When you hear medical psilocybin, your first thought probably isn’t pharmaceutical.

But soon we may very well see medical psilocybin among other mainstream medical treatment options. Emerging research is validating much of what had already been found, before the so-called war on drugs put a stop to psychedelic research for the following decades. The potential for psilocybin is great in treating prevalent mental health concerns.

Issues like alcoholism, depression, and anxiety are widespread, so the possibility of a new treatment option is exciting to many who are interested in alternatives for mental health. So how could such a substance go from being considered dangerous to helpful? If you’re a bit familiar already with the use of psychedelics, you may know that long before it was considered dangerous, using magic mushrooms has been a significant part of human cultures all over the world. This ancient plant medicine may be once again becoming available to us.

As previous studies are being revisited and new technologies are used for more research, the possibilities are growing for using this powerful substance to improve our lives.

Historical Use of Psilocybin

Psilocybin is the psychedelic component of psilocybin mushrooms. These are the same magic mushrooms you might think of as being part of hippie culture. There are several different kinds of mushrooms that contain psilocybin.

It’s difficult to say exactly when psilocybin was first discovered, as people have been using these mushrooms to facilitate spiritual experiences for thousands of years. Found on every continent, the mushrooms have been found depicted in art from a variety of ancient cultures. As early as 9000 B.C. in Africa, psilocybin mushrooms have been used by indigenous people throughout the world. Even today psilocybin mushrooms are still used by many as a sacrament, a way to communicate with higher power or spirit.

In the 16th century, Spanish priests observed their use in Central America. Because such spiritual practices were not consistent with their Catholic objectives, these rituals and practices could no longer be done in the open. Hundreds of years later, mycologist R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico to study mushrooms and was introduced to psilocybin mushrooms by a Mazatec shaman. A sample was then brought to Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1958, who first isolated psilocybin and later synthesized it, beginning research into the substance. When members of the anti-war and counterculture movement discovered psilocybin mushrooms, their popularity boomed. This was catalyzed by the experimentation Timothy Leary did while at Harvard. Many so-called hippies then flocked to places like Oaxaca to seek out the mind-bending experiences with these magic mushrooms they’d heard so much about.

As counterculture interest in psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelic substances grew, research was all but abandoned, regarded as unscientific and potentially even dangerous.

Psilocybin became classified as a Schedule 1 drug in 1970, and pretty much since then people have considered it to be harmful and medically useless.

Having such profound effects, and being a part of our experience for possibly all of human history, it’s clear why so many have worked to protect it. And the emerging research suggests we’re rediscovering what was known all along.

The Effects of Psilocybin

The significance of the spiritual experience possible through psilocybin has been known, trusted, and respected long before modern medicine.The altered state that psilocybin brings about is said to be one where there are feelings of profound connectedness and deep spiritual meaning. Psilocybin once consumed begins to work within minutes, and the effects can last for several hours. It produces vivid changes to perception and beliefs through an altered state of consciousness. You might experience a distorted view of what’s in the environment – things like surfaces appearing to ripple, melt, or change color.

This feeling of being one with everything can be a significant part of the changes to a person’s beliefs about the world and their place in it. In turn, this can help to change problematic habits or patterns of behavior that are unhealthy or damaging. These effects have now been observed as part of a body of growing evidence that it does have some great potential medical use and there are ways it can be used safely.

Medical Psilocybin

Research has indicated that medical psilocybin can be used to effectively treat a number of mental health conditions. Alcoholism and smoking addictions, mood disorders, and depression and anxiety have all responded positively to psilocybin as treatment. Psilocybin has far fewer side effects, and can even be several times more effective than typical antidepressants on the market. It works quickly and the effects are long-lasting, which make it especially appealing in treatment of damaging conditions like severe depression and alcoholism.

It’s been observed to help cancer patients who have a life-threatening diagnosis overcome the depression and anxiety associated with their condition. And while classified as a drug, psilocybin is not addictive. The absence of any risk of dependency makes it appropriate for treating addictions like alcohol or tobacco, even though it’s still considered a drug itself. Researchers are also studying whether psilocybin could be used for other mental health conditions including Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and anorexia.

But aside from the vast need for mental health treatments, another promising application is in treating cluster headaches. People have been treating these headaches with psilocybin on their own for some time. Also called suicide headaches, for the level of unimaginable pain that they bring, chronic attacks leave over half the people with the condition contemplating suicide. This has led many to try even an illegal substance for any relief.

And they’ve found that it often works, where other traditional methods of treatment have fallen short. It’s even reported to last much longer than prescription drugs as well. The dose needed is low enough that no hallucinogenic effects are experienced – also known as a microdose.

Though not yet proven scientifically, it seems possible that it works because psilocybin can constrict blood vessels, reducing pressure and inflammation that could be contributing to the headaches. Trials have been started to look further into how substances like psilocybin and other psychedelics work on these cluster headaches.

The hope is that it could become a much-needed treatment option for people with the condition as studies validate these anecdotal findings.

How Psilocybin Works

Psilocybin, like other similar psychedelics, is known to act on serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin helps to stabilize our mood and with communication in our nervous system. We still don’t yet fully understand how exactly psilocybin works to have the effect it does on the brain, but that’s what ongoing research aims to find out.

It seems that psilocybin is associated with a decrease in blood flow and brain activity in parts of the brain that may have to do with self-awareness, consciousness, or ego. Observations have been made that the more the activity in those areas decreased, the more vivid an experience the subject had. Decreased connectivity throughout the brain in parts that handle memory, decision-making, attention, and hearing seems to be part of the effect as well.

Consciousness, if it does serve as a kind of filter for external stimuli, might be getting somewhat bypassed or deactivated in a way. This would then explain the sense of mental expansion or opening up of consciousness that is so characteristic of a psilocybin experience. Such a sense of expansion and interconnectedness is central to the spiritual component of what psilocybin can do. This can make it possible to reach positive outcomes and healing through deep work on underlying issues that may be adding to or causing challenges like depression or alcoholism.

Medical Psilocybin Treatment Availability

While the research is still being done into standardizing or acceptance of psilocybin as a treatment option, progress continues to be made. Some states have already begun decriminalizing psilocybin use. More recently Oregon set a global precedent in its legalization efforts with how psilocybin may be able to be regulated for medical use.

Johns Hopkins has opened a privately-funded research center into psychedelics including psilocybin for the treatment of illnesses as well as overall general wellness. Already much of the previous research done back in the 60s is being validated by current studies.

The FDA has actually approved breakthrough therapy research for two companies. Compass Pathways, for treatment-resistant depression, and Usona Institute for treating major depressive disorder. This breakthrough designation indicates the FDA sees the potential for these psilocybin treatments to offer a significantly more effective and overall safe option for treating these conditions.

The Compass Pathways treatment is an involved process, including screening and evaluation, health and physical assessments, and several meetings with the team of therapists, before the psilocybin portion of the treatment. They’ve patented the treatment, which uses a synthetic psilocybin called COMP 360.

There isn’t anything available on the market that works like these psilocybin treatments, in many ways. One issue is the lack of any sort of one-and-done treatment option or intervention but psilocybin may be able to fill that gap. The effects of an experience with it have been found time after time to be positively life-changing, even just after one dose. While it’s not yet widely available or even considered mainstream, many are hopeful about the resurgence of research into this incredible substance for the treatment of conditions that affect so many.