Can magic mushrooms actually help with depression?
Depression is a medical condition that can range from mild to serious to life-threatening. If you think you may have depression or depressive symptoms, call your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
The government approved clinical trials of psilocybin, the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms, to determine whether it is effective in treating major depressive disorder. The substance was given “breakthrough therapy” status twice in one year.
Because it is tremendously difficult to study street drugs that are under the constraints of controlled substance designation, having “breakthrough therapy” status could completely change the way a drug is viewed within the medical community.
Are psychedelic mushrooms, or psilocybin, legal?
Currently, psychedelic mushrooms are a schedule III controlled substance, which means they are illegal with very few exceptions, and they have low to moderate potential for abuse. Researchers have a lot of red tape to get through to get permission to study an illegal street drug in the first place. Once they get through all of the layers of study approval, sourcing the drug for experiments becomes difficult because generally nobody is allowed to possess it.
To get “breakthrough therapy” designation is an impactful step toward learning more about the therapeutic potential, along with possible risks, of a substance. If study results show benefits with low to no risk, they could snowball into more and more research, and possibly become part of medical treatment plans.
What the science says about mushrooms for depression.
There is a lot of research left to do in the area, but some emerging findings seem promising:
- Just two doses of psilocybin reduced symptoms of depression, and effects lasted at least 3 months after treatment (depression was not assessed in the experimental groups after that).
- Cancer patients who received high-dose psilocybin treatments showed significant decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, which persisted through the six-month follow-up assessment. This shows promise for improving the quality of life for people going through cancer treatments.
- One study used before-and-after fMRI scans to see whether psilocybin treatment resulted in physical evidence of reduced depression symptoms. All 19 participants had decreased depression symptoms, and fMRI scans showed physical characteristics in the brain (blood flow in certain areas, etc.) that are associated with less severe and fewer depression symptoms.
- In terminal cancer patients, a single dose of psilocybin provided long-lasting improvements in depression, anxiety, quality of life, and reduced anxiety about death.
- Psilocybin treatment improved emotional face recognition in study participants who suffered from treatment-resistant depression
Researchers found only minor side effects, including anxiety about what treatment would feel like, digestive discomfort, and mild distress during treatment. Researchers offered support during treatments to subdue any panic that may arise and to reassure participants that they were safe and the experience was normal.
These were relatively small studies with around 12-50 participants in each study group. When a substance currently has “street drug” status that will potentially into pharmaceutical territory, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Since the government granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status and allowed clinical trials in two institutions over just one year, we might expect to see more thorough testing with larger study populations in the near future. It seems that the emerging science is showing that the benefits outweigh the risks, but more trials with larger participant groups are necessary before psilocybin is accepted as a legitimate medical treatment for mental health problems.
Potential impact of psilocybin as an experimental depression treatment
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 20-25% of women and 7-12% of men across the globe. Numbers have steadily been increasing over the years. Symptoms can range from inconvenient to debilitating, and include:
- Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Inability to experience pleasure
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Sleep trouble
- Trouble with focus and attention
- Thoughts of self-harm (if you’re thinking of harming yourself, stop reading and call your doctor immediately)
If doctors can add one more impactful tool to their approach to treating depression, especially major depression, the global impact could be revolutionary. If you are working in the mental health field, it may be worth keeping an eye on research in this area as it develops.