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Is Psilocybin a Magic Potion for Mental Health and Other Conditions?

Psychedelic drugs are experiencing a rapid evolution. In only a few short years, formerly demonized substances like LSD and magic mushrooms have become the darlings of medical researchers.

 

Psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound derived from magic mushrooms, is notably garnering attention for its powers over conditions like anxiety, depression, and cluster headaches.


Several American municipalities have already decriminalized magic mushrooms, and countries like Canada have opened up limited experiments with psilocybin-assisted therapy. So what has inspired this societal and legislative change of heart?


Over the last twenty years, progressively promising results from well-controlled studies have been quietly building. Today, there is a substantial body of robust research into the powers of psilocybin for mood disorders, migraines, and cluster headaches.


Psilocybin for Existential Anxiety


Based on early evidence from the early 2000s, a team of researchers based in the New York University School of Medicine created a randomized controlled trial testing psilocybin for existential depression and anxiety.


This 2016 study worked with 29 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression, split into a control group and a psilocybin group. Each group received two separate doses, and the researchers evaluated them for change in symptoms for nine months. 


The conclusions from this study were clear. Prior to the second dose, “psilocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well being, and increased quality of life.” After the six-month follow-up, there were enduring reductions in anxiety and depression among 60 to 80 percent of the patients.


A second study, published in 2020, followed up with 15 of the living patients. Even four years after their psilocybin experiences, “60-80% of participants met criteria for clinically significant antidepressant or anxiolytic responses.” On reflection, up to 100 percent of these patients considered the experience “among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”


A recent 2020 meta-analysis of psilocybin for anxiety and depression confirmed the “promising” data,” even if the number of studies suitable for inclusion was relatively small.


Psilocybin for Depression


One of the most promising areas of psilocybin research is treatment-resistant depression. Considering two-thirds of people don’t respond to the first depression treatment, and perhaps as many as a third don’t get results following multiple attempts, it’s paramount to find more effective solutions. 


One of the many fascinating studies into psilocybin for depression was published in 2018. A small group of 26 women with treatment-resistant depression received two oral doses of pure psilocybin over a week. The researchers assessed symptoms at one week for the following six months. 


At the five-week mark, researchers reported “marked reductions in depressive symptoms.” At this point, a few participants went into remission. However, the authors concluded, “Symptom improvements appeared rapidly after just two psilocybin treatment sessions and remained significant 6 months post-treatment in a treatment-resistant cohort.”


Psilocybin for Cluster Headaches and Migraines


Researchers have explored psilocybin therapy for cluster headaches since at least 2006, well before the most recent wave of interest into this magical compound. Largely, this research is in response to reports from people with cluster headaches and migraines doing self-experimentation.


In this 2006 study, authors R. Andrew Sewell, John H. Halpern, and Harrison G. Pope, Jr. interviewed 53 cluster headache patients who had treated their conditions with psychedelics (psilocybin or LSD). Eighty-four percent of patients reported psilocybin aborted cluster headache attaches, while 54 percent said it terminated the cluster period. 


A later survey, published in 2015, supported these findings. Psilocybin and other hallucinogens “were also perceived to shorten/abort a cluster period and bring chronic cluster headache into remission more so than conventional medications.”


Work is also getting started examining psilocybin for migraines. A small study published in 2021 in Neurotherapeutics reported a positive reduction in headaches following two doses of psilocybin. While double-blind and placebo-controlled, this study was limited to 10 participants and a short follow-up time. However, “the reduction in weekly migraine days from baseline was significantly greater after psilocybin (…) than after placebo.”


Anecdotal reports about the power of psilocybin over cluster headaches are in line with this research. Brad Badelt reported on his own experience with the Walrus. After taking magic mushrooms for the first time, really in his adult life, his decades-long battle with cluster headaches cleared up overnight.


In his words, following the first trip, “When I woke the next morning, I felt different: the mental fog brought on by my cluster headaches was gone.” Remarkably, he remained headache-free for a year, and “[e]very year since, I’ve downed a dose of shrooms, and every year my cluster headaches have remained in remission.”


Is Psilocybin a Magic Potion for Treatment-resistant Conditions?


At the time of writing, there were 60 clinical studies on psilocybin registered with ClinicalTrials.gov set to start soon. These trials will explore the value of psilocybin for bipolar disorder, anxiety related to Parkinson’s disease, existential distress in palliative care, and even caregiver burnout. 


While it’s too soon to declare magic mushrooms a cure-all for these challenging conditions, there is a definite excitement in the air. After all, psilocybin is a markedly different option than currently available pharmaceuticals. With more robust clinical trial data, we could see psilocybin-assisted therapy becoming a mainstream option for patients with any number of mental health conditions 

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