According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the prevalence of anxiety disorders in the U.S. may be as high as 40 million, or about 18 percent of the population over the age of 18, making it the most common mental illness in the nation. This includes generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety and panic disorder. Research published in 2015 also noted that anxiety (characterized by constant and overwhelming worry and fear) is becoming increasingly prevalent in the U.S., presently eclipsing all forms of cancer by 800 percent.
The conventional approach to anxiety and depression treatment typically involves ineffective and brain-altering drugs. Interestingly, two recent studies suggest suggest psilocybin, the psychoactive substance in “magic mushrooms”, can have truly profound benefits for cancer patients struggling with anxiety and depression.
Psilocybin, like marijuana, is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. The mushrooms are typically ingested in their fresh or dried form, or can be made into tea. Large doses have been known to induce panic and/or psychosis.
On the other hand, research shows it can also have the opposite effect — providing long-lasting relief from anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, being a Schedule 1 drug, obtaining scientific support for its medicinal use is extremely difficult and costly.
Last year, London-based psychiatrist James Rucker penned a commentary in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), arguing for the reclassification of LSD and magic mushrooms — which he notes are far less addictive and harmful than heroin and cocaine — in order to make it easier to conduct much needed medical research on them.
Both LSD and magic mushrooms were widely studied in the late 1960s, prior to their classification as Schedule 1 drugs, which by definition have no medicinal use. According to Rucker:
“Hundreds of papers, involving tens of thousands of patients, presented evidence for their use as psychotherapeutic catalysts of mentally beneficial change in many psychiatric disorders, problems of personality development, recidivistic behavior, and existential anxiety.”
Clinical Trials Demonstrate Remarkable Benefits of Magic Mushrooms
In a recent Time Magazine article, Dinah Bazer recounts her personal experience with psilocybin. A cancer survivor struggling with severe anxiety (driven by her fear of a recurrence), Bazer agreed to participate in a magic mushroom trial conducted at the NYU Langone Medical Center.
While fear gripped her when the drug first brought her “tumbling through space,” the experience ended up being a profoundly healing one:
“… I started to feel love. I felt like I was being bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful … The feeling of immense love lingered for weeks, and four years later I still feel it at times. My fear and anxiety were completely removed, and they haven’t come back …
The experience changed how I wanted to live my life. I used to get up, grab a quick snack and eat it in the car. But I no longer want to be in a hurry. Now I get up an hour early, make a real breakfast and read my paper …
I used to imagine what it would be like if the cancer recurred, but I don’t think about it the same way anymore. When I don’t feel well and thoughts of a recurrence creep into my mind, I lack fear and simply think, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’”
Psilocybin — An Immediately Acting Anti-Anxiety Drug
One of the cancer patients who took part in the NYU trial was Patrick Mettes, a television news director. His magic mushroom trip helped him make peace with and overcome his fear of death, his widow told CNN.
“He was not afraid of death and, in fact, he seemed to grow through the process of dying. My brother was with us quite a bit during that time and says that he felt that Patrick’s spirit grew as his body declined … I believe it helped him, and both of us, live life fully up to the very end.”
Study participant Estalyn Walcoff described her experience as part of the NYU study to Business Insider:
“In people like Walcoff, whose depression and anxiety struck them like a powerful blow following a cancer diagnosis, one dose of psilocybin seemed to quiet her existential dread, to remind her of her connectedness with the world around her, and perhaps most importantly, to reassure her of her place in it. And these results don’t seem to be limited to people with cancer or another life-threatening illness…”
According to lead author Dr. Stephen Ross, director of substance abuse services and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone, their investigation revealed that psilocybin “was a rapid, immediately acting anti-anxiety and antidepressant.”
Studies Support Controlled, Clinical Use of Psilocybin
The second psilocybin study was done at Johns Hopkins University. Fifty-one patients participated, randomly receiving either a high dose or very low dose of psilocybin. Nausea or vomiting occurred in 15 percent of patients who received the high dose treatment.
No nausea was reported on the low dose, and no serious adverse reactions occurred in either group. As reported by CNN:
“… [T]he high-dose psilocybin resulted in significant decreases in both clinician-rated and self-reported measures of depressed mood and anxiety among the patients. The effects lasted in 78 percent of patients for depression and 83 percent for anxiety in a follow-up assessment six months later.
‘These effects appear to be sustained in our study at least six or seven weeks and very plausibly more than six months,’ Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins Medicine and lead author of the study, said … ‘[I]t’s a very exciting opportunity to consider entirely new approaches to therapy.’”
The Importance of Spiritual Connection
Regardless of one’s opinion about hallucinogens, it’s pretty remarkable to consider that a single dose of a substance can result in several months’ worth of relief. Some patients even report being anxiety-free four years later. Other recent research has confirmed that the effects of controlled psilocybin administration indeed appears to be long-lasting in a majority of cases. What might account for such dramatic, near-instantaneous and long-lasting transformation from anxiety to inner peace?
According to researchers, the freedom from anxiety and depression appears to be the result of spiritual reconnection. The feeling of love and being “one” with everything results in alterations in the brain itself — a mechanism ascribed to neuroplasticity, where your brain changes in accordance to experience. Indeed, a majority of the participants ranked it among “the most meaningful” experiences of their lives.
Psilocybin also binds to the same receptors as serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood and perception. Studies using MRI imaging show psilocybin alters brain activity, allowing for communication between regions of your brain that normally do not connect. This is believed to be part of the breakthroughs people report.
Self-Treating May Be a Bad Idea
Ayahuasca is another drug commonly used for similar, spiritual purposes. As with magic mushrooms, ayahuasca users often have positive mental and emotional breakthroughs, brought on by the overwhelming depth of the spiritual experience. That said, it’s important to realize that taking a hallucinogen like magic mushrooms at your own behest could be ill advised.
Not only could it land you in legal trouble, but many of the participants pointed out that their trip COULD have had an adverse effect on their psyche were it not for the careful oversight and guidance they received throughout the experience. As noted by Dr. Stephen Ross, who led the NYU study:
“If someone goes out and does this themselves, they could have enormous anxiety and paranoia, and can feel much worse. Though I’m sympathetic, I’d strongly recommend people not do that.”
Kerry Pappas, who participated in the Johns Hopkins study had what amounted to a largely negative experience. It was only the skilled guidance of the attendants that brought her safely through to the end. STAT News recounts her story as follows:
“Very quickly … she was overcome with a feeling of ‘total, absolute, undeniable despair in the worst way. It almost makes me cry thinking about it.’ The scene in her mind … was of ‘massive boulders of very bland, earthy colors. Huge, massive rocks with very muscular men with pickaxes, just chipping away at these boulders.
In my mind’s eye, it was, like, ‘This is what it really is: This is life. There’s nothing to it. It has no meaning.’ It went on and on and on’ … I cannot tell you I wouldn’t have jumped out of a window because of the despair. So it’s very important to me that it be done the way it was done’ …
The facilitator urged her to lie back down and helped Pappas relax. It wasn’t until the final hour of her session that the experience shifted for the better. ‘They’re chipping away, chipping away. And there’s — it was a jewel. A single jewel sparkling amongst all this despair …
And I realized that’s what I represent and loud and clear … were the words, ‘Right here, right now. Right here, right now.’ It was totally audible. It was a voice … And it was like, ‘You need to listen to this. Identify with the beautiful stone.’ It was joyful … And it has changed my life.’
Since her session, Pappas said her cancer has reappeared twice, in her brain, but she remains mostly unfazed. ‘Right here, right now’ is integrated in my being. It’s not just words. And just my joy to live is new, for me. I hold no delusions that this isn’t going to get me in the end, because statistically it will. But I can live with that … Fully. It is amazing.’”
Large-Scale Trials Sorely Needed
Considering the low risk of adverse effects when done in a carefully controlled clinical setting, it seems further research into the use of psilocybin for anxiety and depression would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, being a Schedule 1 drug, trials cost about 10 times that for other legal drugs, and in order to take the research to the level where it could potentially be turned into a psychiatric treatment, phase 3 clinical trials are needed with thousands of participants.
For that to occur, psilocybin would need to be rescheduled. The potential for psilocybin to do a great deal of good certainly appears to be there. Recent studies have shown it may also help with smoking cessation and alcohol addiction.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Daniel Shalev of the New York State Psychiatric Institute — both of whom endorsed the two studies — noted that these studies provide “a model for revisiting criminalized compounds of interest in a safe, ethical way,” and that if research restrictions were to be loosened, “there is much potential for new scientific insights and clinical applications” for psilocybin.
Psilocybin and Mystical Experiences in Hospice Care: Anthony Bossis Ph.D
Some species of mushroom are outright toxic and can cause death. The North American Mycological Association offers critical information on a number of toxic mushrooms and the symptoms they cause.
About 100 species of mushrooms are being studied for their health-promoting benefits, which include improved weight loss and nutrition, and increased vitamin D. Approximately half a dozen mushroom varieties really stand out for their ability to deliver a tremendous boost to your immune system.
Cordyceps, also called caterpillar fungus or Tochukasu, is a favorite of athletes because it increases ATP production, strength and endurance. It also has anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.