Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist, founder of transpersonal psychology and a researcher with 5 decades of experience in psychedelic research, suggested that psychedelics, with their capacity to catalyse mental processes, could be to the study of human consciousness what the telescope is to astronomy or the microscope to biology.
Psychedelics are only recently coming out of a dark age of prohibition, their legal status and attached stigma making it difficult for scientists to research their effects and therapeutic application. However, with very promising results from preliminary studies and a mental health epidemic that can no longer be ignored, more and more universities worldwide have started psychedelic research programme. Johns Hopkins University, the premier public health research University in the world, recently invested 17 Million USD in the creation of a psychedelic research department, and Universities in England, Spain, Canada, Germany and Australia are starting to investigate how compounds such as MDMA, LSD, psilocybin and Ayahuasca can be used to treat mental health disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, depression and addictions.
Safety & Tolerability
Psilocybin mushrooms, when ingested in a controlled, supportive environment, are generally considered one of the safest psychoactive substances. A substance’s toxicity is measured in a median lethal dose, which refers to the size of the dose that would kill 50 percent of a given population. Researchers have estimated that it would take about 280 milligrams per kilogram to be potentially lethal to a human being. That means the average person would have to ingest 6 grams of psilocybin to overdose, roughly equivalent to 2kg of mushrooms. That’s 1,000 times the effective dose ! So far there hasn’t been a single study who found an association between psilocybin and physiological toxicity, organ damage or neuropsychological impairment in rodents or humans (Halpern, 2005
Regarding psychological safety, a study by Studerus in 2011 estimated that since the early 1990s, approximately 2000 doses of psilocybin have been safely administered to humans in the United States and Europe, in carefully controlled scientific settings, with no reports of any medical or psychiatric serious Adverse events, including no reported cases of prolonged psychosis or Halucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder (otherwise known as “flashbacks” where a journeyer re-experiences psychedelic effects after the session has ended.
People with pre-existing psychiatric conditions such as a history of psychosis or bipolar disorders are generally advised NOT to consume psychedelic substances, including psilocybin mushrooms, as they may precipitate or exacerbate symptoms.
Recent studies are highlighting the huge potential of psilocybin-assisted therapy for addressing mental health disorders that are notoriously difficult to tackle: promising results have been published on treatment resistant depression, tobacco addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and end of life anxiety, and new studies and clinical trials are currently underway.
Participants in these research projects typically undergo a programme with a psychotherapist that can adequately prepare them for their psilocybin journey, support them during the experience and go over the material in talk therapy that surfaced in follow up sessions.
Most therapeutic protocols involve the ingestion of a low dose of psilocybin first, to monitor the participant’s response and prepare for a higher dose session if so desired. The graph here, from Robin Cahart-Harris’ study group in John Hopkins, shows how 6 months after their high dose session, 80% of treatment resistant depression patients remitted to a normal depression score on the HAMD scale, a commonly used psychiatric assessment tool.
In another study conducted in Imperial College London, researcher found a 50% reduction in depression severity scores after 3 months. It is important to note that participants in those studies discontinued their use of antidepressant medication for at least a month before enrolling in the study.
Similar therapeutic effects have been found when using psilocybin for addressing anxiety in patient with a terminal cancer diagnostic. The touching testimonials of the patients who took part in this study can be heard in the documentary “Psilocybin: A New Understanding”, here.
In a study looking at the potential of psilocybin in smoking cessation programme combing high dose psilocybin therapy sessions with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, John Hopkins researchers found that at a 6 months follow up, 80% of patients were abstaining from smoking. Additional data stemming from these studies also consistently shows that beyond a reduction in symptoms, participants experience far reaching benefits such as increased mindfulness, empathy and connection with nature. Researchers even found that psilocybin reduced participants’ adherence to authoritarian political views !
Lastly, psilocybin has been shown to elicit mystical-type experiences, characterised by a sensation of transcending space and time, feelings of boundless love and unity and a sense of profound sacredness. These experiences can help people feel more in tune with themselves and other, realising how precious life is, and catalysing dramatic shifts in self-perception and worldview. Participants in the psilocybin studies at John Hopkins consistently report these experiences to be among the top 5 most significant experiences ever to have happen to them in their life, and we at Coração Medicina have stood witness to many profound moments of ecstatic bliss and spiritual insight in ourselves and in those we serve. We are thrilled to be witness mushroom to finally be recognized as the sacred tool for healing they were once known for and pray that all those who may benefit from this experience can do so in a safe, legal and loving environment.
References from peer-reviewed scientific literature:
Begola, M. J., & Schillerstrom, J. E. (2019). Hallucinogens and Their Therapeutic Use: A Literature Review. Journal of Psychiatric Practice®, 25(5), 334-346.
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bolstridge, M., Day, C. M. J., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D. E., … & Rickard, J. A. (2018). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 399-408.
Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., … & Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1181-1197.
Watts, R., Day, C., Krzanowski, J., Nutt, D., & Carhart-Harris, R. (2017). Patients’ accounts of increased “connectedness” and “acceptance” after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of humanistic psychology, 57(5), 520-564.
Lyons, T., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(7), 811-819.
Madsen, M. K., Fisher, P. M., Stenbæk, D. S., Kristiansen, S., Burmester, D., Lehel, S., … & Knudsen, G. M. (2020). A single psilocybin dose is associated with long-term increased mindfulness, preceded by a proportional change in neocortical 5-HT2A receptor binding. European Neuropsychopharmacology.
Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., & Griffiths, R. R. (2008). Human hallucinogen research: guidelines for safety. Journal of psychopharmacology, 22(6), 603-620.
Studerus, E., Kometer, M., Hasler, F., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2011). Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies. Journal of psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1434-1452.