Most people have heard of magic mushrooms, also known as shrooms, mushies and golden tops. But what is it that causes these mushrooms to be indetified as psychadelics, and what is it that makes users have hallucinations and spiritual connections?
The key lies in the compound ‘psilocybin’ and it has been around longer than most people realise. In addition to this, new research now suggests that magic mushrooms may be useful for more than just getting high.
What is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin and psilocin are the chemical compounds found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Their chemical makeup activates the serotonin receptors in our brains, affecting our perception, mood and cognition. These chemical compounds have a similar structure to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and are used to produce feelings of euphoria and psychedelic effects.
Psilocybin works by being ingested, either through eating the mushrooms raw, cooking them in food (like chocolates), or brewing in tea. Once the chemical is digested, it turns into psilocin. Hallucinogenic effects, or a ‘trip’ can start taking place after around 30 minutes and can last on average for four to six hours.
Magic mushrooms look like ordinary mushrooms, however there are over 180 species that contain psilocybin. Synthetic psilocybin can also come in the form of a white powder in capsules.
Psilocybe Cubensis is a commonly used species of mushroom which holds high levels of psilocybin and psilocin, however there are other species which also contain the chemicals that are used to induce trips or highs.
The History of Magic Mushrooms
It is believed that magic mushrooms have been used as far back as 10,000 B.C. Cave paintings found in Australia suggest that mushrooms were used by native tribes to enter trance like states. Rock paintings in North Africa and statues in Central America from the Aztec and Mayan periods indicate that mushrooms were used in rituals, around 9000 B.C. It’s believed that the psychedelic mushrooms were used to induce visions, trances and increase communication with the Gods.
Rock paintings in Spain, believed to be around 6000 years old, depict that the mushroom Psilocybe Hispanica was used in religious rituals.
While some societies seem to have stumbled across the mushroom’s psychedelic properties thousands of years ago, it didn’t reach western society until the late 1950’s. In the late 1930’s, two ethnobotanists who went by the names Schultes and Reko discovered that these hallucinogens were still being used by ‘local’ doctors in Mexico. They published their findings in Harvard University Botanical Museum Leaflets. 
This led Robert Gordon Wasson, to journey to Mexico and seek out the mushrooms in order to experience the effects that were associated with this widely unexplored magic mushroom. An amatuer mycologist, he went on to write his essay ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ after experiencing psilocybin during a mazatec ritual in Mexico. 
The Benefits and Side Effects of Psilocybin
When taking magic mushrooms, the effects have a different impact on each individual. Many factors such as the type of mushroom, the quantity and how it is consumed can play a part.
Some of the side effects that have been reported include:
- Feelings of euphoria
- Spiritual connections to the world and others
- Heightened sense of awareness
- Increased heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Fluctuating emotions
Many of these feelings will depend on the user’s mental state and the environment in which they are in. People can ‘influence’ their trip by ensuring steps are taken to obtain the most comfortable environment when ingesting shrooms.
Research into psilocybin to treat mental health issues has shown that it has positive effects in reducing anxiety and feelings of depression. A study in 2016 found that cancer patients who were given one single dose of psilocybin (alongside psychotherapy) showed significant reductions in anxiety and depression. The patients were said to have shown improved spiritual connections and an increased quality of life.
Another study conducted by King’s College London found that in a study of 89 healthy volunteers, taking psilocybin did not leave them with any serious adverse side effects. The patients reported beneficial feelings of positive mood change and an altered way of thinking. According to King’s College London, psilocybin can help to ‘loosen’ behaviours and patterns that are deeply rooted in our brains. This is now an area of focus when looking for treatments to help those suffering with mental health issues.
Other studies have shown that psilocybin was beneficial for people who wanted to quit smoking.
The Risks Associated with Magic Mushrooms
Even though magic mushrooms are classed as an illegal substance, surprisingly, psilocybin has not been identified as an addictive drug. Users may find that they build up tolerance towards the drug if they use it continuously over a period of time.
During a trip, users can feel confused, disorientated, paranoid and anxious. Those feelings, paired with possible hallucinations can cause the user to panic and potentially harm themselves or those around them. If a user suffers from mental health issues then this possibility increases.
Although it’s extremely hard to overdose on magic mushrooms, there are other risks that come with consuming them. It’s hard to distinguish between edible mushrooms and those that contain poison. Some types of mushroom such as Autumn Galerina can be fatal to humans if the person doesn’t get treatment in time.
Another risk that comes with consuming magic mushrooms is linked to the possibility of developing hallucinogen-induced persisting perception disorder, or HPPD. This causes the user to have flashbacks of their trip even years after they’ve stopped taking hallucinogens. It can be distressing and scary the user, and there is currently no known cure for the condition.
It remains illegal in most countries to consume, however there are users across the world who have turned to magic mushrooms in an attempt to boost creativity and increase their awareness. Although psilocybin is most commonly known for its hallucination inducing effects, more uses for this chemical compound to be used in combating mental health are now being researched into.