Medicated

Could Psychedelic Drugs Offer Mental Health Benefits?


by Skye Sherman - March 30, 2020


Photo Credit: by @Travis Stansel, flickr.com
Photo Credit: by @Travis Stansel, flickr.com

As cannabis grows to become more widely accepted in the US and around the world, other long banned substances are beginning to receive a second look, too. The world of psychedelic drugs may be intimidating, typically relegated to the rave and party scene for burnouts and druggies, but emerging research seems to suggest that psychedelics have serious medical potential.

Smoking, depression, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia, Lyme disease, and even addiction to opioids… the list of diseases and illnesses that could potentially benefit from a dose of psychedelics goes on and on. Of course, full-on clinical depression is different from the winter blues, so psychedelic drug treatment may not be for everyone. Still, as studies continue to emerge as scientists study the potential benefits these substances have to offer, we may begin to see psychedelics become mainstream topics of discussion for their potential medical uses.

Wondering about whether psychedelic drugs might be able to offer mental health benefits? In this article, we take a look at the current state of psychedelic drugs and examine the potential future projections these substances could be heading toward.

Could psychedelic drugs treat or prevent certain diseases?

There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting that psychedelic drugs could help provide relief to those suffering from mental illness, especially depression. Evidence with scientific backing is beginning to emerge, too, in larger and larger numbers.

The benefits of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” shows particular promise.

An article in Healthline states, “A one-time dose of a psychedelic medication could lead to substantial improvements in distress, depression, and anxiety in people receiving cancer treatment. Researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine said in a study published this week that they found a single dose of the drug psilocybin combined with psychotherapy produced immediate improvements in anxiety and depression in people with cancer. Participants in the study who took the drug showed decreases in cancer-related feelings of hopelessness and demoralization, the researchers reported. Between 60 and 80 percent of participants were still experiencing antidepressant benefits more than 4 years after taking a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.”

Depression and anxiety seem to benefit the most from a dose of psychedelics. However, another new study suggests that psychedelics may be able to help treat addiction, too. The GrowthOp reports, “The consumption of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin is correlated with ‘persisting reductions’ in the use of cannabis, opioids and stimulants, noted new research published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.”

So if we have natural substances at our fingertips that may be able to help treat, prevent, and cure some of the most enduring and harmful illnesses among us, why aren’t we using them more frequently?

According to CNN, “Natural psychedelics have long been popular for recreational use, though many have been banned at the federal level for decades. The US Department of Justice classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that federal policy states that it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But a growing body of medical research suggests that psilocybin can be used to treat conditions such as anxiety and depression, in cases where drugs currently on the market cannot. It has also been found to have a low potential for abuse, and no potential for physical dependence.”

So, contrary to what was formerly understood, it seems that psilocybin is not at risk of being abused but, instead, has a lot of benefits to offer. We may begin to see further research emerge and a more widespread use of this substance in treating and potentially curing some mental health struggles. In the meantime, pharmaceutical antidepressants such as Wellbutrin XL or Latuda (Lurasidone) have proven themselves to help patients, too.

The future of psychedelics

While psychedelics are, in general, illegal, there is predicted change on the horizon. Some global investors are opening to their minds to the possibility that psychedelics could be the next big business in health care. Substances that are currently illegal and have long been outlawed are being reconsidered and given another chance; in fact, some are already nearing regulatory approval for use in treatments.

And in some US cities, they are already legal. Santa Cruz, California recently became the third city to decriminalize magic mushrooms and other types of psychedelics, such as ayahuasca and peyote. Decriminalizing doesn’t make psychedelics legal to use, possess, or cultivate, but it does mean that “the city won’t be using resources to investigate or arrest people for doing so,” CNN reports. “The resolution only decriminalizes those activities at a personal level, meaning commercial activities could result in penalties.”

In addition, the decriminalization only applies to natural psychedelics; drugs like LSD and MDMA are still illegal because they are synthetic. Denver and Oakland took these steps last year, and several other cities around the country are considering following suit.

The South China Morning Post reports, “JR Rahn, founder of MindMed – a company that develops psychedelic-based medication – says that the barriers to entry for medical psychedelics are even higher than they are for cannabis. That is because medical psychedelic companies are looking to have their products approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. In MindMed’s case, the company is pushing to get FDA approval for a compound called 18-MC, which would effectively remove the hallucinogenic properties from ibogaine, a psychedelic West African drug, while preserving its medical properties. 18-MC must undergo a series of clinical trials before being approved by the FDA to address opioid abuse disorder.”

As more and more research emerges to support the medicinal benefits of psychedelics, it is likely that we will see regulations continue to loosen so that this treatment option can be made available to a wider audience of patients.

The potential health challenges of psychedelic drugs

Of course, as many of us are aware since these drugs are typically illegal, psychedelics do not come without their potential risks and health challenges. Typically, psychedelics cause users to see, hear, and feel things that seem real but are not. The experience can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on the drug. The experience of using a psychedelic can be extremely disorienting or dissociating, as your mind is subject to a severely altered state.

Users may experience dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, increased heart rate, nausea, intensified feelings and sensory experiences, changes in sense of time, or tremors while using a psychedelic. Hallucinogens can also raise the pulse and blood pressure, but not typically to medically dangerous levels.

DrugAbuse.gov lists out some of the ways that hallucinogens affect the brain. “Research suggests that classic hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates:

● mood

● sensory perception

● sleep

● hunger

● body temperature

● sexual behavior

● intestinal muscle control

Dissociative hallucinogenic drugs interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate, which regulates:

● pain perception

● responses to the environment

● emotion

● learning and memory.”

Clearly, while there is significant potential medical benefit, using psychedelics is not without risk. The most common adverse reaction to a psychedelic drug is a “bad trip” experience, which can happen unexpectedly and for a number of reasons. A bad trip usually subjects the user to extreme fear, anxiety, or paranoia, or a combination of all of them. The experience can be terrifying and uncomfortable, but it does not generally provoke physical harm.

In addition, because psychedelics are illegal, many of the negative experiences come from a substance that is not what the person intended to take. Because securing these drugs involves shady black-market style dealings, there are times when a person unwittingly takes a different substance altogether rather than the LSD or acid they thought they were taking. Because the world of psychedelics is unregulated, it can be dangerous since it’s hard to be 100% sure the substance is what it is claimed to be.

There are some instances where people using hallucinogenic drugs harm themselves or other people because they are deluded. Still, high doses of psychedelics don’t seem to cause organ damage or neurotoxicity, and it is difficult to fatally overdose on them.

Overall, the future of psychedelics seems promising, but they are serious substances that come with life-altering experiences and should not be treated lightly.

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