Psilocybin Drug of the Month: download
Transcript and Sources
What exactly is it? Where does it come from in nature, how is it turned into useable form? How is it consumed?
And now it’s time for the Drug of the Month, where we take a closer look at the background, science, history, and recent trends in a different drug each month. Last month, we talked about nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” a mainstream drug that is widely available for medical and commercial uses, but is also becoming more popular as a recreational substance. In contrast, October’s drug of the month is a plant that, like cannabis, has long been stigmatized for its psychoactive properties. Also like cannabis, it is a Schedule I drug, despite low potential for addiction, and recent research showing that it can be largely beneficial in medical treatment. This month, we’ll be looking at the magic behind magic mushrooms, or Psylocybin.
In today’s episode, we’ll explore the nature of psilocybin, what it is and where it comes from. Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms. About 50 species of these mushrooms are exclusively found in Mexico, but psychedelic mushrooms also commonly grow in the wild in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Ironically however, the most widely distributed species of magic mushrooms throughout the world, psilocybe semilanceata, can be found in Europe, North America, Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand, but is entirely absent from Mexico.
In general, psilocybin-containing species are dark-spored, gilled mushrooms that grow in meadows and woods of the subtropics and tropics, usually in soils rich in humus and plant debris. Both the caps and the stems of the plant contain the psychoactive compound, although the caps contain higher concentrations. The spores of these mushrooms don’t contain psilocybin at all.
Because most psilocybin biosynthesis occurs in the early formation of the fungus, younger, smaller mushrooms tend to have a higher concentration of the drug. In general, the psilocybin content of mushrooms is quite variable (ranging from almost nothing to 1.5% of the dry weight), even varying wildly within a single species, often because of different strains, and growing and drying conditions. Not surprisingly, there is less variability among domestically cultivated mushrooms than those grown in the wild. The drug content is more stable in dried mushrooms than fresh mushrooms, with dried mushrooms retaining their potency for months or even years, while mushrooms stored fresh for four weeks contain only traces of the original psilocybin.
One common misconception about magic mushrooms is that they only grow in cow poop. While that’s not entirely untrue, the myth comes from one species in particular, psilocybe cubensis, which is a dung-loving species that does often colonizes the manure of large grazing herbivores, like cows and goats. This species prefers humid grasslands, and is more often found in South America and East Asia, but can reliably be found anywhere where humidity is above 85% and where grass-eating animals live. This includes much of the American South, but particularly within a few hundred miles of the Gulf Coast, especially in spring and fall. The reason cubensis loves cow poop so much is because they have no or very little stomach acid, so it’s a very welcoming environment, and one where it’s safe to raise your young fungal family. The cow usually eats grains or grass with mushroom spores on it, and the spores germinate in the cow’s moist, warm stomach.
For people who don’t like digging through cow poop, mushrooms can be grown at home from spores, quite similarly to your average houseplant (though the process is a bit more complex). Just as a common house plant is grown in a pot of soil, mushrooms can be grown on a cake of substrate material. The substrate is like its food and its home. The substrate is usually made of a combination of grains, such as brown rice flour, seeds, and vermiculite, a common gardening mineral. The substrate is injected with mushroom spores, which after a few days will grow into white, fuzzy splotches. Typically, in 3-to-4 weeks, the substrate is completely covered in white fuzz, which means it has been successfully colonized, and can be transferred into a terrarium where the mushrooms will begin sprouting. When mushrooms are little babies, they look more like buttons than the cap and stem shape we expect, and are wrapped up in a translucent membrane called the universal veil. As the mushroom grows, the head will open up like an umbrella and tear the veil. Most experts recommend harvesting at this point, for maximum potency and before new spores are released. Once the mushrooms are harvested, they should be dried to preserve the psilocybin.
Since psilocybin mushrooms are after all just mushrooms, they can be eaten just like any other mushroom… by putting it in your mouth and swallowing. However, since the taste can be pretty bitter, some people prefer to hide it in other food with very strong flavors, such as a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, which can mask the taste. Some people also prefer to brew it into a tea, where the bitterness is more mellow. In the scientific research of psilocybin, the drug is extracted from the mushroom to a pharmaceutically pure degree, and is then injected intravenously into the patient or test subject, but this is incredibly expensive process and does not increase or amplify the effects of the substance, so it is never injected recreationally.
In general, the effects of consuming magic mushrooms include euphoria, closed and open-eye visual hallucinations, altered thinking and perception, distorted sense of time, and most remarkably, spiritual experiences. In fact, the occurrence of spiritual experiences in psilocybin users is so consistent, that not only has psilocybin been used as an entheogen across various cultures worldwide, to enhance spiritual ceremonies, but was the subject of a federally-funded study by Johns Hopkins University in 2006 to uncover its spritual properties. We’ll get a little deeper into the spiritual side of magic mushrooms when we discuss its History in two weeks, but for now, I’ll just mention that the same team of medical researchers at Johns Hopkins is currently conducting a follow-up study on psychedelics and “personal encounters with the Divine.”
[LINK to SURVEY: http://www.psychedelicencounteringthedivine.org]
So that’s it for today’s episode of Drug of the Month, where we learned about psilocybin, what it is, what it does, and how it’s grown. Next week, Sam will be back to chat about how it interacts with the body, its medical and recreational uses, and some of its potential side effects.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
Now it’s time for our drug of the month, where we bring you the background, science, history, and current trends in a different drug every month. For October we’re focusing in on psilocybin, the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms. Last week we gave you an introduction, and now it’s time for a dive into the science of how psilocybin interacts with the human body, its positive and medically useful effects, and some of its potential side effects.
As we mentioned in the introduction, psilocybin is found naturally in over 200 species of mushroom, so people using them recreationally simply eat the mushroom, sometimes fresh, but more often, dried out. A typical recreational dose is between 10 and 50 milligrams of psilocybin, which is roughly equivalent to 10 to 50 grams of fresh mushrooms, or 1 to 5 grams of dried mushrooms. Unfortunately these rough approximations are inherent in this drug, as different mushrooms contain various concentrations of psilocybin. Without rigorous scientific testing like there would be in a legal regulated market, users are taking a bit of a gamble as to how potent the mushrooms they are ingesting will be. This is further complicated by the fact that other factors, such as size and age of the mushroom, and how long it has been stored if dry, can also affect the potency.
No matter how much psilocybin you ingest, it’s processed the same way. What many people don’t know is that psilocybin is actually a “prodrug,” meaning it is not itself psychoactive, but is metabolized into the pharmacologically active drug, which in this case is psilocin. However, many mushrooms also do contain psilocin in addition to psilocybin, in various combinations. Once mushrooms are ingested, your liver rapidly processes the psilocybin into psilocin, which enters your bloodstream and causes magic mushrooms’ characteristic effects. Because they are all connected and this isn’t a scientific research paper, I will be using “psilocybin” and “psilocin”, as well as “magic mushrooms” somewhat interchangeably here.
Psilocin is structurally similar to serotonin, and affects many of the same systems in your body. It is a partial agonist for many serotonergic receptors, meaning it actives them in a very similar way. The main receptors that it connects to are called 5-HT, with a few different types within that family. The 5-HT receptors are responsible for the bulk of psilocin’s effects, but recent research has shown that it affects other receptors to a lesser extent. Part of this reaction is increasing dopamine in the basal ganglia, which is a part of your brain that’s partly responsible for cognition and emotion. This increase in dopamine rewards the pleasure centers, which lends to psilocybin’s euphoric effects.
When in your bloodstream, psilocin has a variety of effects based on the quantity present. At low doses, mushrooms produce feelings of relaxation, and many users report laughing a lot and finding things more entertaining than they normally would, not unlike the effects of marijuana. Seeking this more mild effect leads some people to microdose, meaning purposefully taking smaller amounts of mushrooms than would be used to obtain its more commonly known psychedelic effects that are characteristic of a larger dose.
At higher doses, psilocybin resembles LSD much more than marijuana, doing things like intensifying colors and textures, producing visual hallucinations, and distorting your sense of time. Many people also find it to be a spiritually significant experience, but that depends a LOT on set and setting – someone taking it in a ritualistic manner and hoping to connect with themselves or the world, will be much more likely to find it to be spiritual than someone taking it at a party or a concert.
A mushroom “trip” tends to last between four to five hours, which is shorter than the duration of a typical acid trip. It does build up a tolerance, but this dissipates quickly, in a matter of days, so spacing out psilocybin use will avoid this issue, and is generally a good idea for a number of reasons that I’ll get into shortly. Interestingly, psilocybin is similar to LSD not just in its effects, but in the way it interacts with your body: they’re so similar that you can actually develop a cross-tolerance, meaning if you take LSD the day after you use psilocybin, you will have weaker effects from it, as if you had previously done LSD. Just as the tolerance disappears quickly, psilocin also clears your body pretty quickly, and most of it is excreted within 24 hours of consumption. However, it’s possible to detect in urine up to 7 days after use, which is longer than a drug like cocaine but much shorter than marijuana. Mushrooms also do not lead to physical dependence, so have very little addictive potential.
On the medical side of things, there have been ebbs and flows in the acceptance of psilocybin’s potential. Back in the 1960s, psychedelic icons Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert ran the Harvard Psilocybin Project, in which they carried out a number of experiments to evaluate its uses in treatment or to assist with counseling. This type of work was squelched during the anti-drug hysteria of the 70s and 80s, but since the turn of the century, there’s been a renewed push for scientific research into the benefits of psilocybin for various conditions.
Beginning in 2000, John Hopkins University launched a series of studies into psilocybin and other hallucinogens. Their work has shown that along with guided therapy, psilocybin can help people quit smoking, can help treat alcoholism, and even help with depression and end-of-life anxiety. In one such study, after all 18 subjects experienced an guided mushroom trip, 94% said their trip was one of the give most important moments of their lives. 39% even said it was the important thing that had ever happened to them. Participants’ friends and family reported that they were more empathetic, their relationships and marriages had improved, and that their alcohol consumption had lessened. One of our favorite organizations we’ve often mentioned on This Week in Drugs, called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, has been heavily involved in this research and is conducting studies in the US and abroad.
Of course, as with any drug, there are certainly risks associated with magic mushrooms. The biggest danger with consuming them in an unregulated environment is misidentification: since there are over 200 species of psilocybin mushrooms, it’s possible for people looking for them to mistake a non-psychoactive or even poisonous mushroom and consume it instead. Some wild mushrooms can cause stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death.
When consuming whole psilocybin mushrooms, it is also somewhat common for users to vomit, with about 25% reporting throwing up after consumption. However, this is due to the mushrooms themselves, and not something inherent in psilocybin, and also may be linked to the disgusting taste of these mushrooms, which users often try to avoid by swallowing them whole or combining them with more appetizing foods like chocolate.
Psilocybin itself, like other psychedelics, can lead to challenging trips, which can include confusion, anxiety, and panic, and are more likely at higher doses. Because of this, and it impairing judgment and sometimes coordination, you should not drive or do anything dangerous when under the influence of psilocybin.
It can also trigger underlying mental issues, especially in high doses, so those with a history of mental health problems should probably avoid them. Luckily, psilocybin has a very low toxicity and a relatively low harm potential, so reports of lethal doses of the drug are quite rare. And as with most illegal drugs, perhaps the most dangerous thing is getting caught with them, as possession, and especially distribution, of psilocybin can carry very stiff penalties including jail time.
That’s all for the science of psilocybin, the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms. Next week Rachelle will bring you the history of the drug, talking about when people started using it, and how the laws and societal attitudes surrounding it have changed over time.
History of the drug. When did people start using it? Who uses it now? How have the laws and societal attitudes about it evolved over time?
And now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we dive into the background, science, history, and current trends surrounding a different drug each month. October’s drug of the month is psilocybin, and last week, Sam talked to you about the science behind psilocybin and how it interacts with the human body. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the history of the drug, when and why people started using it, and how its active compound was finally isolated and identified.
As we know from our introductory episode on Psilocybin, hallucinogenic mushrooms grow naturally in the wild throughout the world, including in South America, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Based on historic records, humanity has had a deep spiritual relationship with psychedelic mushrooms for thousands of years. However, very little research into the active ingredient psilocybin was pursued until the 20th century, and even then it stop-and-go for several decades.
Ancient paintings discovered in caves on the Tassili plateau of Northern Algeria dating back to 5,000 B.C. depict humanoid creatures, with bugged out eyes, mushrooms sprouting up all over their bodies, and a human hand hovering above the head possibly indicating a psychedelic trip. The indigenous peoples of Central and Southern America built temples to mushroom gods and carved “mushroom stones,” believed to be religious objects. These stone carvings were either in the shape of mushrooms, or represented giant mushrooms sprouting out from the top of the head of a standing man, or from the back of a crouching person, and have been dated to as early as 1000-500 B.C.
The Mixtec culture of central Mexico worshipped many gods, one known as Piltzintecuhtli, which means 7 Flower, who was the God of hallucinatory plants, especially the divine mushroom. European records from the 13th-15th century depict the ritual use of mushrooms by the Mixtec gods, showing Piltzintecuhtli and 7 other gods holding mushrooms in their hands.
The Aztec people (whose term for psychedelic mushrooms, “teonanácatl,” means “flesh of the gods”) had a very similar god, Xochipilli, who oversaw sacred psychoactive plants. Xochipilli, known as the Prince of Flowers, was the divine patron of “the flowery dream,” or what the Aztecs called the ritual hallucinatory trance. The Aztecs used a number of plant hallucinogens including psilocybian mushrooms, morning glory seeds, Salvia, and Peyote. Psilocyban mushrooms were often used in ritual and ceremony, served with honey or chocolate at some of their holiest events.
After 1521, when the Spanish conquistador Cortez overthrew the Aztec Empire, European conquerors began to forbid the use of any non-alcoholic intoxicants, including sacred mushrooms, and the use was driven underground.
In the mid 16th century, Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote of the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the Aztecs that he had witnessed. He wrote:
“The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanacatl, which bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn…with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept… When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen.”
According to Sahagún, the psychoactive mushrooms which were ingested by the Aztec priests and their followers were always referred to as teonanácatl though the term does not appear to be used by modern indigenous people or shamans in Mesoamerica.
The varieties most likely to have been used by the Aztecs are Psilocybe caerulescens and Psilocybe mexicana. Psilocybe cubensis, which is currently the most popular variety for recreational use, was not introduced to America until the arrival of the Europeans and their cattle, centuries later.
During the early 20th century there was actually a dispute amongst western academics as to whether psychoactive mushrooms even existed. Though Sahagun had mentioned teonanácatl in his diaries, an American botanist William Safford argued that the Spanish priest had mistaken dried peyote buttons for mushrooms. This theory was strongly disputed by Austrian amateur botanist Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, who had lived in Mexico. Reko was convinced that not only did teonanacatl refer to psychoactive mushrooms as the Spanish Priest had written, but that people were still using these mushrooms in Mexico.
In the early 1930’s, Robert Weitlaner, an Austrian amateur anthropologist witnessed a Mazatec mushroom ceremony (known as a “velada”) just northeast of Oaxaca, Mexico. After hearing about the dispute between Safford and Reko, Weitlaner contacted Reko, told him that the Otomi Indians of Puebla still used mushrooms as inebriants, and sent him samples of the mushrooms. Reko forwarded the samples to Stockholm for chemical analysis, and to Harvard for botanical examination, but by the time the samples arrived they were too decayed to be properly identified.
The samples had been received at Harvard by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes quickly became a supporter of the idea that Teonanácatl did indeed refer to mushrooms and in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets in 1937, he argued against Safford’s conclusions and urged that further work be done to identify the mushrooms. In 1938, Schultes and Reko went to Mexico and after hearing reports of Mazatec veladas in Huautla de Jimenéz, near northeast Oaxaca, they collected multiple specimens of various mushroom species.
Unfortunately, their testing continued to be inconclusive, and their investigations were interrupted by a little incident of the 1940’s known as World War II. Very little research into the realm of psychedlic mushrooms was done again until the early 1950s, when amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson, became interested in the traditional use of mushrooms in Mexico. In 1953, Wasson and a small group travelled to Huautla de Jimenéz, the same town where Schultes and Reko had collected their original mushroom specimens in the 1930s, and there they also observed an all night ceremony under the guidance of a shaman, a velada.
One of Wasson’s colleagues, a French botanist named Roger Heim, joined him on subsequent trips to Mexico to collect specimens. Heim was later able to cultivate some of those hallucinogenic mushroom in his laboratory, and he and Wasson would send mushrooms to several chemistry laboratories for analysis.
One of the labs they approached for assistance in isolating the active compound was the Sandoz Laboratories in Basle, Switzerland, where Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann was an experimental researcher, Hoffman, widely known as the discoverer of LSD, was finally able to isolate and characterize the compounds now known as psilocybin and psilocin.
Wasson continued to travel to Oaxaca over the next few years, and with Roger Heim published the first widely distributed article about psychoactive mushrooms and the Mazatec Velada in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine.
Popular information about the mushrooms soon spread, and experimentation with the mushrooms and the synthesized active substances began. The “magic mushrooms” had entered the mainstream culture of the United States and were soon part of the psychedelic movement. Through the ’60s, mushrooms and their active ingredients were used recreationally, therapeutically, and as a part of new spiritual traditions. In 1968, possession of psilocybin and psilocin became illegal in the United States and in 1970 it was added to the new “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970”, commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act, which came into force in 1971. Research into their medicinal and therapeutic uses continued until 1977.
Though recreational use continued, research halted through the ’80s and ’90s due to strict govermental controls, but in recent years, psilocybin and its effect on the human mind has once again become the subject of scientific study.
That’s all for this week’s segment of Drug of the Month and the history of Psilocybin! Next week, we’ll be back for our final Magic Mushroom episode with some news and recent trends.
Recent news and trends. Where are things going?
And now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we dive into the background, science, history, and current news and trends surrounding a different drug each month. October’s drug of the month is psilocybin, and last week, we talked about its history, why people started using it, and how its active compound was finally isolated and identified. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the recent news and trends surrounding magic mushrooms.
For centuries psilocybin mushrooms have been used for social, religious, and medicinal purposes by cultures around the world. But only in recent years, have medical researchers begun to seriously consider psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic treatment. In the past decade or so, studies have shown psilocybin’s effectiveness in treating a number of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), s well as treating addiction, alcoholism, and in helping people to quit smoking. Psilocybin itself is non-addictive.
Dr. David Nutt, a professor of neuro-psycho-pharmacology and former drug advisor to the UK government, is leading a team of scientists studying the effects of psilocybin on depression. He believes psilocybin could be a game-changer in how depression is treated. Currently, the most common course of action are pharmaceuticals called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (or SSRIs), such as Prozac, which increase levels of serotonin in the brain. But SSRIs are generally prescribed for long periods of time to maintain their effect. Oftentimes, depressive symptoms return if SSRI treatment is interrupted.
But, Dr. Nutt thinks that psilocybin would be different. It would be part of a holistic package that required just one or two doses combined with guided therapy, and no need for long-term maintenance of the drug use. Unlike SSRIs, which have to be constantly administered, in order to trigger the correct brain signals, the goal of psilocybin-assisted therapy would be, according to Dr. Nutt to “create a paradigm shift to help people into a different state of thinking that they can then stay in.”
One even more fascinating and less explored area of research is that of magic mushrooms and mysticism. We know that the mushrooms have long held a spiritual significance for many cultures, and users report sometimes ecstatic experiences, visions, and a feeling of connectedness to the Universe. Recently, researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins recruited church ministers to participate in an experiment comparing their experiences with psilocybin-mystical states and those induced by meditation or other religious practices.
Currently, the same researchers at the Johns Hopkins University led by Dr. Roland Griffiths are seeking volunteers who have an interest in exploring and developing their spiritual lives to participate in a scientific study on the combined effects of meditation, spiritual practice, and psilocybin. If you are interested in participating, check out our website at ThisWeekInDrugs.org, and we’ll have some more information about the study posted there.
Now, when it comes to purely recreational use, one trend that is increasingly popular is micro-dosing. A friend informs me that this practice is sometimes known or maybe used to be known as “twinkling.” That’s because micro-dosing means purposefully taking a smaller dose than is normally necessary to achieve the full psychedelic effects. Instead, at low doses, mushrooms produce feelings of relaxation and giddiness, a lightness and tendency to laugh or be easily amused, a sparkly, bubbly effect, not unlike the effects of marijuana.
Speaking of marijuana…
Cooking with Shrooms
Cooking with cannabis has become relatively trendy since marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington, with such high-brow foodies as Jeffrey Steingarten, food editor for Vogue, and Iron Chef food critic, writing pieces simply titled “Cooking With Marijuana.”
And now, the classy kitchen trend is simmering its way into psilocybin use as well. Unlike with cannabis, where the goal is to extract the THC from the plant matter and infuse it into a fatty substance, usually butter– with mushrooms, the vegetable is integrated itself into the dish. A Vice Munchies article from May explains that cooking with magic mushrooms is easy to adapt to existing recipes, because many already involve rehydrating dried mushrooms, such as morels and chanterelles. The important point to remember when cooking with shrooms is that some of the psilocybin is absorbed into the water when rehydrating the mushrooms, so the recipe should involve incorporating the water somewhere into the rest of the dish. The Vice article provides examples of recipes like risotto, in which the mushrooms are rehydrated in the soup stock, and then the soup stock is used to cook the rice.
A more common and more traditional way of preparing mushrooms for consumption, of course, is the reliable method of tea. Drinking mushroom tea rather than eating them whole is a good alternative for people who tend to get upset stomachs. Most preparations are combined with other herbal teas, and other nausea-relieving herbs like mint or ginger. Even for those recreational mushroom users who do not use it for spiritual or religious purposes, there is often still a ritual like process associated with making and drinking the mushroom tea.
That’s all for this week’s segment of Drug of the Month, recent news and trends in psilocylobin, and our fourth and last episode on magic mushrooms! Next week, we’ll be back with an overview of November’s drug of the month, a regular pick-me-up for probably many of our listeners — caffeine.