There is a fascinating psychological therapy reemerging; one that is being used to treat anxiety and depression, as well as the psychological distress in those facing life-threatening medical challenges.
I’m talking about psychedelics.
Hallucinogens like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin (a compound derived from certain species of mushrooms) were being researched in medicine as therapeutic agents before their recreational popularity boomed in the 1960s. Unfortunately, that era gave them a negative connotation and since then the research in medical psychedelics has dramatically declined.
Now, we are seeing a resurgence in interest for these types of therapies, and the research points to some positive benefits.
Serotonergic hallucinogens, like psilocybin, can influence certain serotonin receptors in the brain, enhancing the neurotransmission of the happiness chemical serotonin.
One of the most impressive things about these types of treatments is that a single dose can impart long-lasting dramatic effects. For example, one randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a single dose of psilocybin, used in conjunction with psychotherapy, led to decreases in health-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life in patients with life-threatening cancer who are experiencing anxiety and depression because of their condition. Even six and a half months after the single treatment, between 60 and 80% of participants had a marked reduction in anxiety and depression and an improved attitude towards death.
Not everyone taking antidepressants experiences an improvement in their symptoms. While these drugs can be extremely helpful and life-saving for some, many people are still struggling. Treatment-resistant depression may be another area of use for psilocybin, as functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown favorable changes in the brain for those in this particular category.
As an added bonus, when used appropriately in a controlled clinical environment with psychological therapy, psychedelic treatment has very minimal side effects or adverse experiences.
Psychedelics are also being researched for a potential role in overcoming alcoholism and addiction, and another psychoactive compound (though not technically a psychedelic) called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is showing promise for treating post-traumatic stress syndrome.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the role of psychedelics in medicine, check out last week’s episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, where I interviewed Dr. Anthony Bossis. As an FDA-approved clinical researcher in the field, Dr. Bossis shares some profound insights on how this class of drugs could change the future of medicine. It sounds like we’ll be seeing much more science emerge on this innovative treatment option. I hope you’ll tune in.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD