How Magic Mushrooms Can Resolve OCD
By Stephanie Hazel, Clinical Western Herbalist
We’re used to thinking about psychedelics like magic mushrooms as fun, recreational experiences, or dangerous and risky behaviour, depending on your perspective. Some people may even see ‘trips’ as a spiritual or mystical experience, and archaeological evidence does point towards our ancestors using psychedelic mushrooms in this way.
However, we rarely consider the medical uses of psychedelic plants.
Emerging research is showing that psilocybin, the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has significant benefits for mental disorders, especially Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Mushrooms obviously have a strong effect on brain function: by interacting with serotonin receptors they can produce a wide range of changes in perception and thought patterns. They have been used since prehistoric times; in fact, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna has argued that the use of psychedelic mushrooms by prehistoric humans was a key factor in our ancestors ability to develop abstract language. If that is true, the very fact that I can write this article and you can read it is thanks to psychoactive mushrooms from 100,000 years ago!
Over the last decade, the scientific establishment has slowly been recovering from its psychedelic-phobia, and has started to study the actual effects on the human mind. A 2006 clinical trial from the Journal of Clinical Psychology by Moreno (et. al) showed a 30% to 100% improvement in Obsessive Compulsive scores after a month of treatment.
So what is OCD?
OCD is the fourth most common mental disorder, and is a very difficult one to live with. Many people with OCD struggle to lead a normal and fulfilling life, and often suffer from other conditions such as depression, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, and substance abuse.
The general treatment is to use selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Unfortunately this only has a 30%-50% reduction in symptoms, and many people experience challenging side effects. Erection and sexual dysfunction is much too common, as are insomnia and digestive problems. Ironically, taking SSRIs doubles your likelihood of having suicidal thoughts and tendencies, and increases the risk of birth defects. Probably the hardest thing about SSRIs, however, is that they are very challenging to come off – most people find that when you try to go off them, your original symptoms are much worse.
Only 50% of people treated with the standard SSRIs-plus-counselling method will actually respond favourably. What’s worse, the medical profession doesn’t have cures for mental disorders like depression and OCD – your only option is lifelong medication and management of symptoms and side effects.
In light of this situation, it is heartening that scientists are starting to look beyond their prejudices and investigate if our ancestors were onto something – do magic mushrooms really have positive effects on mental health?
Moreno et al’s clinical trial worked with a small group of 10 people suffering moderate to severe OCD. The participants had one psychedelic session per week for four weeks. After a light fruit breakfast, they were given a range of different dosages in a pleasant therapeutic environment. During the 8-hr session they wore eye masks and listened to music on headphones. They were encouraged to minimise interaction until the 7th hour, where they could talk with their sitters (usually 1 male and 1 female) about their experience.
Their OCD rating was tested before the session, during the session, straight after and 24 hours later. The lowest improvement was a 23% reduction in symptoms, and a few people had a complete 100% reduction in symptoms. Interestingly, they found that the low doses were just as effective as the higher doses in reducing OCD scores.
Although the testing was restricted to 24 hours after each session, most participants stated that the improvements lasted most of the following week between doses, and one person had a full recovery after the 4 sessions, that was still in place 6 months later.
The studies show that the psilocybin was safe and well-tolerated by all participants, with anxiety and some increased blood pressure during the actual trip being the only negative consequences.
Another publication corroborated these effects in the form of an in-depth case study: a 38-year-old man who had not responded to medication or counselling found that a 2g dose of mushrooms provided significant relief from obsessive behaviours for three weeks.
Interestingly, the researchers of both studies were puzzled by the fact that the effects tended to last beyond the 24-hour mark. Coming as they do from a pharmaceutical background, they expected the improvements to only last while the chemicals were in the participants’ systems. Since many of the people experienced mystical experiences such as past life regressions, meeting deities and interstellar travel, it raises the question of whether a direct experience of the ‘spiritual’ realm is responsible for measurable increase in mental health, beyond just the chemical reactions.
Positive Effects for People without Mental Disorders
So what about for people who are not suffering from OCD or other mental disorders? The good news is that psilocybin has positive effects on mental health in general. Griffiths et. al demonstrated that mystical-type experiences induced by psilocybin can have persistent positive effects on attitudes, mood and behaviour.
In this study, 18 adults (17 who had never tripped before) were given varied doses of psilocybin once per month for 5 sessions. Similarly to the other trial, they used music and eye-masks and were instructed to ‘turn their attention inward’, whilst being accompanied by trained sitters/ counsellors.
While 35% experienced fear and anxiety, 75% experienced deep mystical experiences – sometimes both. The volunteers found that at the higher dose range, they had substantial changes in mental health (attitudes, mood, and behaviour). Amazingly, these benefits were virtually unchanged 14 months later, and were noticeable to significant people in their lives.
Is this right for you?
The dark side of psychedelics is their ability to induce psychosis in vulnerable people with latent psychological crises. If you have large amounts of unresolved trauma, or psychotic tendencies, this is not a safe choice. Likewise, poor liver function, regular use of other drugs (recreational or pharmaceutical) and pregnancy rule you out. Note that combining psilocybin with MAOIs (many antidepressants are mono-amine oxidase inhibitors) can be quite dangerous.
However, if you are not on medication, and are struggling with OCD, magic mushrooms are worth exploring. Setting is important, and having access to a qualified counsellor to debrief your experience with is a must.
Just don’t forget to check out the legality of psilocybin in your country. In some parts of the world, this fungal medicine is heavily restricted and can result in serious charges and incarceration. And believe me – jail is definitely bad for your mental health.
A Note on the Quality of the Trials
The three trials discussed in this article were rigorously designed, however were using a very small sample size. Therefore, it’s important to understand that these are indicative results, and scientifically speaking, we can’t claim that psilocybin is a cure for OCD. What we can say, is that early-stage research shows that psilocybin has great potential as a treatment for OCD.