Depression affects millions of people around the world. It’s a mental illness characterized by low mood, a loss of interest in favorite activities, negative thoughts, changes in sleep and appetite, hopelessness, and sometimes even thoughts of suicide.
Depression is often treated with a combination of therapy and prescription medication. But sometimes, this condition can be difficult to treat with traditional methods. People who have been diagnosed with depression often seek out alternative means of treatment to help them find relief.
While it’s true that antidepressants often have unwanted side effects, natural, alternative treatments carry side effects as well. Recently, doctors and scientists have looked into psilocybin as a potential treatment for depression, but what risks does this method carry? Below, we’ll take a look at what exactly psilocybin is, how it may be able to help with depression, and the risks associated with this treatment.
What is Psilocybin?
If you’ve ever heard of magic mushrooms, it probably calls to mind the psychedelic imagery popular in the 1960s and 1970s. But the chemical compound that gives magic mushrooms their psychoactive properties, known as psilocybin, has a much deeper history.
Some evidence suggests that magic mushrooms have been used in spiritual practices for thousands of years. In the language of the ancient Aztecs, the mushrooms were referred to as “teonanácatl,” which translates to “God’s flesh.”
Psilocybin is found in more than 200 species of fungi all around the globe, though there are a few species that contain it in much higher concentrations. The fungi that contain the highest concentrations of psilocybin are usually what people refer to when they talk about magic mushrooms.
But what exactly happens when you ingest psychedelic mushrooms? Physically, you’ll notice some or all of the following:
- Dilated pupils
- Changes in heart rate
- Changes in blood pressure
- General discomfort
Though these physical effects can be somewhat unpleasant, many people ingest psilocybin for the perceptual distortions it causes in large doses. When ingested, many users report that it feels like time slows down. They also report that they feel connected to nature and humanity, with intensified emotions throughout the experience. At higher doses, people report visual disturbances, often described as geometric patterns.
The effects of psilocybin are felt for hours, with most trips lasting between two and six hours, though mood alterations may last longer. Possessing mushrooms that contain psilocybin is illegal in many countries, with the US classifying it as a Schedule I drug. Recent research suggests that magic mushrooms may have some medicinal properties, and its status as a Schedule I drug should be reconsidered.
Scientists and doctors think that psilocybin may be able to treat some conditions like migraines, mental illness, addiction, and anxiety. It’s important to remember, though, that this field of study is exceptionally young, and no consensus has been reached about psilocybin’s medicinal properties.
Can Psilocybin Treat Depression?
As mentioned above, psychologists are beginning to consider psilocybin as a treatment for major depressive disorder. Large doses of psilocybin can alter a person’s perception, often in a positive way. It is thought that this may be able to shift negative thoughts, improving the symptoms of depression. But those who are diagnosed with depression don’t need to take a large dose of psilocybin to receive benefits.
This is where a practice called microdosing comes in. Microdosing involves taking very small amounts of a drug. In most cases, the dosage is below the level thought to be psychoactive. For example, a “normal” dose of psilocybin may be around one to two grams of dried mushroom. A microdose is usually considered to be about 10% of a normal dose, so in this instance, you can expect to ingest around 0.1 to 0.2 grams.
Microdoses hold promise because users report overall lower levels of depression and anxiety without many of the perception-altering side effects of a larger dose. In essence, you’re getting many of the benefits with few of the drawbacks.
Traditional treatments for depression include prescription drugs like anti-depressants. These drugs often carry unwanted side effects like changes in weight, insomnia, dizziness, loss of appetite, headaches, and agitation. Though psilocybin can sometimes cause digestive issues or nausea, many people report fewer side effects than traditional anti-depressants.
What are Some of the Risks Associated with Taking Psilocybin for Depression?
While psilocybin seems to offer hope for some people with depression, especially those who have found limited success with other treatments, there are still significant risks to keep in mind. Sometimes, during this experience, users report a “bad trip.” Because psilocybin intensifies emotions, a negative thought can send users into a downward spiral.
The effects of psilocybin are directly influenced by a person’s surroundings. For example, listening to certain music or watching certain videos can have a significant effect on the outcome of the trip. This is one of the main reasons why people may never be able to walk out of their pharmacy with a prescription for psilocybin. When taken at home, doctors can’t control the setting their patients take the drug in. Psilocybin treatment must be closely monitored and will most likely need to be administered in a clinical setting.
Though psilocybin has a low potential for abuse, some people may find the mind-altering properties to be a pleasant escape from reality. They may turn to psilocybin recreationally, using the drug as a means to relax and take a break whenever they can. This can be bad news, as it’s easy to lose touch with reality when your perception is constantly altered.
And if you are diagnosed with other mental illnesses besides depression, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, psilocybin can do more harm than good. People with these conditions may experience dangerous mania, paranoia, confusion, depersonalization, or psychosis, which will often warrant a trip to the hospital.
In addition, many people buy mushrooms from street dealers. There is no guarantee that what you’re getting is a legitimate product, and there’s no way of knowing your exact dosage. Though it seems like psilocybin has some promising properties, it’s absolutely always necessary to take this drug under the direct supervision of a trained medical professional.