Magic mushrooms, shrooms, have been around for ages. Used for spiritual, religious, and recreational purposes originally, they developed notoriety in the 1950s and 60s when they became associated with the hippie movement. Around the same time researchers began to study their potential uses. After a period of studies being shut down, the links between magic mushrooms and effects on depression are again being pursued.
Mushrooms and Depression
Depression affects more than 264 million people worldwide and up to a third do not respond to treatments (1). Besides the psychological burdens of depression, there is a financial impact as well. Over $200 billion is spent in the US on depression alone. With a clear, unmet need for effective treatments, alternative methods must be considered. One alternative researchers have begun pursuing is taking mushrooms for depression relief.
A population study was released in 2013 that explored mental health and psychedelics as a whole. Magic mushrooms, with psilocybin as the active component, were just one of the constituents of the study. The study used data collected from 2001 to 2004 to search for correlations between mental health issues and psychedelic drug use. Researchers concluded that these psychedelics do not cause mental health problems- in fact, it showed psychedelic users may be less likely to have mental health disorders (2). However, further research is necessary to create any concrete relationships.
In 2016, an open-label study was published indicating the potential for psilocybin to be used as a treatment for those with treatment-resistant depression (3). The study comes with limitations, though. As a small scale, open-label study, the patients had some sort of expectations ahead of the trial.
Since then, more studies have showed the benefit of taking mushrooms for depression. One study showed taking psilocybin decreased anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer (4). Although studies like these are promising, more work needs to be done to see exactly how depression and shrooms are related.
Why Mushrooms May Help with Depression
Psilocybin is a chemical compound that, when metabolized into psilocin, binds to a serotonin receptor (5-HT2A) (2). This binding process is what leads to the psychoactive effects experienced when taking shrooms.
In order to see what really happens to your brain when you take mushrooms, researchers measured blood flow, blood oxygen-levels, and resting-state function connectivity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after taking psilocybin. What these researchers found is crucial to understanding why mushrooms help with depression.
In concluding their study, researchers documented decreased blood flow in various regions of the brain, including the amygdala, which is a part of the brain involved in emotional cognition (5). To go along with the findings, patients reported having fewer depressive symptoms than before treatment. This corroborates the fact that reduced blood flow to the amygdala, as a result of psilocybin ingestion, goes hand in hand with reducing depressive symptoms.
One interesting part of the study has to do with the default mode network (DMN), a highly researched part of the brain thought to have correlations in activity and mental disorders (6). In previous studies conducted by the same researchers, the DMN had been observed to have reduced functionality under psilocybin (7). Controversially, they now found DMN to be increased after taking psilocybin. Instead of taking this as a flaw, a new theory was created as to why mushrooms are helping combat depression.
The researchers believe this increase in DMN activity could be seen as a sort of “reset” on patients’ brains. This idea supports statements patients had made regarding feeling as though the mushrooms had given them a fresh start. It also shows how using shrooms for depression has high potential to give these patients a clean slate, wiping away their past depressive symptoms.
From the mentioned studies, data and patient testimonies show the effectiveness of taking shrooms for depression. By altering the state of patients’ brains with a psychoactive compound, changes in functionality and activity can be seen that are associated with changes in mood lasting up to 5 weeks, as noted by Carhart-Harris et al (7).
What are the Effects of Mushrooms for Depression?
As a popular recreational drug, mushrooms have been known to create a sense of euphoria, connectedness and more. Taking these same magic mushrooms for depression can elicit the same feelings. However, there can also be adverse feelings such as anxiety, confusion, and nausea (3). These effects change from person to person and dose to dose. The more you take, the more of a chance you’ll have a stronger “trip” or reaction to the drug. Don’t let the potential side effects frighten you – there’s more positive potential to be gained instead.
One study from 2006 showed that shrooms can cause a “mystical-type experience”. After patients went through a study by taking a psilocybin dose of 30mg/70kg, patients recorded thoughts and completed various assessments for researchers to understand the experience. What these researchers found was a majority of patients experienced these mystical effects and walked away with lasting benefits that made them feel as though their quality of life had increased. According to the results, the patients believe the experience had “substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance” (8).
The same study contacted patients’ peers to ask them questions regarding the patient. A majority of peers reported witnessing improved mood, spirituality, well-being and more. Both the patients’ self reports and the community reports indicated these benefits lasted up to 6 months (8).
As mentioned previously, patients have noted their experience with mushrooms seemed to give them a reset. This reset effect may be what allows patients to have significantly different emotional and spiritual outlooks after their mushroom experience.
Psychedelic experiences are known to be powerful, especially when there is a purpose behind the use. With the correct environment and mental state, you can expect the euphoria and the lightness often described. Additionally, you can experience emotional enlightening, ego death, and other events people ascribe to the mystical experience category. These effects are known to help combat depressive symptoms and last months.
Depression and shrooms have been permanently linked together from the scientific community as well as the general public. We’ve seen numerous studies showing the potential impact mushrooms can have on those with depression. With time we will learn more about this complex relationship. As you read this, John Hopkins is in the process of conducting a study to further shed some light on the effects of magic mushrooms and how they can help combat depression.
GBD 2017 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators. (2018). Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet. DOI.
Krebs TS, Johansen PØ (2013) Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study. PLOS ONE 8(8): e63972. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063972
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bolstridge, M., Rucker, J., Day, C. M. J., Erritzoe, D., Kaelen, M., … Nutt, D. J. (2016). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(7), 619–627. doi: 10.1016/s2215-0366(16)30065-7
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. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675513
Carhart-Harris, R.L., Roseman, L., Bolstridge, M. et al. Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms. Sci Rep 7, 13187 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-13282-7
Broyd, S.J., et al., Default-mode brain dysfunction in mental disorders: A systematic review. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. (2008), doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.09.002
Carhart-Harris, R. L. et al. Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 2138–2143, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1119598109 (2012).
Griffiths, R.R., Richards, W.A., McCann, U. et al. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology 187, 268–283 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5