Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic chemical in certain mushrooms that grow in Europe, South America, Mexico, and the United States. Mushrooms that contain psilocybin are known as magic mushrooms.

Individuals use psilocybin as a recreational drug. It can provide feelings of euphoria and sensory distortion that are common to hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research published a landmark study on the safety and positive effects of psilocybin in 2006. Researchers have also investigated whether it may be used to treat various medical conditions.

In October 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin. This allows for a 2-year period to consider regulatory and prescribing requirements.

Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance, meaning that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believes it has a high potential for abuse and serves no legitimate medical purpose.

Although medical bodies do not consider psilocybin addictive, users may experience disturbing hallucinations, anxiety, and panic after taking the drug.

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Psilocybin is a natural hallucinogen. Getty Images

Psilocybin is a hallucinogen that people can ingest through certain types of mushrooms.

How it works

Psilocybin works by activating serotonin receptors, most often in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain affects mood, cognition, and perception. Hallucinogens also work in other regions of the brain that regulate arousal and panic responses.

Psilocybin does not always cause active visual or auditory hallucinations. Instead, it distorts how some people that use the drug perceive objects and people already in their environment.

The quantity of the drug a person consumes, their past experiences, and their expectations of how the experience will take shape can all impact the effects of psilocybin.

The hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin usually occur within 30 minutes after a person ingests it and last 4–6 hours. In some individuals, changes in sensory perception and thought patterns can last for several days.

The potency of a magic mushroom depends on:

  • species
  • origin
  • growing conditions
  • harvest period
  • whether a person eats them fresh or dried

The amount of psilocybin in dried mushrooms is about 10 times higher than that found in their fresh counterparts.

Consumption

Mushrooms containing psilocybin are small and usually brown or tan. In the wild, people often mistake mushrooms containing psilocybin for any number of other mushrooms that are poisonous.

People usually consume psilocybin as a brewed tea or prepare it with a food item to mask its bitter taste. Manufacturers also crush dried mushrooms into a powder and prepare them in capsule form. Some people who consume these mushrooms cover them with chocolate.

Extent of use

The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggested that 8.5% of people in the U.S. had used psilocybin at some point in their life.

The ritual use of psilocybin for mystical or spiritual purposes dates back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies and continues to this day. Psilocybin is often used recreationally at dance clubs or by people seeking a transcendent spiritual experience.

In medical settings, doctors have tested psilocybin for treating cluster headaches, depression, end stage cancer anxiety, and other forms of anxiety.

Some scientists have questioned its effectiveness and safety as a therapeutic measure.

Street names for magic mushrooms

People may also refer to magic mushrooms as:

  • shrooms
  • boomers
  • zoomers
  • mushies
  • simple Simon
  • little smoke
  • sacred mushrooms
  • purple passion
  • mushroom soup
  • cubes

The effects of psilocybin are generally similar to those of LSD. They include altered perception of time and space and intense changes in mood and feeling.

Other possible effects of psilocybin include:

  • euphoria
  • peacefulness
  • spiritual awakening
  • derealization, or the feeling that surroundings are not real
  • depersonalization, or a dream-like sense of being disengaged from surroundings
  • distorted thinking
  • visual alteration and distortion, such as seeing halos of light and vivid colors
  • dilated pupils
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness and yawning
  • impaired concentration
  • muscle weakness
  • lack of coordination
  • unusual body sensations
  • nausea and vomiting
  • paranoia
  • confusion
  • frightening hallucinations

The effects of psilocybin vary between people, based on the user’s mental state, personality, and immediate environment.

If the user has a mental health condition or feels anxious about using the hallucinogen, they face a higher risk of having a bad experience.

Psychological distress is the adverse event most often reported after recreational use of psilocybin. This distress can take the form of extreme anxiety or short-term psychosis.

Psilocybin as a treatment for depression

Researchers have investigated whether psychological specialists can use psilocybin and similar hallucinogens as a treatment for depression.

One study examined the ability of psilocybin to reduce depression symptoms without dulling emotions. Results indicated that psilocybin may be successful in treating depression with psychological support.

The other study assessed the relationship between psilocybin-induced hallucinations and positive therapeutic outcomes.

Some people who take psilocybin may experience persistent, distressing alterations to the way they see the world. These often take the form of a visual flashback, which is a traumatic recall of an intensely upsetting experience. People can continue to experience flashbacks anywhere from weeks to years after using the hallucinogen. Physicians now diagnose this condition as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder.

Some individuals who use psilocybin may also experience fear, agitation, confusion, delirium, psychosis, and syndromes that resemble schizophrenia, requiring a trip to the emergency room.

In most cases, a doctor will treat these effects with medication, such as benzodiazepines. Symptoms often resolve in 6–8 hours as the effects of the psilocybin wear off.

Finally, though the risk is small, some psilocybin users risk accidental poisoning from eating a poisonous mushroom by mistake. Symptoms of mushroom poisoning may include muscle spasms, confusion, and delirium. A person should visit an emergency room immediately if these symptoms occur.

Because hallucinogenic and other poisonous mushrooms are common in most living environments, people should regularly remove all mushrooms from areas where children are routinely present to prevent accidental consumption.

Most accidental mushroom ingestion results in minor gastrointestinal illness, with only the most severe instances requiring medical attention.

Psilocybin is not chemically addictive, and no physical symptoms occur after stopping use. However, after several days of psilocybin use, individuals might experience psychological withdrawal and have difficulty adjusting to reality.

Regular use can also cause an individual to become tolerant to the effects of psilocybin, and cross-tolerance occurs with other drugs, including LSD and mescaline. People who use these drugs must wait at least several days between doses to experience the full effect.