Mushrooms are fruiting bodies of a certain kind of fungus. The culinary use of some mushrooms is well-known and appreciated. A few other varieties have been used for their psychoactive and healing properties since time immemorial. These properties were first brought to the mainstream in the 1950s by ethnobiologists documenting the use of mushrooms in shamanic practices by the indigenous people of Mexico.1 In the later part of that decade, a Swiss researcher named Albert Hoffman isolated and identified the compounds “psilocybin” and “psilocin” as the active ingredients that induce these effects.
Magic Mushrooms And Depression
Mushrooms that have psychoactive properties are known as “psilocybin mushrooms,” “magic mushrooms,” or simply “shrooms.” There are about a hundred known species of magic mushrooms.2 Studies have shown that controlled doses of psilocybin can be used in psychotherapy, particularly in obsessive compulsive disorder and in relieving anxiety and distress in patients suffering from terminal cancer.3
A recent study showed that psilocybin could be a potentially safe and effective compound to treat severe depression that couldn’t be cured by any other treatment. In this study, 12 people with moderate to severe depression were given controlled oral doses of psilocybin. About 8 of them showed no signs of depression after one week and 5 were completely cured after three months. So is this the anodyne that can help beat depression? Given the preliminary nature of this study, the researchers say that these results are only indicative and further research is required for conclusive evidence.4
Perhaps traditional medicine can show the way here. Due to their medicinal as well as psychoactive properties, mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine and spiritual practices across different cultures. This is especially true in Japan where shiitake mushrooms have been considered an elixir of life which can revitalize the body and soul and cure a host of diseases including cancer, impotency, and senility. The Mazatec shamans of South Mexico have used psilocybin mushrooms for their healing properties and in divination ceremonies for their ability to heighten awareness.5
Gordan Wasson, the pioneer who introduced psychoactive mushrooms to North America and explored their use in various world cultures, even believed that soma, a fruit mentioned in Vedic literature as causing instant enlightenment, was a mushroom.6
Mushrooms such as caterpillar fungus, hoelen, and ergot find mention in ancient texts of traditional Chinese medicine. Taoist texts also refer to “chi” (a name that indicated mushrooms) as a plant that brings immortality and happiness and has multiple health benefits.7
Not all medicinal mushrooms are psilocybin mushrooms and their healing properties may go beyond treating depression and other psychological disorders. But the humble mushroom’s ability to act on the psyche is validated in various ancient cultures. This gives hope that further research into this nascent scientific field can throw more light on its healing properties, especially in treating depression and other psychological illnesses.
To Eat Or Not To Eat
Despite the health benefits, mushrooms are not to be taken lightly. Magic mushrooms are abused for their hallucinogenic properties. Like heroin and LSD, they are classified as Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act in the US. This means that possession of magic mushrooms, that is, psilocybin mushrooms is illegal.8
Exercising caution is key to using magic mushrooms. Other edible and medicinal mushrooms, however, can be used as long you are able to identify them. But remember that this requires a bit of expertise. Several species are actually poisonous and if eaten can even cause death.
|↑1, ↑2||Stamets, Paul. Psilocybin mushrooms of the world. Ten Speed Press, 1996.|
|↑3||Bone, Eugenia. Can mushrooms treat depression? International New York Times. 2014.|
|↑4||Carhart-Harris, Robin L., Mark Bolstridge, James Rucker, Camilla MJ Day, David Erritzoe, Mendel Kaelen, Michael Bloomfield et al. “Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study.” The Lancet Psychiatry (2016)|
|↑5||Stamets, Paul, and Jeff S. Chilton. The mushroom cultivator: a practical guide to growing mushrooms at home. Agarikon press, 1983.|
|↑6||Stamets, Paul. Growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, 2011.|
|↑7||Hobbs, Christopher. Medicinal mushrooms: an exploration of tradition, healing, and culture. Book Publishing Company, 2002.|
|↑8||Psilocybin: Fast Facts, National Drug Intelligence Center.|