In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the name for psilocybin mushrooms is Teonanácatl, which has been translated to “flesh of the gods”. There are more than 180 varieties of mushrooms that contain psilocybin and psilocin, the alkaloids responsible for their psychoactive effects. They are popularly called “magic mushrooms” and are perhaps the best known psychoactive plant variety with the greatest influence on the collective cultural imagination.
The different varieties of psychoactive mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, which contain psychoactive alkaloids such as psilocin, psilocybin and baeocystin, belong to the families Strophariaceae and Hymenogastraceae of basidiomycete mushrooms, of the Agaricales order. The most common and well-known genera that produce species that contain these alkaloids are Psilocibe and Panaeolus.
Some of the best known species are the Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe cyanescens, Psilocybe azurescens and, above all, the Psilocybe cubensis, of which there are dozens of varieties such as the B+, Ecuador, Mazatapec, and many many more.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been used by different cultures for their intoxicating effects, particularly in the Mesoamerican Aztec peoples of the pre-Columbian era and later among the Mazatecs and Zapotecs.
There are more than 180 species of mushrooms that contain tryptamine alkaloids such as psilocybin and psilocin. They include the genera Psilocybe (117 species), Gymnopilus (13 species), Panaeolus (7 species), Copelandia (12 species), Hypholoma (6 species), Pluteus (6 species), Inocybe (6 species), Cnocybe (4 species) and Agrocybe, Galerina and Mycena.
The genus Psilocybe is the most common, and most of its species are found in humid subtropical forests. Mexico is the country where the greatest variety of psychoactive mushrooms can be found.
Although psychoactive mushrooms are found from Alaska to southern Chile, Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii, Europe, Siberia, Japan and Southeast Asia, precise knowledge of their geographical distribution is not well established.
Different varieties of magic mushrooms have been used by people around the world since ancient times. Indigenous groups have revered the visions induced by mushrooms, and have used them in their magico-religious rituals to communicate with the spiritual world, the spirits of the deceased and to obtain knowledge and healing.
The oldest samples of the probable use of mushrooms, although not totally conclusive, can be found in a mural in Tassili, in the Sahara desert, southeast of Algeria. In this mural, which dates from between 7000 and 9000 BCE, mushrooms as well as anthropomorphic figures carrying mushrooms are represented. As for what type of mushroom is depicted, some authors have speculated that it is Psilocybe mairei, a known species of Algeria and Morocco. Others, however, doubt the authenticity of these paintings.
In the Selva Pascuala mural, in Cuenca, Spain, dating from the Upper Paleolithic (6000 BCE) to the Middle Neolithic (4000 BCE) eras, one can find representations of mushrooms, which have been identified as Psilocybe hispanica and Psilocybe semilanceata. In these murals figures of bulls are represented, so some authors correlate the relationship of fungal growth with the habitat, since these species grow in bovine feces.
We also find the use of psychoactive mushrooms in Asia. In Japan we have the Gymnopilus spectabilis, also known as maitake or “mushroom dancer”, whose use was compiled by Minamoto Takakuni in a book of tales, the Konjaku Monogatari, dating from the late 9th century CE. This mushroom has also been known as owaraitake or “laughter mushroom”. Parietal pictorial representations have also been found in caves and shelters in South Africa and Australia, among other places.
In the New World different groups have used and continue to use psilocybin mushrooms. In particular, different Mexican ethnic groups, such as the Mazatecs, Mixitecas and Zapotecs, among others. Vessels in the shape of mushrooms have been found associated with the pre-classical and classical Mayan periods in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, dating from between 500 BCE and 900 CE and suggesting ancestral knowledge of the use of psilocybin mushrooms. The first documented reports about the use of mushrooms are from an indigenous person named Tezozomoc, who wrote in Spanish in 1598 about the use of intoxicating mushrooms in the celebration of the coronation of Moctezuma II in 1502, during the Aztec civilization.
There are representations of mushrooms in Mexican art that survived the conquest. Good examples of this are the Codex Vindobonensis, the Codex Magliabechiano, and the famous frescoes of Tepantitla, in the city of Teotihuacan.
Reports by Spanish colonizers, such as one from Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, called “A General History of Things in New Spain”, described the use of mushrooms not only in celebrations but also in religious, medical and divination ceremonies. Sahagún’s writings describe the use of the name teunamacatlh (teonanácatl) to denote psilocybin mushrooms. Teonanácatl has been translated as “flesh of the gods”, although other authors suggest that “sacred mushrooms” or “marvelous mushrooms” would be more literal translations.
The Spaniards believed that the use of the mushroom was contrary to Christian morality, and in 1620 the tribunal of the Inquisition declared its use heretical, as well as that of any other intoxicating plant, and harshly repressed healers and those who ingested the mushroom. Henceforth, the traditional use of psilocybin mushrooms was relegated to clandestine secrecy.
The rediscovery of the traditional use of psilocybin mushrooms in the New World occurred thanks to the work of Reko and Schultes, who obtained and identified three different varieties of visionary mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in 1938. That same year, Irmgard Weitlaner and Jean Basett Johnson attended a mushroom ceremony, although they did not ingest any and therefore did not experience its effects.
In 1952, Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina Pavlovna began to take an interest in the psilocybin mushroom cult, and after a review of the available documents and contacting Schultes, Reko, Johnson and Weitlaner, they began their trips to Huautla de Jiménez. During the summer of 1955, Gordon Wasson and his photographer Allan Richardson attended a psilocybin mushroom vigil with Maria Sabina – a Mazatec shaman – and were the first Westerners to experience and report the effects of mushrooms and their traditional uses among Mazatecs.
Chemical composition and Dosage
The active principles present in psilocybin mushrooms are psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), psilocin (4-HO-DMT) and baeocystin (4-HO-NMT). Psilocybin is the main component of most varieties and the most stable alkaloid of the three.
Psilocybin was isolated by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1957, from Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms, cultivated in Paris by the mycologist Roger Heim from mushrooms collected in Mexico during Heim and Wasson’s expedition. Hofmann is known to have synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and was also the first to synthesize psilocybin in 1958.
Studies on the pharmacology of psilocybin indicate that psilocybin is converted to psilocin once absorbed, and that equivalent amounts of psilocin produce the same subjective effects as psilocybin. Therefore psilocybin is sometimes considered a stable precursor, or prodrug, but the psychoactive alkaloid responsible for the effects of mushrooms is psilocin.
There are no specific studies and there is very little information on the effects and pharmacology of baeocystin.
The potency of psilocybin mushrooms varies greatly depending on the species and variety, as well as the conditions in which they have grown and the age of the mushrooms.
Common varieties such as Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe semilanceata contain around 6 -10mg of psilocybin per gram of dried mushrooms. Other varieties, such as Psilocybe azurenscens and Psilocybe bohemica contain a higher amount of psilocybin, around 1.78% and 1.74%, respectively.
There are varieties of intermediate potencies, such as the Panaeolus cyanescens, also known as Copelandia cyanescens, which contain 0.85% psilocybin.
Dosages of pure psilocybin are as follows:
- Microdose: < 4mg
- Low dose: 4 – 8mg
- Average dose: 6 – 20mg
- High dose: 20 – 35mg
- Very high dose: > 35mg
Dosages of mushrooms vary depending on the species, its state of preservation, if they are fresh or dried mushrooms and other factors, so adjusting the doses of mushrooms is always imprecise. Usually the doses for usual varieties (P.cubensis and the like) of dry mushrooms are as follows:
- Microdose: < 0.25gr
- Low dose: 0.25 -1gr
- Average dose: 1 – 2.5gr
- High dose: 2.5 – 5gr
- Very high dose: > 5gr
Psilocybin mushrooms produce psychoactive effects in humans very similar to the rest of the classical psychedelics such as LSD and mescaline. Most users describe the experience as an internal journey, in which they go through different phases with varying effects. The first effects usually begin to be perceived earlier than with LSD or mescaline, and by about 30 minutes after ingestion they can be discerned. The maximum effects are usually established between 60 and 90 minutes after ingestion, and they last for about two hours before starting to diminish. The total duration of the experience is around 4 to 6 hours, depending on the dose.
Physically, the main effects of psilocybin include dilation of the pupils and slight increases in blood pressure and heart rate, especially at high doses. Variation in blood pressure seems more related to subjective experience than to the physiological effects of psilocybin, particularly if anxiety appears. Nausea can sometimes occur, especially when mushrooms are ingested rather than pure psilocybin, and more rarely vomiting or diarrhea. Tremors, muscle discomfort and dizziness may also occur.
The physical effects in general are usually mild and not significant.
Psychological effects are characterized by marked alterations of sensory perceptions as well as profound changes in consciousness and cognition.
At the sensory level, visual alterations may occur in the form of colorful kaleidoscopic visions with closed eyes, intensification of colors, distortion of the shapes of objects or surfaces that undulate or move. Auditory disturbances may also appear, such as an increased appreciation of music and sounds. Synesthetic experiences can occur, in which stimuli corresponding to a certain sensory field are perceived and processed by another sense; for example, sounds that are perceived as visions. The sense of touch can also be altered, experiencing an increase in tactile sensitivity, sensations of cold or heat, tingling or a feeling of energy running through the body, as well as paresthesia.
At the cognitive and consciousness level, these alterations can be very intense and seem to be experiences as positive as they are terrifying.
Recent studies have observed the ability of psilocybin to induce mystical experiences in controlled contexts and in high doses. These mystical experiences include feelings of numinousness, profoundly positive emotional states, internal unity, transcendence of time and space, ineffability and a sense of unity and interconnection with all things.
Frightening experiences may include sensations of agonizing fear, paranoia, a sense of dying or going crazy, feelings of depression or anger, high anxiety, agitation, confusion, and disorientation both spatiotemporally and internally. This phenomenon has sometimes been called a “bad trip”. Only rarely are psychotic symptoms produced, which usually disappear when the effects subside.
In most cases, however, the experiences induced by mushrooms contain both positive and pleasant elements, as well as less pleasant components that could be experienced as psychologically challenging. Experiences in which personal biographical material emerges are common, as well as content related to significant others. In addition, there may be a dissolution of personal limits, or a dissolution of the ego, with sensations described as “oceanic”, which can be perceived as a transcendent experience, but may also result in anxiety.
Some studies show that psilocybin produces an increase in positive mood, and a positive bias in the perception of stimuli, related to a possible decrease in the activity of the amygdala, the brain structure responsible for the processing of potentially threatening emotions.
Effects in controlled contexts
In addition to the ability of psilocybin to induce mystical experiences, other potentially therapeutic effects have been found in clinical trials.
The use of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and the increase in quality of life in cases of people with advanced cancer diagnoses has been investigated. Psilocybin has also been used in research for the treatment of cluster headaches as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Studies on the use of psilocybin in tobacco and alcohol addiction have also been undertaken. Research is currently being conducted on the therapeutic potential of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depressive disorders with promising results.
The active ingredients of psilocybin mushrooms, psilocybin and psilocin, are controlled substances on Schedule I of the 1971 United Nations convention. Therefore, the sale of these substances is illegal.
However, mushrooms containing these substances are controlled differently in particular countries, according to each country’s interpretation of Schedule I. In Schedule I of the 1971 Convention, only active ingredients appear, not the natural materials that contain them (such as mushrooms or plants), which leaves the interpretation of the prohibition of botanical materials open to the particular laws of each country. Furthermore, in many countries these mushrooms grow wild.
In most European countries, psilocybin mushrooms are illegal and can not be bought or sold. The mode in which the mushrooms had been sold in recent decades was considered a “product” and/or “preparation” of psilocybin, so any presentation of said mushrooms was considered illegal.
For several years mushrooms were available for purchase and sale in smart-shops in the Netherlands. They could legally acquire fresh as well as dried mushrooms since they were legal until 2002. After that year, dried mushrooms were declared illegal, although they could continue selling fresh mushrooms. That situation changed and the sale of fresh mushrooms has been illegal since 2008. An exception is the Sclerotia variety, also known as “truffles” or “philosopher’s stones”, which can still be purchased, as it is not a mushroom, but mycelium.
Mushroom spores, as well as culture kits that do not contain mushrooms, and therefore their active ingredients, are sold in smart-shops in some countries.
Prevalence of Use
The prevalence of mushroom consumption in the EU is considerably lower than that of cannabis, and it seems to be equal to the prevalence of ecstasy use (MDMA) in some countries among students aged 15-16 years. Surveys in 12 European Union countries indicate that between 15 and 24 years of age, the use of psilocybin mushrooms at some point is between 1% and 8%. According to the published results of the 2017 Global Drug Survey, psilocybin mushrooms are the substance with the eighth highest consumption ever among the surveyed population behind alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, beverages with high caffeine content, pipe tobacco (shisha), MDMA, and cocaine. According to this survey, 24.4% of the respondents had consumed mushrooms at some time in their lives.
In this same survey, psilocybin mushrooms were the substance that had generated the least requests for emergency medical treatment; only 0.2% of people who used them requested medical attention. In this sense, mushrooms have been considered the safest substance reported. As for the occurrence of difficult experiences, mushrooms are the substance that caused the least difficult episodes of all psychedelic substances investigated, both of plant origin (ayahuasca and peyote) and synthetic (LSD, NBOMe, 2C-x, and smoked DMT) .
In some EU countries it is more common to consume mushrooms collected in their natural habitat, while in other countries users usually grow their own mushrooms. In Norway, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Denmark mushroom picking predominates, while in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Finland, self-cultivation is more common.
Health and Risk Reduction
Studies conducted in 2011 conclude that the use of psilocybin mushrooms is relatively safe, and that there are few reports of adverse effects, classified as “slight adverse effects”. The same studies indicate the importance of controlling both the quality and the context in which psilocybin mushrooms are used.
Due to the possibility of intense experiences that generate anxiety, people with a history of cardiovascular diseases, particularly those who are taking medication to control these diseases or who have to reduce their physical activity by medical indication, should refrain from using mushrooms.
Regarding the quality of the mushrooms, when collecting them in their natural environment it is essential to know how to identify mushrooms correctly and not to confuse them with any variety that may be toxic or poisonous. In general, only certain varieties of the genera Galerina and Pholiota have toxic or deadly effects and can be confused with psilocybin mushrooms.
Although mushrooms present few risks to physical health since psilocybin is pharmacologically a very safe substance, besides having no addictive potential, there are risks to psychological health that must be taken into account. Some of these risks may occur during the experience, and others later, in the medium term.
The main risk of psilocybin mushrooms is that they can trigger a difficult experience, in which there are unpleasant symptoms such as fear, anxiety, paranoid ideas, fear of death or going crazy, symptoms of a psychotic nature, or the feeling that the trip will never end. This type of experience can occur with any dose, although its manifestations in such cases are different.
At low and medium doses unpleasant psychological material can appear and the person may try to resist them; this resistance usually generates greater anxiety. In such cases, a change in setting can help reduce anxiety. A quiet environment and a willingness to surrender to the experience without judgment can often help to continue the journey and resolve these difficult moments.
At high doses, resistances are lower due to the intensity of the experience, and people are usually totally immersed in the trip. In such cases, difficult experiences may occur in which there is high emotional intensity, cathartic expressions, and unusual psychological manifestations of a “psychotic” nature, which usually disappear when the pharmacological effect diminishes. In these situations, physical and emotional restraint is needed, as is support during the experience by a caregiver, preferably sober.
After difficult experiences there may be subsequent psychological challenges of a different nature that affect the person’s health beyond the original experience. Symptoms of acute stress may appear after a traumatic experience with mushrooms that persist over time and require specialized psychological attention. Although the appearance of severe and persistent psychiatric disorders after the use of psilocybin mushrooms may occur, it is very rare. In cases of experiencing psychological difficulties after a psychedelic experience, psychotherapeutic integration sessions can help to alleviate the symptoms and process the psychological material of the session in an appropriate way.
Most difficult situations can be prevented by seriously considering the context in which the experience will be undertaken, the dose, the company and the vital moment in which one decides to use mushrooms.
Regarding the context, the usual recommendations regarding “set & setting” are especially important when using psilocybin mushrooms. A quiet, safe environment, free of interruptions and unexpected interferences, aesthetically pleasing, with music previously selected and especially with the company of trusted people is suitable for the type of experience that mushrooms induce. Less controlled and safe environments involve a greater possibility of unexpected events that can create anxiety. It is therefore essential to take into account what context the mushrooms are going to be used in and decide on the elements that will be a part of it.
It is also important to be psychologically prepared when taking mushrooms. A good theoretical knowledge of the potential effects that can appear at each dose can help with going into the experience with greater confidence.
Mushrooms, like any other psychedelic substance, have the potential to allow unconscious material to emerge. Therefore, it is crucial to take into account one’s psychological state at the time of taking the mushrooms. Psilocybin mushrooms consumed during times of stress, worry, depression or life difficulties can increase the intensity of such symptoms.
Although from a therapeutic perspective it is considered that this is precisely the mechanism by which psychedelic substances can be useful in psychotherapy, it must be clearly known that the experiences induced by mushrooms can be intense and involve difficult emotions challenging to navigate if one is going through a complicated time.
A good foundation and emotional stability, as well as good preparation, a thoughtful context, in the company of trustworthy people, and a willingness to dive into the experience, whatever may happen, are factors that can contribute to a pleasant and fruitful experience with mushrooms.