Key takeaways.

  • What can psilocybin do for addiction?

    It seems from the research that the subjective experience of magic mushrooms might be the therapeutic factor in depression, giving people a different relationship with their addictions.

  • How does it stack up compared to conventional therapies?

    So far, the research shows effects even in the long term. Long-term efficacy is something that conventional therapies lack, and the little research we have suggests psilocybin can overcome that hurdle.

  • What addictions can psilocybin work with?

    In this article, we include research on psilocybin for tobacco and alcohol dependencies. But it has a wide scope for use in many addictions.

Not that long ago, we shared with you an article about the potential of cannabis for addiction. We showed that especially when it comes to opioids and pain medication, cannabis can be a great tool for addiction. Now we’re talking psilocybin magic mushrooms and their clinical potential for treating addiction. The scope of magic mushrooms for addiction is much larger than cannabis, with the potential to treat a huge array of addictions.

From alcohol dependence to tobacco addiction, magic mushrooms have consistently showed positive and long-lasting results for addiction. Research also points to the likelihood that psilocybin works psychologically with the person to promote these positive changes. That’s to say that researchers genuinely believe that it’s the subjective experience that facilitates the therapeutic effect, and that this might be why the effects are so long lasting.

It’s estimated that around 15% of Canadians drink a “risky” amount of alcohol, and around 13% of the population smoke tobacco. And most scary of all is that Canada is in the middle of an opioid crisis. Between January 2016 and December 2018, there were 11,500 deaths attributable to opioid consumption.

More than there is an ongoing need for addiction treatment, there is an ongoing need for understanding addiction. The many therapies employed in the last handful of decades have been, for the most part, unsuccessful, with too many patients relapsing to call them hardy therapies. And this probably has more to do with the fact that as a society, we barely understand addiction.

What we’re proposing in this article is that in some ways, the study of magic mushrooms helps us do that as users report the changes in the ways they process information, understand themselves, and cure themselves of addiction.

Addiction, theories, and current practices.

An illustration of a woman holding her face and fragmented pieces coming off her body.

Addiction is characterised by repetitive consumption of a substance or drug or activity (such as gambling, sex, or shopping), without being able to stop even if you want to. And even if that activity is causing you a great deal of harm.

Addiction has been around as long as humans have been around. Pretty much as soon as humans discovered and developed intoxicants, they liked them a lot (check out Terrence McKenna’s stoned ape theory in his book, Food of the Gods). 

It’s also important to recognize man’s journey with substances since the days of tasting funky cacti growing in the desert. With technology, we were able to further refine naturally existing psychoactive substances. For example, during traditional fermentaiton, we were able to reach alcohol levels of about 5%. After the development of distillation equipment, we were able to produce alcohol with over 50% ethanol concentration, allowing people to get drunk faster.

Another great example is the coca leaf, which when chewed is a gentle stimulant. Chemical refinement of coca brings us to cocaine exactly the same way that chemical refinement of the poppy flower brings us to opium and opioids. The transformation of these naturally occurring substances into further refined chemicals has essentially allowed them to travel to the brain faster, causing stronger, short-lived, and drastic effects.

This is a world away from the magic-mushroom eating apes that we might’ve been according to Terrence McKenna. And now we find ourselves in an addiction crisis that’s worthy of epidemic status. Pretty much every country in the world confronts some sort of addiction crisis.

The addicted brain — neuroscientifically.

One of the challenges of understanding the addicted brain in terms of neuroscience is that addictions to alcohol and drugs of abuse often involve many different neurotransmitters and receptors. There is not a very good map of the human brain to begin with, so trying to understand tobacco’s addictive route through a neighbourhood we can’t define is pretty tough.

However, certain molecular targets have been identified as being of interest such as phosphodiesterase 10A which altered differentially during different stages of the alcohol withdrawal process in rats. In a 2013 study, researchers found that the brain’s GABA-ergic presynaptic terminals are triggered by alcohol in such a way that it might define the addictive mechanism. 

And overall, serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate, and endocannabinoids are thought to be at play during the addiction process. It gets even more complicated when we consider the fact that not everybody who drinks alcohol gets addicted to it — so there can’t be purely biological factors at play unless there is already a biological predisposition to those effects from substances of abuse.

The addicted brain — psychologically.

Research shows a strong correlation between anxiety and substance use disorders. It has also been observed that many people with substance use disorders also meet the criteria for major depression. In another study, up to 39% of PTSD sufferers were addicted to alcohol, 34% to cocaine, and almost 7% to opiates. This is where we start to see some interesting and clear connections between a person’s emotional health and their addiction status.

Trauma is highly correlated with addiction and it’s for this reason that those with addiction shouldn’t be excluded from treatment for major depression, PTSD, or anxiety, depending on the person and the nature of their addiction.

Current practices for addiction.

The most obvious and common program for addiction is the Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-Step Program. But there is not all that much success in these programs. The typical abstinence rate for those who undergo rehabilitation for alcohol addiction is around 13%. This is considered the “normal” rate of abstinence among problem drinkers.

There are a number of other treatment approaches when it comes to psychology. Cognitive behaviour therapy, brief opportunistic intervention therapy, and motivational interviewing are all included as potential treatment opportunities for those with addiction. But these therapies require constant participation from the recipient, take a long time to take effect, and may only have an effect for a short time. In this way, they are typically only effective in a small percentage of the addicted population.

The research on magic mushrooms for addiction.

An illustration of a person helping their chained self. A concept image of mental health.

In a 2018 qualitative assessment, researchers took to interviewing participants of a psilocybin-for-alcohol-dependence trial. In an attempt to understand exactly what was happening to participants on a psychological level, they were questioned the day after their psilocybin experiences. They retrieved information from patients saying they were more motivated for change (something completely delineated in the modern investigation of addiction), their relationship to alcohol felt different, and that they were committed to change. 

Most interestingly, the researchers point out that the subjective experience seems to be associated with the psychological changes and emotional processing. They also observe that dysphoric experiences that take place in a supported context are associated with lasting effects in wellbeing.

In an open-label pilot study that investigated the effect of psilocybin treatment on tobacco addiction and cessation, researchers found that up to 80% of participants were still abstinent from tobacco on the 6-month follow up. They received cognitive behavioural therapy alongside psilocybin treatment. 

The same researchers of that study then did follow-up studies of their participants. They found that long-term abstinence was associated with mystical-type experiences and they predicted that this type of experience might have a role to play in addiction intervention. 

The subjective experience is worth more than the biological one.

An illustration of a woman with psychedelic patterns over her face and a mandala-like pattern in the background.

Ok, so the research is still preliminary (even though it’s been going on since the 50s). But it is all starting to point to something pretty important about how magic mushrooms seem to work for addiction. It may be pertinent to understand the biological mechanism, but what’s emerging is that it’s the actual psychedelic, subjective experience that seems to have the therapeutic benefit.

This is so contradictory to how we typically understand medicine. Most of the time the subjective experience of taking a medicine is bad — it tastes awful or has horrible side effects. There’s virtually no other drug or pharmaceutical out there that’s considered to work because of its subjective experience.

Unlocking an experience and trying to explain it in terms of biology could be a little tough. Plus, the experience seems to be very different for everybody, which also poses some complications in trying to explain it. 

It makes the whole thing pretty mysterious, if you ask us. The experience of a 4 or 5 hour psilocybin journey can, in and of itself, have a long lasting effect on addiction. We still need more research to say anything conclusively, but the horizon looks strong for magic mushrooms for addiction.

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