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The use of psychedelics for the treatment of mental disorders has been a taboo subject for far too long. Regardless of their origin, chemical nature, and the spectrum of action, substances as diverse as ‘magic mushrooms’, MDMA, LSD, cannabis, and others, have all been classified as dangerous narcotics without any approved medicinal use or health benefits. For many decades, research into their possible therapeutic action has been virtually nonexistent.
However, a handful of studies have been performed and found their way into peer-reviewed scientific papers. They all hint that many, if not all, of those dreaded mind-altering substances can in fact help restore or keep mental health. It may be time to call for more research and to rethink our approach to psychedelics and—for those of them that have a natural origin—to the plants they are derived from.
Even cannabis seeds—though they contain no psychotropic substances whatsoever—can play a part in reducing the severity of many psychological conditions and symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, or withdrawals in alcoholics and drug addicts. These effects aren’t even of the placebo nature. Regarded as a superfood, seeds of hemp and cannabis are full of proteins, fibers and saturated fats, and, if consumed regularly, can become a part of holistic healing and enhance the well-being of a patient. And the sense of well-being is an important part of mental health.
The latest buzz in microdosing—with LSD, psilocybin, and even fly agarics among others—is of a similar nature. A growing number of health-conscious people take sub-hallucinogenic amounts of these substances. Their goal is not to get ‘high’, but rather to improve focus and mood and get other mental benefits. Most of the claims that microdosing really works are of anecdotal kind, but at least one study found evidence to support them—enough to call for more research.
More radical approach is to actually create psychedelic effects in patients and thus improve their mental health. Thus, a 2020 small-scale clinical study looked at the possible effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in patients with anxiety, depression, and existential distress due to life-threatening illnesses. The results demonstrated that MDMA, known by such slang terms as ‘ecstasy’ and ‘Molly’, shows a lot of promise and deserves a more wide-scale research.
Similar results were obtained for ketamine which leads to anesthesia in higher doses but being administered in subanesthetic doses, exerted “a robust and rapid effect on depression.” It has shown benefits to the point that in some places, the off-label use of ketamine is legal in specific depression-treating contexts. This means you can find legal ketamine clinics throughout North America and Europe.
Even more encouraging is the fact that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted two Breakthrough Therapy designations to studies of psilocybin treatments. Breakthrough Therapy is meant to create a faster road to the approval of a drug that shows high promise for the treatment of serious or life-threatening conditions. And psilocybin is the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’, formerly associated only with recreational use. The substance is now being actively studied not only for therapy-resistant (read ‘incurable’) depression, but also for major depression disorder if patients who suffer from it have not responded to at least two traditional antidepressants. If proven effective, magic mushrooms can potentially help hundreds of millions of people suffering from depression around the world.
LSD and its possible role in reducing anxiety was also the focus of recent research. One study looked at patients suffering from life-threatening diseases and discovered that after two LSD sessions, patients experienced lasting beneficial effects, including the reduction of anxiety (77.8%) and the improvement of the quality of life (66.7%) over a period of 12 months.
And last but not least, one should not forget medical marijuana. Legalized in 35 states in America, it is used not only for chronic pain, spasticity, or the adverse effects of chemotherapy, but also for its mood enhancing properties, its mild treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and a score of other psychiatric and neurological conditions. The popularity of medical cannabis is fueled by the fact that patients can not only buy it at a local dispensary but grow their own medicine by simply purchasing seed from FastBuds and other vendors of cannabis genetics.
In short, psychoactive substances—thanks to their ability to temporarily rewire our brain, to dissociate parts of it that are normally associated, and to make previously unconnected brain regions work together—can potentially improve our mental health. All we need is more understanding of how they work through more research. Maybe one day psychedelics will become a part of standard treatment in clinical settings and under the strict supervision of medical professionals.