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The world of psychedelics has recently begun opening up more and more to the average person, and for good reason: the science behind those psychedelic effects could be an incredible breakthrough for mental health. Between acid for anxiety and mushrooms for depression, your dad’s dealer from the ‘70s might very well have handled a pharmacy for mental health that could have helped millions over the last five decades.
If you’re reading this, we’re going to assume that you’ve heard about the promising benefits of mushrooms for depression and other mental health issues. We’re not going to lie: it’s just as exciting to scientists and medical professionals to see this once-hated, once-illegal area of medicine suddenly getting the fair research it needs.
More impressive than that, however, is the broad consumer acceptance of mushrooms for mental health that has begun springing up in recent years.
Unfortunately, hype isn’t always supported by evidence. Are mushrooms an effective treatment for depression or treatment-resistant depression? Can you cure depression with mushrooms?
While the answer to this question is complicated, the science behind mushrooms isn’t. Let’s start there.
Mushrooms: some are a great salad topping, some are (questionable) replacements for a hamburger patty, some can kill you and some — also called magic mushrooms — can make you trip.
Hallucinations from tripping on mushrooms can be intimidating, and it’s rational to be concerned about a fungus that alters your state of consciousness. And yet we’ve used mushrooms for this reason for centuries.
Mushrooms may have a lot of spiritual cache about them, but in the scientific world, the chemical and biological value of the mushroom is actually its ability to deliver a compound called psilocybin. This is the compound in mushrooms that can make you hallucinate and alter your consciousness, but it’s also what makes mushrooms a good candidate for depression treatment.
What’s so special about psilocybin? Well, it’s a molecule with structural similarities to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a major player in the current thinking about why people get depressed. Medications that change serotonin levels are also the go-to strategy for treatment of depression.
These molecular similarities to a neurotransmitter that regulates mood (and helps to treat mood disorders like depression) means that treatment with psilocybin mushrooms could have a lot of great benefits. And it turns out that scientists agree it has therapeutic potential.
According to experts, there is considerable preliminary evidence that psilocybin could be an effective active ingredient in treating mood disorders and mental illnesses like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism, nicotine addiction and even mild or major depression.
While experts don’t fully understand how psilocybin works in the brain (or how it might reduce depressive symptoms), research shows it may shut down a section of the prefrontal cortex that’s commonly overactive in people with depression.
In fact, this shutdown of certain overactive brain activity has been seen under MRI. And in some studies, the results — a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety — have been sustained over longer periods of time, without risks of serious side effects.
One 2021 study looked at magic mushrooms’ potential for the treatment of major depressive disorder, or major depression — one of the most intense forms of depression. The study found that, in keeping with previous work, psilocybin provided promising treatment results: rapid and sustained decreases in depression scores for a small group of patients.
Other studies have found that psilocybin benefits people who have depression and anxiety because of life-threatening diseases like cancer. There is no current treatment for this sort of psychological discomfort, so finding something like mushrooms that can offer relief would be an incredible breakthrough. However, more studies are needed at this time.
This early research is incredible, to be blunt, when you consider that something Coachella attendees snack on between sets could help the terminally ill cope with existential distress.
It becomes even more impressive when you consider the seeming lack of serious side effects.
You might have a memory of a really bad time from that one dose of psilocybin, but keep in mind that a single dose according to your Bonnaroo pal might have been “the entire bag, dude.” In other words, not the type of psilocybin dose you’d get from a medical treatment.
In most cases, it appears that serious adverse effects aren’t a concern with psilocybin use.
Some people experience nausea, physical discomfort or psychological discomfort. Due to the psychological effects of psilocybin therapy, some people have occasional episodes of anxiety and psychological distress.
But despite what your parents may tell you, mushrooms do not cause persistent hallucinations, prolonged psychosis or other life-threatening issues.
A big caveat: the studies this information comes from were conducted in controlled clinical trials, and with limitations. Experts acknowledge that some adverse effects of psilocybin in the extreme could be life-threatening, and the best way to avoid them is by being well-informed and using psilocybin in a calm and relaxed environment.
Because psilocybin is still illegal in many places, the idea of a calm and relaxed environment while potentially hallucinating isn't all that logical. Of course if you’re doing mushrooms in Alabama, you’re going to be paranoid.
But cards on the table: until there’s a safer and more legal treatment system for mushrooms than a handful of fungus and a chill atmosphere, you’re probably better off going to a doctor and getting legal, FDA-approved treatment for mood disorders.
Depression generally responds well to treatment with a combination of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes. A healthcare provider may recommend one or more of these to you — here’s what that might look like:
Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are medications designed to alter the serotonin levels in your brain. You may have heard of medications like escitalopram (Lexapro®), fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®) or sertraline (Zoloft®), which are all SSRIs.Moderating neurotransmitter levels helps your brain to stabilize your mood, and stabilizing your mood helps you eliminate the low-lows associated with depression. These antidepressant medications and their antidepressant effects do have some side effects, though they’re generally well-tolerated.
Therapy is often used to help you cope with mood disorder symptoms, but some therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help you learn to recognize and control the intrusive, negative thought patterns associated with depression and anxiety.
Your mental health professional might also suggest mediation practices like mindfulness, which has been shown to be effective for treating depression.
We’re cautious about the benefits of eating mushrooms, but other things that you put into your body may be more harmful to your mental health than you assume. Your diet plays a major role in your physical and mental health, and a poor diet may be one of the lifestyle concerns a healthcare provider considers, along with weight, blood pressure, smoking and drinking. Exercise, which some studies have found as effective as medication in treating depression, should be one of your first considerations.
We’re still a few years away from mushrooms being available in a pharmacy and, practically speaking, we can’t recommend that you self-medicate with what your buddy who used to tour with Phish brought out of his basement last weekend. These mushrooms may make for a perfectly enjoyable day, but they’re not actually a medically-approved treatment for depression.
It’s hard to convince some people of the potential of psilocybin-assisted therapy when many still consider mushrooms a psychedelic drug and nothing more. And admittedly, it’s hard to see the value of psilocybin for depression when most doses of psilocybin are measured in handfuls from a Ziploc bag.
Should that stop you? Not necessarily. What it should do, however, is act as a reminder that there are other ways to pursue treatment for depression.
We mentioned several above, but whether you’re going to go the therapy route, the mushroom route or any other route, the first stop on that journey should be speaking with a healthcare provider.
Depression is not something you should take lightly, and while it may take some time to find a professional willing to work with you on the mushroom approach, you won’t find a mental health professional who thinks depression is something you can fight alone.
Be smart, get support and do the work. Psychedelics or not, it’ll be eye opening to see how much easier this is with help. And we can make you one promise: like psychedelics themselves, treating depression just isn’t as fun to do alone.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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