The term mushroom in the context of intoxicating substances typically refers to naturally occurring mushrooms containing psilocybin and psilocin. There are hundreds of species of mushrooms worldwide, but they are most commonly linked with ritual use in Europe, Russia, and Central and South America. These hallucinogens also gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in the US, as countercultural movements began to experiment with otherwise illicit drugs.
Mushrooms are also called:
- Hallucinogenic mushrooms
- Magic mushrooms
Some research suggests that the intoxicating substances in mushrooms can have some medical benefits, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists mushrooms as a Schedule I substance. This means that the United States does not currently recognize any therapeutic or medicinal benefit to these intoxicants.
Psilocybin and psilocin affect the central nervous system by binding to serotonin receptors, blocking the normal uptake of that neurotransmitter. The effects of this blocked uptake differ widely based on age, weight, gender, amount ingested, and even mental or emotional state at the time of ingestion. However, effects of mushroom ingestion range from a general relaxed sense of wellbeing to hallucinations and paranoia. Intoxication takes effect anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours after ingesting, and can last for up to six hours.
Mushrooms are naturally occurring, although there is a small black market industry to grow these hallucinogens too. Methods of ingestion are oral. The mushroom is eaten fresh or dried, or it can be brewed into a tea or put into other food items to mask the bitter flavor.
The most common negative psychological effects are sometimes called a “bad trip.” This is a combination of mood swings through negative feelings like sadness, terror, and anger; often, the experience is combined with frightening, disturbing, or anger-inducing hallucinations. If a person ingests too much psilocybin, they may also experience heart palpitations, changes in blood pressure, or other extreme physical sensations that could become dangerous and lead to hospitalization.
Pop culture reports that mushrooms are safe, but this is not true. Although it is typically difficult to overdose on this substance, there are many potential dangers related to ingesting mushrooms.
- The chemicals leading to intoxication in mushrooms are not considered to be physically addictive, but there have been reports of people becoming psychologically addicted to, and dependent on, mushrooms to maintain a sense of wellbeing or happiness. Tolerance and addiction can develop with regular use of this intoxicant, and psilocybin tolerance has been linked to tolerance to other hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mescaline.
- Withdrawal from mushrooms can take place a day or two after ingestion, while brain chemicals stabilize. It is extremely rare for people to ingest mushrooms every day, so many people who use these intoxicants experience mild withdrawal symptoms, which can be equated with a hangover. Withdrawal symptoms typically include exhaustion, psychological cravings for more mushrooms, and trouble discerning reality from fantasy or dreams.
- Because mushrooms are grown, and not formulated in a lab, it is difficult to regulate the size of the dose. Some personal reports suggest that more than two caps can be deadly, while other reports suggest that it takes over 35 pounds of mushrooms to overdose, which is more than one person would be able to eat. When mushrooms are gathered in the wild, the gatherer may mistakenly pick another type of mushroom, which could be poisonous rather than intoxicating. Reports of deaths caused by “magic mushrooms” are most often the result of ingesting the wrong type of mushroom, most frequently a deadly type of Amanita.
- Mushrooms that are sold on the black market may not be natural mushrooms. Instead, they could be LSD or another hallucinogen lacing a toxic or edible mushroom. Different hallucinogens cause different experiences, and if a person does not know for certain that they are not ingesting grown hallucinogenic mushrooms, they could misjudge the amount to ingest and overdose.
- Liver damage has been linked to long-term use of mushrooms. The liver processes toxins to force them out of the body, and intoxicating substances that move through the digestive system, such as alcohol, are often linked to liver damage or failure with long-term abuse. Since mushrooms are ingested orally, they also move through the digestive system and can affect the liver.
- People sensitive to mental changes can struggle with triggered psychological disorders after taking mushrooms. Psychosis and flashbacks to bad trips are the most common of these, although the serotonin imbalance can also trigger depression or anxiety disorders. Violent behavior, memory loss, amnesia, difficulty with cognition, or changes in personality can also be long-term side effects. If a person already experiences mental health issues, taking mushrooms can exacerbate the problem.
Recent reports studying the effects of psilocybin on the brain suggest that, when the drug binds to the serotonin receptors, the flood of serotonin in the brain increases connectivity and dampens activity of neurons. This can help ease depression, create a sense of meaning, stimulate creativity, and even ease anxiety in patients with terminal cancer. However, in each of these experiments, the doses were carefully regulated by scientists, and settings were controlled to be as comfortable and emotionally supportive as possible. When a person takes mushrooms at a less controlled dose, in a less controlled setting, the effects could much more easily become detrimental to their mental health.
A study published through the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health reports that a 2010 survey of US residents, ages 12 and older, found 32 million lifetime psychedelic users in the country. Lifetime use of hallucinogens was greatest in those ages 30-34 (20 percent), with more men than women ingesting these substances (22 percent men compared to 12 percent women). Of those 32 million people, 21 million reported a lifetime use of psilocybin specifically.
Hallucinogens, including mushrooms, are common at clubs and raves. In this setting, those ingesting the drugs are often teenagers and young adults. They may also ingest mushrooms alongside other drugs, like MDMA, marijuana, and alcohol. The Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 9.2 percent of high school seniors had taken a hallucinogen other than LSD – a category that includes mushrooms – at least once in their lifetime, and 2 percent of those high school seniors reported ingesting mushrooms at least once in the past month. Teenagers and adults can suffer more long-term negative consequences related to taking mushrooms, because their brains have not finished growing. When an intoxicating substance like psilocybin is introduced, there could be permanent changes to the reward centers of the brain that could lead to long-term drug abuse problems.
People who struggle with polydrug abuse are more likely to abuse, or become addicted to, mushrooms. One instance of polydrug abuse involves creating a “super joint,” which is a combination of PCP, marijuana, and/or mushrooms. Sometimes, tobacco or non-intoxicating plant substances like parsley are used in the cigarette. When smoked, it forces the intoxicating chemicals into the bloodstream much faster than eating, which can be dangerous. With more of the hallucinogen in the blood, the person can experience a more intense, and more negative, high; the individual is also more likely to overdose.
Because hallucinogens like mushrooms can trigger psychosis or other mental illnesses, many people who abuse these substances regularly or on a long-term basis likely have a co-occurring disorder. The mental illness could lead to greater psychological cravings for mushrooms to regulate mood and other symptoms of the illness.
There are currently no medications that treat addiction to mushrooms or other hallucinogens. If a person struggles with addiction to these substances, they are more likely to also struggle with addiction to other substances. They are also more likely to struggle with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. This means that treating mushroom addiction or abuse should often take more specific, concerted efforts. However, help is available, and as more research is conducted on co-occurring disorders and polydrug abuse, more treatment programs are equipped to help these individuals.