Although psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics have been maligned for decades through suppressive political forces, modern day studies are starting to reveal many psychological and neurological benefits from their consumption.
Current scientific studies indicate that psilocybin mushrooms have significant positive effects on the following areas:
- Treatment-resistant depression
- Cluster headaches
- Addiction and compulsive disorders
- Terminal illness patients
- Talk therapy
Even before psychedelics were politicized, there was overwhelming support for their safety and beneficial qualities. Unfortunately, the illegality that resulted from the Controlled Substances Act in 1971 made it difficult to verify claims about these benefits, creating a climate where science has fallen behind the general knowledge of the people. Anecdotally, people have used psychedelics for millennia to enable mystical experiences that further develop our relationship with ourselves and the earth around us.
20th Century Ban on Psilocybin Science
Legitimate scientific evidence documenting the benefits of psilocybin is a relatively new undertaking. Following the drug subculture of the 1960s and the involvement of several prominent psychiatrists and therapists of the time, LSD and psilocybin were determined (incorrectly) to be harmful for use by the general public and of no medicinal value.
Under this ruling, psilocybin was outlawed in America in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act and was also outlawed in most of the world as a consequence. Despite the ban on psychedelics and associated research, individuals across the globe continued to do what they always do when the government enacts a senseless prohibition; they disobeyed. People have been using psilocybin both medicinally and recreationally behind the curtains for decades, and many report their findings in online forums.
The results of these anecdotal “trip reports” were fairly unanimous. In most cases, it seemed clear that psilocybin in either microdoses or large macrodoses could have a positive psychological effect on a variety of mental illnesses, from generalized anxiety and treatment-resistant depression to autism spectrum disorder.
21st Century Research into Psilocybin Science
Due to pleas from the scientific community in response to the surge of support for psilocybin as a medicinal drug, the American government recently opened scientific research into the chemical as a pharmaceutical treatment. After several clinical trials in controlled settings, the Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for treating clinical depression in 2019.
Since its acceptance as a legitimate treatment for depression, scientists have explored research into using psilocybin to treat a range of psychiatric issues as well as a few physical ailments, such as cluster headaches. The one commonality that these ailments share is that they are unusually complex or resistant to other treatments, such as severe depression or post traumatic stress disorder. Because of the unique effect of the drug on the brain and the insight it can create in the mind of the person ingesting it, psilocybin can reset neural pathways to help the conscious mind move past traumatic thought patterns.
Psilocybin Benefits for Depression
Depression is one of the most insidious psychiatric conditions. Not only can severe clinical depression be complicated to treat effectively, even with therapy or medication, but it can also be present in individuals who do not appear on the surface to have symptoms associated with depression.
One of the significant benefits discovered in psilocybin so far is in its use as a treatment for depression. Not only has it been approved by the FDA as a breakthrough treatment specifically for depression, but it is also being studied at several major universities for its practical applications in depression-specific therapies.
Some of the scientific research being conducted concerning psilocybin treatment and depression includes:
- A 2012 study from the University of Oxford suggests that psilocybin has the potential to create new neural pathways in the brain while desensitizing the brain to negative triggers that worsen the symptoms of clinical depression. This study suggests that the uninhibited cognitive state induced by psilocybin can allow for psychological breakthroughs that lessen depression.
- This ongoing clinical trial through the University of California in San Francisco is measuring the effectiveness of psilocybin in treating patients with major depressive disorder. In the study, psilocybin is being explored as an effective treatment for depression that is less addictive and has fewer cumulative side effects than traditional antidepressants.
Psilocybin is currently being investigated as a treatment for many different conditions and disorders. However, its use as a treatment for depression is still one of its most promising applications in modern medicine.
Psilocybin Benefits for Anxiety
Along with its use in severe depression, psilocybin and other psychedelics have also shown promise in the treatment of anxiety disorders, such as generalized and social anxiety disorders. For example, in these early clinical stages, psilocybin has been tested in cases where patients are experiencing a life-threatening illness. Due to the spiritual nature of the experience that psilocybin can provoke at higher doses, psilocybin has been effectively used to reduce the anxiety that terminal patients have surrounding the subject of their mortality.
Recent scientific research being conducted concerning psilocybin treatment and anxiety includes:
- This Johns Hopkins study conducted in 2016 showed that psilocybin mushrooms decreased negative mood and anxiety in 80% of treated patients in a double-blind clinical trial.
- Psilocybin is increasingly being used in conjunction with psychotherapy, one of the forms of therapy that are commonly used to treat anxiety on a cognitive-behavioral level. By incorporating psilocybin and a psychedelic integration specialist into their psychotherapy, patients with anxiety are better able to process the cause of their anxiety and potentially reach a psychological breakthrough that desensitizes them to anxiety triggers.
Like most disorders that are positively treated with psilocybin, the response of anxiety to psilocybin is a decreased sensitivity to harmful stimuli, elevated mood, and (in larger doses) a mystical experience capable of putting psychological issues into a better perspective.
One of the lesser-known benefits of psilocybin that is currently being studied is their use in alleviating cluster headaches. These enigmatic headaches—reportedly more painful than migraines—are much more frequent than most migraine headaches, which makes them debilitating for people who suffer from them.
- This observational study from 2006 showed significant improvement in cluster headache symptoms in a majority of sufferers. While this study was not conducted in a formal clinical setting and is comprised of anecdotal reports based on user observations, these earlier studies paved the way for later investigations into psilocybin and LSD as potential cures for cluster headaches.
- This 2016 study, sponsored by Yale University, is currently exploring the efficacy of psilocybin as a headache disorder treatment. This long-term, Phase 1 clinical trial commenced in November of 2016 and concluded in June of 2020.
- A single dose of psilocybin is shown to have a significant effect on reducing migraine headaches, according to this 2020 study.
While relatively rare, cluster headaches are one of the most painful disorders that people are forced to live with. To put this into perspective, cluster headaches are sometimes referred to as suicide headaches, as the pain is so unbearable it has driven some patients to end their own lives just to stop the pain. The fact that psychedelics have shown promise in treating not only cluster headaches but also headaches and migraines in general is a good sign that someday soon psilocybin may be commonly used as for treatment these agonizing conditions.
Psilocybin Benefits for Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is a neurological condition that is often comorbid with several other conditions treatable with psilocybin, such as anxiety and depression. Anecdotally, many people with high-functioning autism have reported an alleviation of negative symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
- This study, through the University of California, explores the neuroplastic effect that psilocybin can have on neural pathways. It theorizes that this neuroplasticity can then be exploited for use in positive therapies aimed at alleviating symptoms of patients with abnormal neural pathways such as Alzheimer’s patients and patients with autism.
- MDMA has already been shown through small scientific studies to have positive effects on the social anxiety associated with an autism spectrum disorder. As a result, it has been theorized with anecdotal trip reports of autistic individuals that psilocybin needs to be studied for its benefits in alleviating autistic symptoms along the same vein of research.
Autism spectrum disorder is one of the most complicated modern neurological conditions, and scientists are continually researching more effective methods of treating the symptoms of this complex disorder. Psilocybin is only one of several psychedelic drugs that are showing immense promise in treating disorders like autism.
Psilocybin Benefits for Addiction and Compulsive Disorders
Because of its ability to rewire neural pathways in the brain, psilocybin has been explored by several universities as a possible treatment for the cessation of behaviors, specifically addictive behaviors related to drug use, such as smoking nicotine and addiction to cocaine. Psilocybin has also been explored in attempts to control other compulsive psychiatric conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In conjunction with outpatient psychotherapy, doses of psilocybin have been shown to have positive effects on cessation behaviors and can improve a patient’s chances of remaining sober. This is not seen to be the result of a formative spiritual experience, necessarily, but rather a neural therapy that decreases activity in the brain associated with addictive triggers.
- Addiction treatment with psilocybin is one of the various studies being conducted by the Psychedelic Research Center at John Hopkins University.
- The University of New Mexico has explored the use of psilocybin along with talk therapy to “debrief” addicted patients about their behaviors to understand and mitigate their patterns of addiction more effectively.
- This study from 2016 explores psilocybin as a smoking cessation aid and shows that the majority of smokers who participated in psilocybin therapy had a higher level of abstinence from smoking in the subsequent months than those smokers who did not ingest psilocybin.
- The University of Arizona explored the safety and effectiveness of psilocybin as a potential treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, with positive results.
The preliminary success for psilocybin therapy trials concerning compulsive disorders and addiction means that the chemical potentially has dozens of practical applications in the medical field regarding psychiatric disorders. This is especially true of psychiatric disorders that involve compulsive or ritualistic cognition or behavior.
Psilocybin Benefits for Terminal Illness
Because of its highly experimental nature as a medical treatment, psychedelics have recently found favor in trials involving palliative patients or those who are already battling a terminal illness..
Several university studies have shown that even a single high dose of psilocybin mushrooms (a high enough dose to induce a “trip”) can have significant long-lasting positive effects on a terminal patient’s outlook regarding their impending death and any anxiety or depression related to it.
- This 2016 John Hopkins study of psilocybin in palliative patients set off a firestorm of corresponding clinical trials to corroborate the findings of the university that psilocybin had drastically positive effects on the mental outlook of terminally ill patients after they were administered a psychedelic dose.
- This 2016 study done at NYU mirrors the findings of the John Hopkins study conducted in the same year that shows significant improvement in symptoms (both mental and physical) related to end-of-life treatment for terminal cancer.
One of the significant benefits shown by psychedelic doses of psilocybin to terminal cancer patients isn’t just psychological and physical—it’s also spiritual. One of the most challenging issues that palliative patients wrestle with are existential fears regarding their mortality, and it’s these kinds of deep philosophical questions that psilocybin can help unpack.
Psilocybin in Conjunction with Talk Therapy
A promising application for psilocybin lies in its ability to be paired with cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychotherapy, as pursued through one-on-one sessions with a counselor. Pairing a psilocybin patient with a psychedelic integration specialist (a psychologist trained in helping someone retrospectively analyze their psychedelic experiences) allows the patient to explore the mind-expanding properties of the substance in a controlled clinical setting.
While studies on the use of psilocybin paired with talk therapy are still young, there is a promising correlation between psychedelic journeys that induce a “mystical experience” and the ability to achieve mental breakthroughs in counseling with a variety of psychiatric ailments.
Psilocybin and Dreaming
Botanical psychedelics like psilocybin, iboga, and ayahuasca have long been associated with idigenous religious practices and traditional medicine. Modern scientific research is only now catching up with how psychedelics like psilocybin can interact with human imagination and dream processes.
- This study from Lake College explores how psilocybin puts the brain in a waking dream state, the same altered consciousness that we experience while sleeping. In this way, psilocybin allows people to experience and dissect their subconscious thoughts while wide awake.
- This study from 2017 in Current Neuropharmacology explores the relationship between psychedelics and a dreaming state, and the standard psychological states explored in altered consciousness such as heightened emotions, fear extinction, memory extinction, and the separation of mind and body.
The connection between psilocybin and dream states is one of the least-understood relationships between psilocybin and modern medicine. However, the fact that botanical psychedelics have been used by dreamers for centuries testifies to their effectiveness as an aid in dreamwork and consciousness exploration.
Psilocybin and Microdosing
One of the relatively new trends related to the medicine of psilocybin is its use in microdoses as a “productivity drug” designed to enhance focus and neural efficiency. When taken as a microdose, there is not enough psilocybin to induce a psychedelic high. Instead, it has a subtle and pervasive effect on the mind’s ability to learn and process sensory experiences, in a way the sober brain might struggle to connect with on the same level.
- This study by the University of California shows that rats exposed to microdoses of psilocybin demonstrated beneficial effects in overcoming a “fear response” designed to simulate the triggers associated with complex anxiety disorders such as PTSD.
There have been a few studies conducted, but most of the anecdotal evidence lauding the positive effects of microdosing psilocybin have come from Silicon Valley, where psilocybin microdoses are one of the most popular enhancement supplements utilized in creative and technological offices.
While the actual science remains inconclusive, new ongoing clinical trials provide hope that psilocybin microdosing will soon be an acceptable form of treatment for a variety of psychiatric illnesses.
Modern Science Is Catching Up with the Age-Old Benefits of Psilocybin
Recreational users and spiritual participants have long sung the praises of psilocybin for treating a wide array of psychological issues positively and holistically. Still, the drug bans and stigma of the late twentieth century curtailed centuries of prior medical research. Now that those laws are losing public credibility, scientists and doctors are once again allowed to test the efficacy of psilocybin and other psychedelics in a legitimate medical setting.
Because the ailments that psilocybin can treat are neurologically complex, the research is promising for many sufferers of debilitating physical illnesses, like cluster headaches and those who are burdened with psychological illnesses, like depression. Current medications for depression are only adequate at targeting the symptoms of the disorder, while psychedelics may target the disorder itself. If early results are any indication, the future of therapeutic psychedelics is looking bright.