Get Ready for Medicinal Mushrooms
You’ve heard about medical marijuana. The pot plant’s therapeutic value is seldom questioned, except perhaps by those who profit more from its prohibition than legalization and regulation, and the occasional medical professional who insists the harms of the weed far out weigh the harms of prohibition. But is anyone really even listening to those Chicken Littles anymore? Even Trump and his AG Jeff Sessions garner a response of a deep sigh and an eye roll from a public curious on what they will do.
And with this mainstream recognition that the herb has more healing power than some politicians care to acknowledge, other, traditionally more frightening illicit plants are being noted for their therapeutic value, too.
Plants, or should I say, fungi, like psilocybin mushrooms are being turned to for medical purposes. The “magic” ' shroom is considered a Schedule I drug, the same federal class marijuana sits in, for it has no recognized medicinal value and “a high potential for abuse.” But tell that to the desperate, sick people who swear by its therapeutic value.
Yes, kind reader, we’re talking about medicinal mushrooms.
Magic Mushrooms and Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are an excruciating ailment for those who suffer from them. Patients describe the pain as “an icepick piercing your brain through your eyes.” The headaches come in cycles, sometimes multiple times a day, and an attack can last for up to 90 minutes. It’s debilitating to the point where those with the ailment cannot function normally in society, unable to work a steady job or care for loved ones when the headaches strike.
OxyContin, steroids, and even neuro-implants are often tried and are rarely effective. Oxygen therapy is known to be effective for some but Medicare and Medicaid won’t cover it. In the U.S., 350,000-400,000 people suffer with the disease. There is no known cure. Those who suffer from the excruciating disease are 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the national average.
So when all else fails, and the pain is excruciating, is it surprising that in cluster headache patient circles, a substance known to help is turned to, even though it’s illegal? Enter magic mushrooms.
Brian E. McGeeney, MD, MPH, MBA, is a Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. The bulk of his academic research and interest is in headaches.
“I’m a migrainer myself,” McGeeney says. “It’s given me insight. I don’t just practice it, I live it.”
Only a small percentage of cluster headache sufferers pursue mushrooms for self- treatment, he says, and those who do seek relief are doing so in desperation. McGeeney says that at the institutional and federal level, administrators ignore research. This coupled with a lack of NIH funding for cluster headache research leaves patients frustrated. “There’s a lot of bitterness in the community with the lack of help.”
McGeeney says part of the problem is that headache disorders tend to be dismissed by researchers. Traditionally, “headaches were thought to be a woman’s disorder,” he explains, although cluster headaches sufferers are more men than women. “Because we have little to no research, we have little to no treatment options.” Sometimes, he says, patients even resort to purchasing welding oxygen, because Medicare won’t pay for it.
“The issue specifically about hallucinogens,” says McGeeney, “is not magic.” There is a scientific reason the mushrooms work for sufferers.
Patients approach McGeeney about their use of alternative and potentially illegal therapies, like mushrooms, because it is known in their community that he won’t freak out. And he knows he’s protected by the First Amendment. While he doesn’t initiate the conversations, physicians are able “to counsel on the pros and cons of a therapy—even illegal therapy,” he says, although “Ninety percent of physicians will recoil and run away.” This, he says, means patients are frightened to mention it to their doctors. “Those who do pursue it, there’s a reluctance to talk about it with their physicians. Physicians can be cruel."
Psilocybin and Anxiety and Depression
George Greer, MD, is a psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Heffter Research Institute. HRI researches psychedelic drugs for new treatments. But they aren’t researching the ‘shrooms themselves. Rather, Greer says they are using a synthetic psilocybin, as the shroomies are too inconsistent in quality and dosage. And unlike the patients self-medicating with very low dosage, a synthetic psilocybin dose in one of his studies averages 25 milligrams for 145 pound person—a significant amount that will definitely be an experience.
“Most people have highly dramatic peak mystical experiences where they get out of consciousness with ego and personality and become a field of consciousness, independent of space and time, [and have a] sense of oneness with everything,” Greer says. “It’s hard to put into words what they are experiencing.”
But the experience, he says is important. “Having that experience statistically correlates with improvement in symptoms.”
Greer and HRI are particularly interested in psilocybin—especially as a tool for treating addictions to alcohol, smoking, and cocaine use. Preliminary studies have shown dramatic decreases in smoking and alcohol consumption in those treated with psilocybin.
They are also supporting research on the effects psilocybin on long-term meditators, and its effects on those with depression, and, separately, cluster headaches.
Thus far, the primary therapeutic indication for psilocybin has been in treatment of anxiety and depression in cancer patients. After just one psilocybin treatment, Greer says, patients experience lasting relief that can last for months.
The next step, he says, is for FDA approval of psilocybin for anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Greer estimates within five to 10 years, patients will be able to be treated with prescription psilocybin in a clinical environment.
“Some people have major problems with [psilocybin],” he says, explaining that those who suffer from manic episodes and schizophrenia shouldn’t use it. People can also recall a traumatic memory, so having a trained therapist there is critical. That’s why, he says, “We recommend against recreational use. We have to put safety first.”
For the cluster headache community, those who use the mushrooms, says McGeeney, “are ordinary folk, in no way interested in the recreational use. They treat at sub-hallucinogenic doses. It’s not taken daily, only during attack. And nothing works all the time. With psilocybin, there have been millions of patient exposures.”
McGeeney points out favorable media coverage recently of people microdosing for personal growth. “I think psychiatrists have totally missed the boat,” he says. “Instead they use medications with very limited benefits.”
He is optimistic, though, about psilocybin’s future being used for conditions such as end-of-life coping and anxiety. He adds, “you’ll see in the future more of an effort to see psilocybin used for medical purposes.”
“But not LSD,” he adds. “It’s so tarred with negative connotations.”