medium, holding the tab or cube under the tongue while it melts, then swallowing, is the most direct route of ingestion.

Although not recommended due to the higher potential for complications, LSD can also be injected straight into the bloodstream or inhaled through the nose to be absorbed by mucous membranes. 

Dosage and Trips

Minor dosing differences can result in completely different experiences with LSD, however, the effects from any dosage will typically last anywhere from 10-15 hours in length. 

As with mushrooms, many people also microdose with LSD. With only 10 micrograms, you can achieve a mild mood-altering experience, coupled with mild euphoria. Upwards of 25 micrograms may include minor visual hallucinations related to color sensations, breathing effects and flashes of color. 

Ultimately, the range of experiences will go from mild mood enhancement from microdoses to overwhelming visual effects in macrodoses, including the perceptual distortion of real objects and potentially hallucinations of intangible objects. In moderate doses, a sense of self remains, though self-judgment, fear and anxiety are greatly diminished. Ego-death, where the sense of self disappears, often occurs at high doses.

Final Thoughts

In summary, psychedelic trips achieved through psilocybin mushrooms or LSD share some similarities. Both substances can be used for religious or subconscious examination, to look for a deeper meaning or to get in touch with oneself in a more meaningful way. Despite being non-addictive substances that cannot cause physical harm or be used to overdose lethally, both still have a few risks. Individuals with a hereditary predisposition for schizophrenia or psychosis may find the onset of their disorder is triggered by psychedelic use, and individuals who possess issues with anxiety may have a difficult time coping with this type of experience. Both psilocybin mushrooms and LSD have been shown to cause the following negative symptoms at larger doses:  nausea, vomiting, lack of coordination, paranoia, and anxiety. For many people, these symptoms are a rite of passage to experience the positive and potentially transformative effects of euphoria, empathy, creativity, passion, increased libido, relaxation and greater awareness.