For people with cancer, the diagnosis often is just the beginning. The side effects from a variety of treatments, the anxiety that comes along with a life-threatening illness, having to navigate the regular stresses of daily life — it can be a lot to handle. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 30 percent of cancer patients meet the criteria for mood disorders. (1)
The threat isn’t over after eliminating the disease, either. Suicide rates among cancer survivors is nearly double that of the general population. (2) But could “magic mushrooms,” also known as psilocybin mushrooms, change that?
Two studies recently published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology found that psilocybin reduces anxiety and depression among cancer patients and survivors in just one session. Even more excitingly, these one-off experiences are having lasting effects. Could psilocybin mushrooms be what the medical community has been waiting for?
What Are Psilocybin Mushrooms?
Psilocybin mushrooms are actually known as Psilocybe cubensis. They’re the scientific name for more than 100 mushroom species that contain psilocybin and psilocin. These two compounds account for the hallucinations and “tripping” that occur when a person ingests these mushrooms.
While psychedelic mushrooms and hallucinogens seem like a relic from a hippie, Grateful Dead-loving past, they’re giving doctors new hope in treating a range of mental health issues.
Like so most drugs and chemicals that alter the mind, researchers aren’t yet exactly sure psilocybin works. What they do know, however, is that when psilocybin reaches the brain, it decreases brain activity, particularly in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is associated with obsessive thinking and, in people with depression, is usually overactive. In fact, antidepressants all stifle mPFC. (3)
The PCC, on the other hand, is believed to play a role in consciousness, ego and sense of self. Psilocybin seems to quiet down the “noise” in a person’s brain, letting them access parts of their mind that are normally stifled. It also seems to affect serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to moods, anxiety and depression.
One researcher likened psilocybin to “inverse PTSD.” But instead of a traumatizing incident haunting patients, instead, the psilocybin mushrooms create a really positive memory they can turn to for months. (4)
In fact, during the 1950s and ‘60s, hallucinogens like psilocybin were being studied for their potential in the psychiatry and oncology fields. However, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was signed into law. It categorized hallucinogens like psilocybin mushrooms as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S. (5) Federal funds for research dried up.
Most studies being done now are largely funded by non-profits and private donors who believe in the drug’s potential. And these latest studies show there is a lot of potential to be explored.
Two separate research teams, one from the John Hopkins University (JHU) and another from New York University (NYU), released their study results on psilocybin concurrently, as both had similarly designed studies. Though psilocybin is found in “magic mushrooms,” both studies used a synthetic version of the drug. The John Hopkins study involved 51 adult patients, while the NYU included 29 participants.
The JHU study recruited 51 participants diagnosed with life-threatening cancers. Most were metastatic or recurrent. Each participant had two treatment sessions five weeks apart, one with a low dose of psilocybin — too low to produce any effects — to act as a placebo. In the other session, the participants received the “normal” dose of psilocybin.
Just this single dose of psilocybin, which lasts between four to six hours, decreased anxiety and depression in most participants and occurred right in that session, as opposed to antidepressants and therapy, which can take weeks or months to work. Participants found themselves with an increased quality of life, life meaning and optimism.
The results were long-lasting, too. Six months after the last treatment, 80 percent of the group continued showing clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. Eighty-three percent said there was an increase in their well-being, and 67 percent rated the experience as one of the top five meaningful experiences in their lives.
Roland Griffiths, a behavioral biology professor at JHU and one of the study authors, was initially skeptical about psilocybin’s effect on cancer patients. “Before beginning the study, it wasn’t clear to me that this treatment would be helpful, since cancer patients may experience profound hopelessness in response to their diagnosis, which is often followed by multiple surgeries and prolonged chemotherapy,” he reported.
“I could imagine that cancer patients would receive psilocybin, look into the existential void and come out even more fearful. However, the positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior that we documented in healthy volunteers were replicated in cancer patients.”
The NYU study, though smaller, was similar. Patients had advanced breast, gastrointestinal or blood cancers. They’d also been diagnosed with serious psychological distress due to their cancer.
Half of the participants were randomly assigned to psilocybin, while the others were given niacin, a B vitamin known to produce a “rush” that’s similar to a hallucinogenic experience. Halfway through the study, the treatment for participants switched. Neither the patients nor the researchers knew who received either the psilocybin or placebo first.
Again, 80 percent of the participants had significantly less anxiety and depression long after the study ended. They reported more energy, peacefulness and a better quality of life.
Anthony Bossis, PhD, one of the co-investigators in the NYU study, said, “Our study showed that psilocybin facilitated experiences drove reductions in psychological distress. And if it’s true for cancer care, then it could apply to other stressful medical conditions.”
Future Study and Application of Psilocybin
Does this mean that psilocybin mushrooms will be the new go-to treatment for cancer patients or survivors who are depressed? Not so fast.
For starters, both of these studies required a waiver in order to use psilocybin, as it’s still illegal in the U.S. No major side effects were reported with mushroom use and addiction isn’t a feature of psychedelic mushrooms or hallucinogens. In fact, the annual Global Drug Survey found that compared to other recreational drugs, psilocybin mushrooms appear to be the safest.
Out of the 10,000 people who reported taking these mushrooms in 2016, only .2 percent reported needing emergency medical treatment. The survey, which involved more than 120,000 participants in 50 different countries, found that the rates of emergency medical treatment for MDMA, LSD, alcohol and cocaine were almost five times higher. (6) However, the studies that can be conducted on psilocybin are likely to be limited, as they rely on private and non-profit funding.
Additionally, both studies were conducted with professionals in a controlled, supervised environment. The participants were screened for family histories of mental illness and other drug use. For certain mental diseases, like schizophrenia, treatment with psilocybin would likely be harmful. The researchers involved in the study also emphasized that the positive results doesn’t mean that people should hallucinogenic mushrooms in a DYI treatment plan.
6 Other Medicinal Mushrooms
But there are ways to use mushrooms as natural treatments — legally, of course!
Your favorite mushroom: With more than 200 mushroom species available, you’re bound to have a favorite. Luckily, mushrooms in general are fantastic for you. They’re low in carbs, calories and fat, but packed with antioxidants and B vitamins. They’re known to increase immunity and lower inflammation, the root of most diseases.
They’re also known to lower LDL, “bad” cholesterol, while increasing HDL, the good kind. And since most of us aren’t getting enough natural sunlight, they’re also great in preventing vitamin D deficiencies.
Cordyceps: While not technically mushrooms, cordyceps are renowned for their ability to fight free radicals and are great disease-fighting mushrooms. In fact, some studies have shown that cordyceps sometimes can behave like natural cancer treatments, preventing tumor growth.
Maitake: Maitake mushrooms are known for stimulating the immune system, thanks to specialized components found in them. In fact, in Asia, they’re often used in conjunction with other types of cancer treatment, and can even help minimize the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. They’ve also been linked to balancing hormones naturally. It improves stamina and acts like a natural aphrodisiac, too.
Oyster: Oyster mushrooms are an anti-inflammatory food and are exceptionally good at reducing joint pain. They strengthen blood vessel walls and can help increase iron levels, especially helpful if you don’t eat too much meat.
Reishi: Reishi mushrooms have been a superfood for thousands of years. They have adaptogen herb-like properties to deal with the negative properties of stress. But best of all, reishi mushrooms are known to protect against inflammation, autoimmune disorders and heart disease. They also increase the release of the body’s natural killer cells.
Shiitake: Not only are shiitake mushrooms delicious, but they’re awesome at protecting our DNA from oxidative damage. Excitingly for plant-lovers, shiitake mushrooms also contain all of the eight essential amino acids our bodies need but don’t produce on their own. They’re known for boosting the immune system and might even fight cancer cells.
Turkey tail: These colorful mushrooms are one of the most common, and that’s a good thing. They’re known to treat the common cold and flu. It’s also being trialed as a way to build up the immune system for cancer patients going through chemotherapy.
Psilocybin is an exciting, promising therapy for people dealing with the psychological effects of cancer. Because it’s not likely to become a widespread therapy anytime soon, however, it’s not a treatment you can really bank on.
If you are interested, keep your eyes peeled for trials. And if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or suicidal, please get in touch with your doctor and/or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.