In the 1950s and 60s, pioneering research hinted at the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for mental health. However, the subsequent classification of these substances as Schedule 1 drugs brought a halt to these investigations. Fast forward to the present day, and the tides have turned.
A resurgence of scientific interest has reignited the exploration of psychedelics as promising tools in the realm of mental health. Notably, psilocybin-assisted therapy has been granted "breakthrough therapy" status by the FDA for the treatment of major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression, marking a significant milestone. Similarly, MDMA-assisted therapy has earned breakthrough therapy status for addressing PTSD.
Join us as we navigate through the evolving landscape of psychedelic research and its potential implications for mental health, aiming to provide a nuanced and evidence-based perspective on this intriguing intersection.
Let’s begin with a look at the rollercoaster ride of psychedelics that began with excitement and enthusiasm, met demonization and fear along the way, and is now returning to a positive outlook.
Not long after the invention of LSD, interest began to grow in the use of psychedelics in treating mental health problems. In the 1950s, psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond performed an experiment to evaluate the efficacy of LSD in treating alcoholism. He reported that half of the LSD group either abstained from alcohol or reduced their use, whereas the control group was unchanged.
A much more recent (2012) meta-analysis of 6 trials and over 500 patients found evidence of positive effects of LSD on alcohol abuse disorder. Unfortunately, rash drug scheduling decisions put research on hiatus, or we may have known this decades ago. Another drug that showed therapeutic potential but was criminalized before it could be explored is MDMA.
After the rediscovery of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA for short, not to be confused with regular n-methylamphetamine AKA meth) by pioneering psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin, a small network of psychotherapists recognized its potential for mending relationships and healing. Among the individuals Dr. Shulgin introduced MDMA to was psychotherapist Leo Zeff.
According to this New York Times Magazine article, Dr. Zeff was so impressed with MDMA that he trained 4,000 therapists to incorporate it into their therapy. Anecdotally, it was extremely helpful, with some therapists claiming it could accomplish what normally required years of therapy in a single session.
The early enthusiasm for psychedelics in treating mental health problems didn’t last for long though. As recreational use grew, as well as the association with the counterculture, laws were quickly put in place to stop people from using these substances. Thus, the West returned to a psychedelic dark age.
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Preliminary evidence suggests that psychedelics may have the potential to effectively treat a variety of chronic pain conditions.
5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is a short acting, serotonergic psychedelic, found naturally in the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo Alvarius). 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity as an effective tool for spiritual exploration and healing due to its extremely powerful psychoactive effects.
What is unique about ayahuasca is that it is a concoction of two plants, the combination of which is essential for the ayahuasca experience. Combining two plants to use as medicine may not seem groundbreaking in and of itself, but the fact that if one is taken without the other, the experience is entirely different, and arguably non-existent, is what makes the discovery of ayahuasca so surprising.
For millennia indigenous-American tribes have consumed N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as a key ingredient in sacred botanical brews, such as ayahuasca, and snuffs, such as yopo, as part of religious ceremonies in Central and South America.
Ibogaine is a naturally occurring indole alkaloid derived from the roots of an threatened species of perennial rainforest shrub called Tabernanthe iboga. Ibogaine, which is believed to have potent anti-addictive properties, has been used by the indigenous peoples of central west Africa for centuries.
Though ketamine gained a reputation for being dangerous and easily misused and abused, it wasn’t until 1999 that the US classified it as a Schedule III controlled substance. While it is often associated with the party scene, ketamine therapy is helping change the lives of many with severe depression, PTSD, OCD and even chronic migraines.
In 1938, a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann, working out of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, became the first man to synthesize Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Active at the microgram level (one-thousandth of a gram), LSD is the most potent psychoactive drug known to humankind.
The MDMA molecule bears structural resemblance to stimulants and some psychedelics, invoking feelings of euphoria, empathy, and boundless energy. MDMA also intensifies sensory perception, enhancing one’s appreciation of music and color which makes it one of the most popular drugs among festival-goers and electronic dance music fans alike.
In the 16th century, Spanish chroniclers attempted to eradicate ritual use of peyote cactus among indigenous American cultures, which led to the plant’s eventual prohibition in 1720. In the face of adversity, several indigenous communities righteously persevered, continuing and preserving their sacred practice in clandestine secrecy, and even managing to spread it widely over the last 150 years.
Peyote is a green spineless cactus that contains the classic psychedelic compound mescaline. Numerous Mesoamerican cultures, including the Huichol (Wixárika), the Cora (náayeri), the Tepehuanes, the Tonkawa, the Mescalero, and the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) have long regarded the plant as sacred, using it in spiritual and healing ceremonies for millennia.
While evidence suggests that psilocybin mushrooms have been historically used in ritual settings for spiritual and medicinal purposes, they have gained popularity for recreational use, and clinical research on the therapeutic effects of psilocybin is promising.
Salvia is a psychotropic flowering herb from the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Salvia’s large green leaves contain the powerful psychoactive compound, salvinorin A. Salvia leaves are used for medicinal and religious purposes by Mazatec shamans in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and they are often used recreationally in the west.
Since prehistory, San Pedro has been instrumental to Peruvian cultural traditions. in northern Peru in particular, it has been a tool to facilitate the shaman’s ‘‘journey’’ for healing purposes. Throughout this period, the visionary cactus has been known by many names, including huachuma or achuma.