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Study Suggests: Microdosing Psilocybin Mushrooms May Improve Mood and Mental Health

The participants who took psilocybin in small amounts (microdoses) experienced greater improvements in mood and mental health at one month when compared with those who did not microdose, is the conclusion of a new research study.

Key takeaways:

About psilocybin- past, present, and future

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic substance found in many mushrooms growing in Europe, South America, Mexico, and the US. Mushrooms that contain psilocybin are known as “magic mushrooms,” often in the Psilocybe genus.

Magic mushrooms have a long history of use across many cultures. South American Aztec Indians call these mushrooms teonanacatl, meaning "God's flesh," and use them for various religious and healing rituals.

After centuries of suppression, including the US-led “war on drugs'', psilocybin is being rediscovered as a therapeutic agent, especially for its potential to fight mental illnesses and improve well-being.

The status of psilocybin in the US

  • As a medicine, psilocybin microdoses are tested in research studies for various health benefits. Several FDA-approved clinical studies in the last decade found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may help manage depression, anxiety, and certain addictions. Although more research is needed to understand psilocybin and validate older findings fully, researchers believe this substance could significantly impact psychiatric medicine.
  • Psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I substance, which means it has a high potential for abuse and is not currently accepted for medical use in treatment, as per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While psilocybin is currently tested in small, non-hallucinogenic doses, this substance is also used in regular doses as a recreational drug. Over 8% of Americans used psilocybin at one point in time in this form, according to a 2015 survey.

About microdosing

Microdosing involves the use of psychedelic substances in doses small enough not to affect cognition, so the person does not experience their hallucinogenic effects.

The most commonly used psychedelic substances for micro-dosing are psilocybin and LSD, and the typical dose is 0.1 to 0.3 g of dried mushrooms, taken 3-5 times per week. Based on surveys, psilocybin microdose use this substance to boost their improvement in mood, emotional well-being, and cognition. Previous research studies found that using psilocybin microdoses was associated with reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and improvements in mood and cognition.

Details about the new study

The new study was published in the journal “Nature” in June 2022 by researchers from the Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Kelowna, Canada. According to Joseph Rootman, the study's lead scientist, this is the largest study to date using psilocybin microdoses and one of the very few studies that include a placebo (control) group. Psilocybin microdoses were given alone or combined with lion’s mane (a non-psychedelic mushroom) or niacin, vitamin B3.

The scientists followed 953 participants who received small doses of psilocybin and a control group with 180 participants who did not microdose. After 30 days, all the study participants had to complete several tests evaluating mental and emotional symptoms, mood, memory, and cognition.

The participants who took psilocybin showed greater improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress compared with those who did not microdose. When looking at the response to the therapy by gender, the researchers found that microdose-related reductions in depression were stronger among females when compared with males. Although the combination of psilocybin, lion’s mane, and vitamin B3 may not offer additional improvements in mental health, it may benefit older adults by preventing cognitive decline, according to this study.

Psilocybin as an antidepressant

The benefits of psilocybin in treating depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses were first suggested in the 1960s. Psilocybin was available in many countries, including the US, as a prescription drug under the trade name Indocybin®, manufactured by Sandoz. The drug was removed from the US market in 1966, and psilocybin was classified as a Schedule I substance in 1970.

Recent studies using advanced technology and special MRIs provide more details about its mechanism of action. Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, suggest that psilocybin’s antidepressant effects may be due to its impact on the serotonin 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. These receptors are abundant in the brain and become overactive in individuals with depression.

One hypothesis is that psilocybin briefly disrupts the neuron connection, giving the brain the chance to rewire in new ways.

Psilocybin has a different mechanism of action than conventional antidepressants, creating changes that make the brain “more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression,” according to David Nutt, head of the Imperial Center for Psychedelic Research.

Psilocybin as a recreational drug

When used in regular, hallucinogenic doses as a recreational drug, psilocybin can cause many symptoms. Like other hallucinogenic substances like mescaline and peyote, psilocybin causes altered perception of time and space, euphoria, feeling in a dream state, distorted thinking, visual hallucinations, and unusual body sensations. Other symptoms include confusion, dizziness, muscle fatigue, and digestive symptoms like nausea and vomiting.

Potential harms include dangerous behavior, aggravation of mental illnesses, and acute psychotic episodes that mimic schizophrenia, especially if the user consumes high doses of psilocybin. A person who develops delirium or acute psychosis should be treated at the emergency room. With medication, these episodes resolve within several hours.

Sometimes, psilocybin users may experience long-term side effects, feel anxious, and distressed, and have flashbacks many months after taking a hallucinogenic substance.

While this new study found that microdosing psilocybin may help to improve mood and mental health, more research is needed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of this substance derived from magic mushrooms.

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