Taking a drug to stop taking another kind of drug may sound counterintuitive, but psychedelic treatment for drug addiction shows great promise.
In recent years, more and more research has been done on how these drugs can help not just with addiction, but also with smoking cessation, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and much more. Even Johns Hopkins, a leading academic and medical institute, is devoting serious attention to the topic with its Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research.
But how does this treatment work, and what are the potential benefits of psychedelics?
What Are Psychedelics?
Psychedelic drugs are also called hallucinogens or dissociative drugs. That’s because these drugs can alter a user’s perception of reality by triggering hallucinations, as well as a sense of disconnect between the mind and body—these are drugs that can change the way you think and feel.
It’s thought that psychedelics interact with the brain chemicals serotonin and glutamate to create their powerful physical and psychological effects. These can include:
- Visions or hallucinations that some users describe as almost spiritual in nature.
- Elevated respiratory and blood pressure rates.
- Changes to a person’s perception of time and space.
- A heightened sensory awareness.
- An overwhelming sense of relaxation.
Recreational psychedelics users run the risk of “bad trips.” Instead of peace or transcendence, they experience sweating, panic or paranoia, difficulty eating or sleeping, or irrational behavior, among other symptoms. That’s why psychedelic treatment for drug addiction should only be done under the supervision of experienced medical professionals in a clinical setting.
The most common types of psychedelics include:
- Peyote or mescaline
- DMT (often taken as ayahuasca or as a synthetic powder)
- MDMA (also called ecstasy or molly, it’s a hallucinogen and a stimulant)
Psilocybin treatment, in particular, has been the focus of many studies relating to addiction.
Psychedelics for Medical Treatment
Cultures around the world from Central Africa to the Amazon have used psychedelic substances, often for spiritual purposes. Their use in America for medical treatment has been more complicated.
Psychedelic research began here in earnest in the 1950s and continued through the 1960s. For instance, the Harvard Psilocybin Project (led by Timothy Leary) looked at the effect of these substances on states of consciousness before it was disbanded due to concerns about safety and scientific methodology.
More promising studies have suggested that LSD can positively impact people with substance abuse issues. Unfortunately, the classification of psychedelics as Schedule I illegal drugs in the 1970s put a stop to most of that research.
Nevertheless, scientists have returned to psychedelics research in recent decades. They state that these drugs have a powerful impact on the human psyche, but without the addictive quality of substances such as opiates or alcohol, especially when used as short-term treatment therapies. As one study stated about the benefits of psychedelics: “Evidence suggests that the psychedelics have a much greater safety profile than the major addictive drugs, having extremely low levels of mortality, and producing little if any physical dependence.”
Because psychedelics are still considered illegal drugs, research has been limited. Governmental approval is usually required for psychedelics studies and stringent protocols must be followed. However, there is some evidence suggesting the potential efficacy of MDMA depression treatment, as well as its use for posttraumatic stress disorder. And in 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of esketamine, a derivative of ketamine, for treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. However, MDMA depression treatment is not approved for public use, and esketamine can only be administered by a medical professional.
Psilocybin treatment is an area of increasing interest. Johns Hopkins received the first approval in the United States to research psychedelics. Its subsequent 2006 study found psilocybin benefits people by providing profound “mystical experiences” that produce lasting personal change.
Then, a 2011 psilocybin clinical trial found that cancer patients experienced improved mood and lessened anxiety after taking the drug. Another study noted those earlier clinical findings of positive behavior change in people who took psilocybin, stating “these results suggest the feasibility of a psilocybin-facilitated intervention for addiction treatment, consistent with findings that increased levels of spirituality are associated with improved outcomes in drug dependence recovery.”
What is Psilocybin?
Essentially, psilocybin puts the “magic” in magic mushrooms, making them psychedelic. Mushrooms with this hallucinogenic chemical are native to Europe and North and South America. Magic mushrooms are sometimes dried and turned into a powder for ingestion, or they can be eaten fresh or steeped in water to create a tea.
Psilocybin is fast-acting, typically producing noticeable effects within a half-hour. While the hallucinogenic properties wear off after about six hours, people can feel lingering effects days after taking psilocybin. Scientists suggest that this rapid effectiveness and long-lasting duration make it a good prospect for addiction therapy.
How Psilocybin Works
The power of psilocybin treatment for addiction is believed to lie in the drug’s potent effect on the brain:
- Psilocybin engages with the brain’s serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain plays a role in decision making, mood, judgment, perception, and other cognitive functions.
- The chemical also decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network, which can be overloaded with negative thoughts in someone struggling with addiction. Psilocybin loosens the grip of the negative patterns to free the brain from cravings and dependency.
- Psilocybin can also influence a more positive mindset by activating neural pathways in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center.
Research hasn’t pinpointed the exact mechanism behind psilocybin and its potential effect on addiction, depression, smoking cessation, and other conditions. It’s thought that psilocybin encourages neuroplasticity, which can rewire the brain’s communication pathways.
While psilocybin isn’t considered as addictive as other substances, there are some side effects that have been noted in clinical research settings. These include short-term higher heart rate and blood pressure, headaches, and feelings of fear.
During clinical trials, psilocybin is typically administered in a preset dose, such as in capsule form. Trial participants are usually made comfortable as they go through the hours-long psilocybin experience. An assistant or guide often stays with the participant to ensure safety and help them process the resulting emotions and thoughts.
The Status of Psilocybin Treatment for Drug Addiction
As of now, psilocybin treatment is still a work in progress—it’s not available at your local hospital or drug rehab center. The number of research studies is limited by psilocybin’s status as a Schedule I drug, which officially deems it has no acceptable medical use. However, scientists continue to press forward with the hope that the federal government will declassify the drug, making it more widely available for clinical trials.
In the meantime, the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research continues to investigate the potential psilocybin benefits. In 2019, it published a study indicating that psilocybin, as well as LSD, could be helpful in alleviating the effects of alcohol use disorder. And in 2021, the center received the first psychedelic-related grant in more than 50 years from the National Institutes of Health to study psilocybin and tobacco addiction. The coming years should bring more interesting developments, which may have the potential to advance the field of addiction rehabilitation.
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Stonegate Center is a faith-based alcohol and drug abuse treatment center based in Azle, Texas. Our separate treatment facilities for men and women provide safe and healing environment where our residents can receive guidance and achieve physical freedom from addiction. Stonegate Center stresses community, accountability, and fellowship. Serving the communities of Azle, Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, and beyond.