This Is What It Feels Like to Treat Depression with Magic Mushrooms
We spoke to a woman who's been trialling a psilocybin micro-dose treatment for a month, and the doctor who devised the method.
When Sue* greets me, she's all sparkly eyes and smiles. Beaming, she shakes my hand firmly and, as she sits, talks animatedly about her dash from the office to our meeting. "I haven't had this much energy in years," she says. "In fact, it was the polar opposite. But now – my mood, my energy, my outlook on life has changed for the better. And all thanks to magic mushrooms? It feels too remarkable to be true, but that appears to be the case."
When 35-year-old Sue was 25, she experienced her first serious depression. At the time, she was flummoxed as to why the "black dog" had descended. "I'd known low mood since my teens," says Sue, "but that was nothing compared to the blast of this new and unexpected pain. It's very difficult to explain how depression feels, but I felt dead – nothing but blackness." Sue stopped sleeping, and struggled with her work as a research analyst. "I use to cry in the toilets, hopeless and broken," she tells me.
Sue's first bout of real depression lasted a year, and once the initial chronic period lifted, she still felt low most of the time: "I could put a face on, and didn't tell anyone apart from my doctor," she says. Like millions of others, Sue was given anti-depressants: "They stopped me crying, made me numb and I could just paper over the cracks easier with SSRIs [a type of medication commonly used in the treatment of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders]."
At the beginning of this year, despite taking a higher dose of SSRI, Sue's depression deepened. "I was thinking obsessively and negatively, constantly," she says, adding that she tried mindfulness and therapy – which both helped a little – but that the pain "was still there".
However, a chance find on the internet led Sue to some fledgling yet pioneering research around "micro-dosing", the taking of small amounts of psilocybin to relieve depression – psilocybin being the active hallucinogen in magic mushrooms. "I'd read an article about research using MDMA for depression, and my raving years meant I wasn't adverse to recreational drugs, but I'd not touched magic mushrooms for years," says Sue.
The forums Sue was visiting were full of people talking about micro-dosing, and it was here that she came upon Jim Fadiman. Dr James Fadiman, Ph.D. has a vast and varied CV; he's been a business consultant, an author of The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide and co-founder of the Sofia University in California. Now 76, his younger years were spent as part of Menlo Park, a California-based team of researchers who studied the use of psychedelics in the 1960s.
"We were giving high doses of LSD to people for therapeutic reasons and creative problem solving, which was very successful with a lower dose of LSD," he tells me. "People had been very excited about LSD, in part because it looks a lot like the serotonin molecule, which regulates mood."
Indeed, at the time, LSD was the most researched psychiatric drug in the world, with over a thousand studies conducted on it. However, in 1968, when the US government made LSD Schedule 1 – meaning they believed it to have no medical use and a high risk of abuse, and therefore made it illegal – they halted 60 different projects, and the Menlo Park team's research was effectively outlawed.
Four decades later, Fadiman's interest in the therapeutic uses of psychedelics has remained.
"Around five years ago, a friend said he'd been micro-dosing," Fadiman tells me, referring to the ingestion of a psychedelic substance in a minute quantity. "Albert Hoffman, the Swedish chemist who discovered LSD, was a proponent and suggested he try it, but I had no idea what he was talking about.The psychedelic research I'd been involved in was full of psychedelic flashes and spiritual experiences, and here was this micro – or sub-perceptual – dose, and I got curious. I don't do 'research' now; I do 'search', and this isn't about a peer-reviewed scientific paper – I simply asked people I knew who had access to psychedelics if they'd be interested in taking this very small amount, and eventually came up with my method."
Fadiman's protocol consists of a suggestion that participants who already have their own psychedelic materials micro-dose every fourth day for a month and make notes of how they are feeling. A micro-dose ranges from a tenth to a twentieth of a usual dose. "If people say they're noticing [the psychedelic effects], I advised them to lower their dose. The rocks [shouldn't] glitter, even a little," says Jim.
The word spread and people started asking Fadiman for information on micro-dosing. "People write in and say they're interested. One young man wanted to find out if it would help him stutter less; it has," says Fadiman. "Another stopped smoking."
So far, Fadiman has collected around a hundred reports, and the results are coming in daily. "I then follow it up after another month," he says. "What people say is that micro-dosing appears to improve practically everything you do, just a little bit. One report called it an 'all chakra enhancer' – people say things just seemed to work really well, and because it's such a small dose, it impacts on mood without changing behaviour."
Although he wasn't specifically studying depression, per se, several research participants told Fadiman that micro-dosing had alleviated their low mood. The forums were full of these kind of accounts, which is how Sue chanced upon Fadiman. "I wrote to Jim, and he sent me the protocol. Intrigued, I asked a friend who had some mushrooms if I could have a small amount," she says.
Sue ground the mushrooms up and started with a quarter of a teaspoon on day one. "I felt a marginal effect – just a slight up, but nothing more," she recalls. "I had energy and stayed awake into the afternoon, which, with my low energy, was unusual."
It was the effect on day two that really struck Sue: "I was amazed – my obsessive negative thinking literally just stopped. Even when I tried to find the negative thoughts, they weren't there; they had just disappeared"
Sue isn't the only participant to experience marked effects. One subject, a Parkinson's disease sufferer, reported that after a month of micro-dosing LSD, his Parkinson's symptoms weren't improved, but his underlying depression was. "I had a report from one person who was so clinically depressed, he'd been on disability," says Fadiman. "He started micro-dosing and, for several weeks, said he felt functional, able to manage his life. Then he ran out and regressed. We know it helps with mild depression, but this person is also saying something more."
While the research thus far seems to indicate that micro-dosing can be beneficial, a few of Fadiman's subjects have reported unpleasant side-effects, and he warns it's not for everyone. Indeed, Sue has had one experience that she says will make her more careful with dosing: "I tried a new batch and took the same amount, but it was stronger, and I felt trippy and unpleasant," she says. "This isn't about taking drugs for pleasure."
While psychedelics aren't known for their addictive properties, I ask Fadiman if there's any danger in that respect when it comes to people regularly micro-dosing. "It's unlikely that anyone will become physically dependent on compounds that are inherently anti-addictive," he explains. "If you take the same psychedelic every day, it stops working."
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Fadiman isn't alone in his interest in the therapeutic properties of psilocybin, and as the cultural restrictions have begun to be lifted, a few new studies have been launched into larger doses and depression. One study showed that brains affected by psilocybin had different connectivity between some cortical regions, which might chemically short circuit patterns of negative thinking. A team at Imperial College London, under Professor David Nutt, is currently studying the effects psilocybin can have on treatment-resistant depression.
So might micro-dosing be as effective a depression reliever in the long-term as it appears in the short-term? Fadiman won't be able to know with the data currently available to him; more formal scientific studies are going to have to be done on micro-dosing before anyone can deduce anything for certain. But just as a friend recommends a home remedy for more straightforward medical issues, so micro-dosing joins the tradition when it comes to matters of the mind.
Sue, who's just finished her first month of micro-dosing, says she's already telling friends who suffer from depression about her experience. "I've really been helped," says Sue, who says she'll continue to use micro-dosing as long as she can.
"There's no comparison between micro-dosing and taking anti-depressants," she says, adding that while she won't stop taking her SSRIs until she's discussed it with her GP, she's resolute in feeling that: "Anti-depressants have never worked for me, and micro-dosing does. I can't explain it, and to be honest I don't care, because I feel like me – a whole, content me – for the first time in years."
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.
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