We’ll get a little deeper into the spiritual side of magic mushrooms when we discuss its History in two weeks, but for now, I’ll just mention that the same team of medical researchers at Johns Hopkins is currently conducting a follow-up study on psychedelics and “personal encounters with the Divine.” So that’s it for today’s episode of Drug of the Month, where we learned about psilocybin, what it is, what it does, and how it’s grown. Next week, Sam will be back to chat about how it interacts with the body, its medical and recreational uses, and some of its potential side effects. What is the science behind how it interacts with the body?
What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects? Now it’s time for our drug of the month, where we bring you the background, science, history, and current trends in a different drug every month. For October we’re focusing in on psilocybin, the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms. Last week we gave you an introduction, and now it’s time for a dive into the science of how psilocybin interacts with the human body, its positive and medically useful effects, and some of its potential side effects. As we mentioned in the introduction, psilocybin is found naturally in over 200 species of mushroom, so people using them recreationally simply eat the mushroom, sometimes fresh, but more often, dried out. A typical recreational dose is between 10 and 50 milligrams of psilocybin, which is roughly equivalent to 10 to 50 grams of fresh mushrooms, or 1 to 5 grams of dried mushrooms. Unfortunately these rough approximations are inherent in this drug, as different mushrooms contain various concentrations of psilocybin. Without rigorous scientific testing like there would be in a legal regulated market, users are taking a bit of a gamble as to how potent the mushrooms they are ingesting will be. This is further complicated by the fact that other factors, such as size and age of the mushroom, and how long it has been stored if dry, can also affect the potency.
No matter how much psilocybin you ingest, it’s processed the same way. What many people don’t know is that psilocybin is actually a “prodrug,” meaning it is not itself psychoactive, but is metabolized into the pharmacologically active drug, which in this case is psilocin. However, many mushrooms also do contain psilocin in addition to psilocybin, in various combinations. Once mushrooms are ingested, your liver rapidly processes the psilocybin into psilocin, which enters your bloodstream and causes magic mushrooms’ characteristic effects. Because they are all connected and this isn’t a scientific research paper, I will be using “psilocybin” and “psilocin”, as well as “magic mushrooms” somewhat interchangeably here. Psilocin is structurally similar to serotonin, and affects many of the same systems in your body. It is a partial agonist for many serotonergic receptors, meaning it actives them in a very similar way. The main receptors that it connects to are called 5-HT, with a few different types within that family. The 5-HT receptors are responsible for the bulk of psilocin’s effects, but recent research has shown that it affects other receptors to a lesser extent. Part of this reaction is increasing dopamine in the basal ganglia, which is a part of your brain that’s partly responsible for cognition and emotion. This increase in dopamine rewards the pleasure centers, which lends to psilocybin’s euphoric effects. When in your bloodstream, psilocin has a variety of effects based on the quantity present. At low doses, mushrooms produce feelings of relaxation, and many users report laughing a lot and finding things more entertaining than they normally would, not unlike the effects of marijuana. Seeking this more mild effect leads some people to microdose, meaning purposefully taking smaller amounts of mushrooms than would be used to obtain its more commonly known psychedelic effects that are characteristic of a larger dose. At higher doses, psilocybin resembles LSD much more than marijuana, doing things like intensifying colors and textures, producing visual hallucinations, and distorting your sense of time. Many people also find it to be a spiritually significant experience, but that depends a LOT on set and setting – someone taking it in a ritualistic manner and hoping to connect with themselves or the world, will be much more likely to find it to be spiritual than someone taking it at a party or a concert. A mushroom “trip” tends to last between four to five hours, which is shorter than the duration of a typical acid trip. It does build up a tolerance, but this dissipates quickly, in a matter of days, so spacing out psilocybin use will avoid this issue, and is generally a good idea for a number of reasons that I’ll get into shortly. Interestingly, psilocybin is similar to LSD not just in its effects, but in the way it interacts with your body: they’re so similar that you can actually develop a cross-tolerance, meaning if you take LSD the day after you use psilocybin, you will have weaker effects from it, as if you had previously done LSD. Just as the tolerance disappears quickly, psilocin also clears your body pretty quickly, and most of it is excreted within 24 hours of consumption. However, it’s possible to detect in urine up to 7 days after use, which is longer than a drug like cocaine but much shorter than marijuana. Mushrooms also do not lead to physical dependence, so have very little addictive potential. On the medical side of things, there have been ebbs and flows in the acceptance of psilocybin’s potential. Back in the 1960s, psychedelic icons Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert ran the Harvard Psilocybin Project, in which they carried out a number of experiments to evaluate its uses in treatment or to assist with counseling. This type of work was squelched during the anti-drug hysteria of the 70s and 80s, but since the turn of the century, there’s been a renewed push for scientific research into the benefits of psilocybin for various conditions.
Beginning in 2000, John Hopkins University launched a series of studies into psilocybin and other hallucinogens. Their work has shown that along with guided therapy, psilocybin can help people quit smoking, can help treat alcoholism, and even help with depression and end-of-life anxiety. In one such study, after all 18 subjects experienced an guided mushroom trip, 94% said their trip was one of the give most important moments of their lives. 39% even said it was the important thing that had ever happened to them. Participants’ friends and family reported that they were more empathetic, their relationships and marriages had improved, and that their alcohol consumption had lessened. One of our favorite organizations we’ve often mentioned on This Week in Drugs, called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, has been heavily involved in this research and is conducting studies in the US and abroad. Of course, as with any drug, there are certainly risks associated with magic mushrooms.
The biggest danger with consuming them in an unregulated environment is misidentification: since there are over 200 species of psilocybin mushrooms, it’s possible for people looking for them to mistake a non-psychoactive or even poisonous mushroom and consume it instead.