Research Suggests Psychedelic Drugs Can Improve Mental Health, But There’s a Catch
A growing body of experimental medical research is showing that psychedelic substances like psilocybin, LSD and MDMA (also known as ecstasy or Molly) can improve mental health issues like trauma, anxiety and addiction. But we’re still decades away from understanding this psychedelic drugs anxiety link, how they affect the brain or seeing U.S. drug laws changed to accommodate legal use in medical settings.
Studies suggest a psychedelic drugs anxiety link
Two recent studies by New York University and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that like psilocybin, the active chemical in “magic mushrooms,” significantly reduces anxiety, depression and emotional distress in advanced cancer patients.
In both studies, patients were given a lab-distilled form of psilocybin (dosed according to their body weight) in a capsule. They were then laid down and blindfolded while soothing music played. For the next four to six hours, a therapist allowed patients to talk about their experiences.
Psychedelics are empathogens, and so subjects felt increased feelings of emotional openness, love, calmness, interconnectedness and an ability to envision and discuss fear and trauma unlike ever before.
About 80% of participants in both studies continued reporting decreases in depression and anxiety even six months after the experiments ended.
These findings were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology and accompanied by 11 editorials of support from leading psychiatric experts.
Researchers still aren’t entirely sure whether the drug’s healing effects come from molecular changes in the body or mental associations people make while on them.
Research has show however that psychedelics stimulate front cortex serotonin receptors that regulate mood and happiness. They also increase blood flow and electrical activity in the visual cortex (possibly explaining the colorful hallucinations experienced by users) and activate seemingly disconnected parts of the brain (illustration above), an effect which could help depressed patients with problematic thinking patterns see their experiences in new ways.
“Psychedelics disrupt [depressive thought processes] so people can escape,” says David Nutt, director of Imperial College London’s neuropsychopharmacology unit. “At least for the duration of the trip, they can escape about the ruminations about depression or alcohol or obsessions. And then they do not necessarily go back.”
The effects also seem to be immediate and allow people to address the issues underlying their mental health problems. This is different from current medications that can take months to work and merely mask symptoms of mental illness.
But that doesn’t mean that simply taking psychedelics will improve your mental health. The studies mentioned above involved trained mental health professionals, set doses, carefully controlled environments and counseling support before, during and after the psychedelic “trip” — much different from just taking some Molly at a wild music festival.
Also, because psychedelics are still a Schedule One controlled substance, thanks to Nixon-era drug criminalization, the U.S. government won’t fund psychedelic research. According to Brad Burge, Director of Strategic Communications with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), social stigma also makes some researchers hesitant to study the drug for fear of controversy.
That being said, privately funded researchers in the United States continue to explore the drug, and last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved phase three trials to see how MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the phase three trials will take place in the Castro area of San Francisco this summer and will specifically seek out LGBTQ people with histories of trauma for treatment.
Burge says that MAPS feels hopeful that the FDA could approve psychedelic therapies by 2021.
“There’s this growing sense that mind alteration can be a good thing — helpful, beneficial, even pleasurable,” says Philip Wolfson, M.D., a California psychiatrist and proponent of psychedelic therapy. “And that prohibition — full stop — isn’t a healthy thing.”
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Featured image by GeorgePeters via iStock