Theta Health
Hero image

Psilocybin Therapy

Nearly 800 million people across the globe are currently living with mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and others. Standard treatments such as SSRIs are giving some form of relief to many of them but there are millions for whom these treatments simply do not work. What would you say if we told you that there is hope for these people? That there is a natural product that has been with us for thousands of years that shows great promise in the treatment of nearly all these conditions? Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about psilocybin therapy and how it can help with and even cure mental health issues.

What Exactly Is Psilocybin?

Psilocybin appears naturally in more than 200 different mushroom species. When this substance is ingested, your system quickly metabolizes it to psilocin. The latter activates certain receptors in your brain, which then induces the remarkable visionary effects psilocybin is known for. Interestingly enough, both psilocin and psilocybin can also be manufactured in a laboratory.

Psilocybin is what is known as an Indole alkaloid. As such it has many similarities with serotonin. In fact, in our bodies, it binds to other kinds of serotonin receptors. Psilocybin’s hallucinogenic effects are, however, caused by the 5-HT2A receptor being activated.

What Is Psilocybin Therapy?

Psilocybin therapy is a relatively new approach that is currently being researched for the treatment of various mental health (and some other) conditions. Therapy sessions at this stage combine traditional psychological support with the pharmacological benefits of psilocybin.

This research is still in a relatively early stage, but results are very promising. From currently available evidence it would seem that psilocybin could be an effective and safe way to treat people who are suffering from anxiety and depression (including treatment-resistant depression), bipolar disorder, PTSD, addiction, etc. when it is administered under controlled circumstances by properly trained therapists and combined with psychological support.

When And How Did Psilocybin Therapy Start?

What we know today as ‘magic mushrooms’ have been used by humans for well over 10,000 years in a variety of medical and spiritual rituals for their ability to trigger mystical experiences and change one’s consciousness.

Its history in the US dates back to 1955 when American banker R. Gordon Wasson and his wife were enjoying a vacation in Mexico. During their trip, they became the first foreigners to take part in a sacred mushroom ritual conducted by the Mazatec Indians. Afterward, they took some of these mushrooms back with them to New York City and Wasson later shared their experience in an article that appeared in Life magazine.

About 3 years later, Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary, two Harvard psychologists, started researching how psychedelic drugs can impact one’s perception, cognition, and emotion. This is how the now legendary Harvard Psilocybin Project started. It involved recruiting volunteers from among the university’s students and then administering psilocybin to them. The two researchers eventually lost their jobs in 1963.

Governments took note of these developments and on 21 February 1971, the United Nations approved the Convention on Psychotropic Substances to limit the use of drugs like psilocybin (and many others) for medical and scientific purposes. Individual countries then started to pass laws to implement the UN decision.

Research continued though and over the years evidence of the benefits of psilocybin therapy mounted. In 2018 the FDA finally officially recognized it as a way to deal with treatment-resistant depression and classified it as a ‘Breakthrough Therapy”, thereby indicating that it has notable therapeutic potential. This will expedite the clinical study process and ensure priority review by the FDA in the future.

Coming back to the present time: for many readers, the concept of treating mental health issues with a psychedelic drug might seem like something completely illogical. Rest assured, however, that psilocybin therapy is used and researched by highly esteemed medical establishments like, for example, John Hopkins University.

As a matter of fact, that university already published its first research paper on the topic in 2006. It dealt with the positive impact of psilocybin therapy over the long term. Since then a long list of similar academic papers and studies have been released. The message is clear: over the long-term psilocybin therapy offers definite benefits for individuals who suffer from several mental health and related issues.

In September 2019 John Hopkins university established its new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research where research into the therapeutic benefits of substances like psilocybin continues to this day. It was also this university that became the first to get regulatory permission for psychedelic research many years after the U.S. government banned this type of research/therapy in 1970.

In 2021 John Hopkins university’s psychedelic treatment program received a further boost when it got a federal grant. Around the same time, more than one U.S. state started to decriminalize psilocybin. Until now more than a dozen of them have already made similar announcements.

Several other centers for psychedelic research have since been launched. The list includes Imperial College London’s Imperial Psychedelic Research program and the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics.

It is important to keep in mind that at this stage decriminalization mainly centers around psilocybin’s therapeutic properties, which is why it can only be used legally as part of a legitimate treatment program.

What To Expect During a Typical Psilocybin Therapy Session

Psilocybin therapy typically involves you taking the substance while you are under the supervision of a qualified therapist. You will then embark on what can only be described as a psychedelic trip in a safe, controlled environment where you are being monitored by the therapist the whole time.

An average psilocybin therapy session can last anything between six and eight hours, which is long enough for the full spectrum of the drug’s effects to run their course. Generally speaking, the patient will only take the substance once during a session, but in certain cases, the patient might be asked to take psilocybin more than once.

Afterward, a talk therapy session will be held where the patient will discuss his or her experience with the therapist. This approach is known as integration therapy and it forms a crucial part of psychedelic therapy. The aim here is to integrate the lessons the patient might have learned from the psychedelic session and see how they could be integrated into his or her life.

The goal of this type of treatment is to use the psychedelic journey to address long-term issues and emotional obstacles in an expedient way instead of the patient having to spend many years in talk therapy to gradually work through them.

Below we will take an in-depth look at psilocybin therapy, who could benefit from it and in what way, the risks involved, and how to determine whether this might be the right choice for you or not.

Who Could Benefit From Psilocybin Therapy?

  1. Individuals who don't want to experience side effects of SSRIs or other antidepressants such as brain fog, emotional numbness, tiredness, brain zaps, insomnia, etc.
  2. Individuals who want to get over their issues faster and more effectively. Antidepressants usually take weeks or months to work and work, while standard psilocybin therapy encompasses two sessions in 5 days and has a higher likelihood of success.
  3. Individuals who have issues that are resistant to traditional therapies.

The following types of people could get major benefits from psilocybin therapy:

Patients Who Suffer From Depression And Anxiety

Only people who suffer from anxiety and depression can ever really know how debilitating these conditions can be and how they can negatively impact a person’s day-to-day life.

For those who have previously been diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression, the research results have so far been nothing else than profound. In one particular study, for example, 65% of the participants showed an improvement while in 20% of cases the patient’s depression disappeared completely.

When it comes to people who suffer from anxiety, a meta-analysis of about 24 different studies found that generally speaking, the same percentage as above (65%) experienced relief from their anxiety after being treated with psilocybin.

While more research will always be welcome, it is already clear at this stage that psilocybin therapy has a role to play in fighting the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Those Who Are Struggling With Addiction

John Hopkins University also researched the benefits that psilocybin might have for treating addiction. Their first study focused on people who were trying to stop smoking. What they found was that 2 to 3 moderate to high doses of psilocybin combined with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) substantially improved smoking abstinence rates compared to using CBT alone.

After the study, Dr. M. Johnson, the head researcher, said in a statement that psilocybin has the potential to be used in the treatment of other types of substance abuse such as cocaine and alcohol addiction.

People Who Suffer From PTSD

Many years after they went through a traumatic event, PTSD sufferers still struggle to cope with the memories. Very often all facets of their lives are disrupted. Recent research has, however, shown that using psilocybin in the treatment of this condition can bring positive results.

Individuals Who Suffer From a Chronic Illness

For those who suffer from a life-threatening disease such as cancer, even one dose of psilocybin was found to reduce their anxiety and depression dramatically. Even better: Instead of only giving short-term relief, the effects typically lasted much longer, with between 60% and 80% of patients still experiencing a dramatic reduction in their anxiety and depression six months down the line.

A different study involving cancer patients showed similar results: more than 80% of patients still felt better more than six months after receiving a single dose of psilocybin. They experienced an improvement in the way they perceived life in general, their mood improved, they felt a deepening sense of spirituality, and they experienced less anxiety and depression. The treatment also reduced the feeling of hopelessness and dread they went through.

How Effective Is Psilocybin Therapy?

As with virtually any other form of treatment, there will always be patients who do not react positively to psilocybin therapy. While most of the studies mentioned so far found that this type of therapy benefited more than two-thirds of patients, that still leaves the other 20 to 30% who did not experience the desired outcomes.

A Few Psilocybin Therapy Risk Factors

Psilocybin is remarkably safe and no toxicity in humans has ever been recorded. Readers should, however, not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a psychoactive substance here. Outside of medical and clinical contexts, improper usage might lead to accidents because of impaired judgment. It should only be used under the supervision of a licensed professional who has received extensive training in using it for therapeutic purposes.

Psilocybin Use Could Cause Someone To Experience Uncomfortable Emotions

Even if the eventual outcome of psilocybin therapy is largely positive, the experience might not always be a pleasant one. To deal with old memories and confront them directly during a psilocybin session can be an uncomfortable and even scary experience. That is why it is so important that you have a trained specialist at your side to assist you.

People Who Suffer From a Heart Condition Should Be Cautious

The possibility that psilocybin could cause or exacerbate cardiac issues in some cases has been raised many times. There is, however, no scientific proof for this. People who have heart-related problems should nevertheless not use psilocybin before first getting medical advice.

Psilocybin has, however, been found to increase both your heart rate and your blood pressure. This is why individuals who have a systolic blood pressure of more than 140 or diastolic of more than 90 are generally not allowed to take part in psilocybin research trials.

Individuals Who Suffer From Certain Psychological Conditions Should Be Cautious

People who suffer from conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychosis will normally not be allowed to take part in Psilocybin trials because of the risk that this could make their symptoms worse. An article that appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Journal of Effective Disorder Reports, however, found that there is not enough scientific evidence to exclude people who suffer from bipolar disorder from these trials. The researchers concluded that the potential benefits of psilocybin therapy outweighed the possible risks for these individuals.

Serotonin Syndrome

In combination with certain types of anti-depressants or supplements, psilocybin therapy might hold the risk of the patient developing serotonin syndrome, i.e. too much serotonin in the body. Common symptoms include hypertension, hyperthermia, tachycardia, dilation of the pupils, sweating, and flushing.

While the most commonly prescribed class of anti-depressants, SSRIs, appear to not increase the risk, MAOIs and other types of anti-depressants are known for possibly not interacting well with psilocybin. The same can be said for certain types of supplements like St. John's wort. It's recommended to abstain from supplement use as much as possible at least 2-3 days before taking psilocybin and talking to a general practitioner or psychiatrist about the combination of your anti-depressant medication and psilocybin.

How Does One Get Started With Psilocybin Therapy?

If you consider yourself a good candidate for psilocybin therapy, your best option is to find out if there are currently any studies being conducted in your part of the world. But we can not emphasize enough that you should not use this substance on your own in an uncontrolled environment, it is very important to only attempt to take psilocybin with a trained professional.

Sascha Mayr

Sascha Mayr · 10/10/2022

Decorative Wave
Review checkmark

Reviewed by

Hope Martyn

Hope Martyn

Freelance Native Content Writer & Reviewer

Hi, I'm Hope, I'm a native English Speaker from England but based now in Portugal. I love all things Technological, Travel and Mental Well being. I also have a BA Hons Media Production degree.