In recent years, the amazing uses of mushrooms on health and well-being have become more widely implemented in western cultures. The most well-known are functional mushrooms, which have been shown to have an array of positive benefits, from reducing inflammation to even combatting cancer.
However, magic mushrooms that cause hallucinogenic effects have a more controversial reputation for health. Because psychedelic drugs are considered Schedule I controlled substances by the US government, many regard shrooms as dangerous and addictive. Only in recent years have clinical trials supported the positive effects of magic mushrooms, which cultures around the world have utilized for much of human history.
The mechanisms behind a shrooms trip are a result of two essential chemicals, psilocybin, and psilocin.
Psilocybin is the chemical compound found in hallucinogenic mushroom species, like Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe mexicana. Psilocybin is not actually psychoactive, meaning that it is not the chemical that causes symptoms of a “trip.”
Once ingested, however, it undergoes a process called dephosphorylation, which breaks down the compound into another chemical called psilocin. Psilocin is actually the chemical that causes psychedelic effects. This process of converting psilocybe into psilocin usually takes around 30 minutes after ingestion – around the time the “trip” begins (1).
Suppose you’re more of a visual learner. In that case, the image below shows that the chemical compounds of both psilocybin and psilocin are incredibly similar, with just one slight difference in the (HO)2OPO phosphate group.
So, how does psilocin cause you to have a psychedelic experience? The answer is that psilocin is an agonist for serotonin receptors. This means that psilocin mimics the shape of serotonin and can bind to a serotonin receptor called 5-ht 2a.
Serotonin is the chemical responsible for regulating brain functions, including mood and emotions. When psilocin interacts with our brain’s serotonin receptors, it causes symptoms similar to other hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, DMT, and mescaline. While the full effects have not been adequately studied and understood, some scientists also believe that psilocin can affect the body’s dopamine receptors, which regulate motivation and feelings of productivity (2).
The psychedelic effects of these chemicals on the brain and body have been met with controversial opinions. Only in recent years have psychoactive compounds started to be approved by the FDA and other government agencies for medical uses.
These are the most well-known and widely reported positive side effects.
These negative side effects can happen especially when consuming high doses.
With such positive potential for improving human well-being, one can only hope that psilocybin and other naturally occurring psychoactive compounds will start to be studied more in the psychiatry and pharmacokinetic fields.
In recent years, there have been more clinical trials around the long-term effects of psilocybin therapies. One study found that psilocybin could essentially function as an antidepressant when taken over the course of 5-8 weeks (3). Traditional cultures worldwide have also been utilizing mushrooms for their positive psychological benefits throughout history.
Almost half of adults experiencing mental illness expressed difficulty or inability to cover treatment. Perhaps our exploration into the natural benefits of mushrooms on the mind can help us improve our options for access and treatment of this growing health concern in the US.