The fascinating world of mind-altering magic mushrooms

Join us as we uncover the scientific research behind the mind-altering effects of magic mushrooms and the growing field of psychedelic therapy.
Christopher McFadden
What are magic mushrooms anyway?
What are magic mushrooms anyway?

Arp/Wikimedia Commons 

  • Magic mushrooms, also known as psilocybin mushrooms or "shrooms," have a long and rich history of use in various cultures worldwide for their psychoactive and spiritual properties.
  • The active compounds in these mushrooms, psilocybin, and Psilocin, can cause profound changes in perception, mood, and thinking.
  • While these effects have been used for "spiritual and healing" purposes for centuries, research has shown that magic mushrooms may have potential therapeutic benefits for various conditions, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

More than 180 species of psilocybin-containing mushrooms are found all over the world. These can induce hallucinogenic or psychedelic effects when consumed. However, despite research indicating that magic mushrooms may benefit some mental health conditions, they remain the equivalent of a Schedule I drug in many countries, and their possession and use may carry both legal and health risks. But why?

Here, we'll take a closer look at the history and effects of magic mushrooms, the current state of research, and the potential risks and benefits of using these substances. So are they the proffered panacea for many ailments? Or should they be considered dangerous narcotics?

Let's find out.

What are magic mushrooms?

Magic mushrooms are fungus that contains psilocybin and Psilocin (along with other compounds whose effects are not clear), which are psychoactive substances that make people "feel" different. (Psilocybin is converted to Psilocin in the body, which is the compound that produces their psychoactive effects.)  They are also known as psilocybin mushrooms or simply "shrooms." Many societies have used these substances for their hallucinogenic and spiritual effects.

The fascinating world of mind-altering magic mushrooms
Psilocybe allenii mushrooms.

The effects of magic mushrooms depend on how strong they are (how much psilocybin they contain) and how much is ingested, but they usually change how users perceive or "see" the world. Users may experience changes in temperament, thought processes, and sensory perception, such as seeing hallucinations, including brighter colors or warped shapes.

Even though magic mushrooms don't lead to physical dependence, they can make users mentally dependent on their effects, and long-term use may hurt your mental health. The main risks of psilocybin use involve having a ‘bad trip’, where users may feel uncomfortable with themselves or their environment, experience disturbing hallucinations or lose touch with reality.

However, according to studies, various conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction, may profit from the therapeutic properties of the compounds found in magic mushrooms. More research is necessary to completely comprehend the risks and advantages of using these substances.

Magic mushrooms are regarded as a Schedule I substance in many nations, including the US, which makes them illegal to own, trade, or consume. Some countries let people use magic mushrooms in clinical trials or for depression that doesn't respond to standard treatment. However, there has been a growing movement to make psilocybin less illegal or legal for medical or therapeutic purposes.

Even when used for medicinal purposes, magic mushroom use should be approached cautiously, as with the use of any drug, and with a thorough understanding of the advantages and risks of its use. It's also essential to remember that using and possessing these substances in many places may be against the law, which could have serious legal repercussions.

What are psychedelic mushrooms good for?

Magic mushrooms have been studied for their potential therapeutic benefits for various conditions, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers have found that the active ingredients in psychedelic mushrooms (psilocybin and Psilocin) can significantly affect the brain by making new neural connections more flexible. This effect has been linked to a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety and an increase in feelings of connectedness and spirituality.

Psychedelic mushrooms have also been proposed as an effective treatment for addiction, particularly to tobacco and alcohol. Studies have shown that psilocybin-assisted therapy could help people quit smoking or reduce their alcohol consumption by increasing their motivation to change and helping them better understand their addiction's root causes.

In addition, psychedelic mushrooms have been shown to be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study conducted at the University of South Florida found that when veterans with PTSD went through psilocybin-assisted therapy, their symptoms improved. For example, hyperarousal, avoidance behaviors, and re-experiencing symptoms are enhanced. But this is still controversial, and there are reports that "bad trips" could worsen the problem.

The fascinating world of mind-altering magic mushrooms
Dried magic mushrooms.

Some studies have shown that magic mushrooms appear to be able to promote brain tissue regeneration, too. Yet other studies seem to support that magic mushrooms can boost memory recall.

It is important to note that the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic purposes is still in its early stages. More research is needed to understand the potential risks and benefits thoroughly. It is also essential to only use these substances under the guidance of a trained professional, as they can be psychologically intense and may not be appropriate for everyone. They should also never be mixed with prescription drugs.

How do mushrooms affect the brain?

Psilocybin and Psilocin, two psychoactive substances found in mushrooms, are known as psychedelic tryptamines.

They have very similar molecular structures to a critical neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, called Serotonin, which regulates mood, sleep cycles, and stress-coping mechanisms. Because of their similar molecular structure to Serotonin, psilocin molecules can activate the same receptors in the brain that Serotonin activates. This is particularly true with a receptor site known as 5HT2A, which mediates mood, imagination, learning, and perception.

Depending on the dosage, potency, and unique variables like genetics and mental state, the effects of mushrooms on the brain can differ. In general, mushrooms can cause mood swings, different sensory experiences, different ways of thinking, and different ways of seeing reality. Users may experience changes in their perception of time and space, visual and auditory hallucinations, and a sense of connection to other people or the natural world.

According to research, activating specific brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and planning, and the default mode networks (DMN), compile information as we go about our daily lives. It has been theorized that Psilocin temporarily disables one or more of these DMNs, reducing the brain's ability to connect with different parts of itself and forcing it to make new connections.

These new connections are linked to greater introspection and self-reflection and may cause the impacts of mushrooms on the brain. Additionally, studies have shown that mushrooms can boost neuroplasticity—the brain's capacity to create new neuronal connections—and encourage the development of new brain cells.

In a therapeutic setting, mushrooms may help with several mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (PTSD). It is crucial to remember that using mushrooms for therapeutic purposes should only be done with the help of a qualified expert because these drugs can have strong psychological effects, including adverse effects, and might not be suitable for everyone.

Are other mushrooms good for anxiety?

It has been proposed that some mushrooms which do not contain psilocybin or Psilocin, including "Reishi" and "Lion's Mane," may help treat anxiousness. As adaptogens, these mushrooms may support the body's ability to cope with stress and preserve equilibrium without psychoactive effects.

Adaptogens are a class of natural substances, including plants, herbs, and mushrooms, that are believed to help the body adapt to stress and maintain homeostasis, or balance, in the body. Adaptogens have been used for centuries in traditional medicine systems, particularly Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, to promote overall health and well-being.

For instance, "Reishi" mushrooms have been shown to have calming effects on the nervous system and may help to lessen symptoms of melancholy and anxiety. According to research in the Journal of Medicinal Food, people who took a "Reishi" extract for eight weeks reported significantly less fatigue and worried less than those who took a placebo.

On the other hand, "Lion's Mane" mushrooms have been discovered to have potential advantages for cognitive function and may help to lessen the signs of anxiety and melancholy. According to research in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, people who took a Lion's Mane extract for four weeks saw a significant reduction in their symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to people who took a placebo.

The fascinating world of mind-altering magic mushrooms
Magic mushrooms have some interesting affects on your brain.

It is significant to note that more study is required to fully understand the potential advantages and disadvantages of using these and other types of mushrooms to treat anxiety. Additionally, it is crucial only to use mushrooms under the supervision of a qualified expert because some mushrooms, if improperly prepared, can be toxic or cause other adverse effects.

What are the risks of using psilocybin mushrooms?

The use of psilocybin mushrooms carries certain risks and potential adverse effects, mainly if misused or taken in high doses. Some of the potential dangers of using psilocybin mushrooms include the following:

  • Psychological effects: Psilocybin can cause intense psychological effects, such as hallucinations, changes in mood, and altered thinking and perception of reality. These effects can be unpredictable, overwhelming, or frightening, especially for inexperienced users or those suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia.
  • Physical effects: Psilocybin can cause physical effects such as nausea, vomiting, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. These effects can be more pronounced in individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure.
  • Risk of accidents or injury: Psilocybin can impair coordination, perception, and judgment, increasing the risk of accidents or injury, especially when operating machinery or driving.
  • Psychiatric conditions: Psilocybin may worsen symptoms of underlying psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.
  • Legal risks: Possession and use of psilocybin mushrooms are illegal in many countries, and individuals caught with these substances may face legal consequences.
  • Potential for abuse: Although not physically addictive, psilocybin mushrooms can be psychologically habit-forming, and long-term use may negatively affect mental health.
  • Mixing with other drugs: Psilocybin should not be mixed with other drugs, psychiatric medication, or anti-depressants. This is because Psilocybin molecules may affect the same neural receptors as some prescription drugs and could lead to negative drug interactions.

It is essential to approach using psilocybin-containing mushrooms with caution and to understand the potential risks and benefits thoroughly. It is also crucial to only use these substances under the guidance of a trained professional in a safe and controlled environment.

And that is your lot for today.

While there is still much to be learned about magic mushrooms' potential benefits and risks, the growing body of research suggests that these substances may have therapeutic potential for various mental health conditions. However, it is essential to approach magic mushrooms with caution and to only use these substances under the guidance of a trained professional in a safe and controlled environment.