TREND: MUSHROOMS EMERGE FROM UNDERGROUND
From more magic mushroom research, microdosing and retreats—to a profusion of superpower mushrooms infused in foods, drinks and beauty products
The 2017 Global Wellness Summit kicked off with a serious dose of…mushrooms.
Award-winning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg’s opening talk sneak-previewed his extraordinary new film on the unappreciated power of mushrooms: from their crucial role in Earth’s ecosystem to the mounting medical evidence that they’re uniquely effective human medicine. Largely hidden from our eyes (mushrooms only come to the surface to “fruit,” i.e., spread their spores), the kingdom of fungi—neither vegetable or animal but somewhere in between—is actually the largest set of organisms on the planet. A vast underground network (like the “Internet” of nature), mushrooms are Earth’s main decomposers, and their constant “munching” makes possible soil—and all plant, animal and human life. And while most Westerners only toss a few white button mushrooms into their spaghetti sauce (unlike Asian cultures that embrace so many mushrooms as food and medicine), Schwartzberg detailed the surging medical evidence for so many mushroom breeds: from lion’s mane’s ability to regrow nerve cells and prevent dementia to strong evidence that turkey tail mushrooms help our immune system fight cancer.
Schwartzberg also analyzed the ancient history, and eye-opening new clinical evidence, for that most “underground” variety of all: psychedelic magic shrooms, those 200 species containing psilocybin that alter the mind by forging new neural pathways in the brain. For thousands of years, magic mushrooms were used in cultures worldwide: from the Ancient Greeks (yes, Plato and Socrates) to the Aztecs. And, in the 1960s, leading medical institutions like Harvard undertook studies indicating magic mushrooms’ serious promise for things like depression and addiction. All of which came to a crashing, counterculture-fearing halt when many countries, like France (1966), the US (1970), and the UK (2005), made them (and other psychedelics) highly illegal drugs, putting the kibosh on this important research for decades.
Well, now the research is again on fire, with dozens of studies coming out of top universities like Imperial College-London, NYU, UCLA, the University of Zurich, and Johns Hopkins (with its dedicated Psilocybin Research institute) on magic mushrooms’ too-powerful-to-be-ignored impact on everything from nicotine and alcohol addiction, PTSD, headaches, OCD—and especially depression and anxiety…often with a single dose, and with the positive effects lasting months. As Roland Griffiths, PhD, one of the top US psychopharmacologists and lead psilocybin investigator at Johns Hopkins, put it, “It’s a Rip Van Winkle effect—after three decades of no research, we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes.” Important research is just ahead: Compass Pathways (with high-profile investors like Peter Thiel, Mike Novogratz and Christian Angermayer) is about to start major clinical trials testing magic mushrooms’ impact on depression in eight European countries in early 2018—the largest clinical trial of psilocybin ever. Nonprofit Usona is also in the development stages for new studies on psilocybin’s impact on depression and anxiety.
So, if Louie Schwartzberg’s opening presentation at the Summit on the unique “magic” that mushrooms deliver to our brains and bodies may have at first seemed far out, it’s anything but.
Because the rediscovery and creative uses of mushrooms—in mental wellness, as true superfoods, and in beauty products (and more)—will be a top wellness trend in 2018 and beyond. “Brain resetting” magic mushrooms will start to emerge from underground: More people will microdose them as creativity and brain boosters (a Silicon Valley “start-up” practice now spreading around the world). And, yes, magic mushroom retreats (like MycoMeditations) will keep popping up in places where legal (whether Jamaica or the Netherlands), where the “trip” gets combined with increasingly luxe wellness experiences. And we’ll see movement on the legalization front, making this magic mushroom moment reminiscent of the early days of the cannabis-as-wellness trend.
And as medical evidence also ramps up showing that non-magic mushrooms are magical for human health (with adaptogenic, anti-aging and other powers), we’ll see a new world of mushrooms like reishi, chaga, lion’s mane and cordyceps get worked into so many more foods and drinks, from coffee to chocolate—as well as a growing profusion of shrooms in beauty products. And on both the psychedelic and non-psychedelic fronts, it’s a trend driven by new medical studies…how welcome in an era with so much “evidence-free” wellness.
FUELING THE MAGIC MUSHROOMS TREND
More Medical Evidence – Psilocybin “Resets” the Brain
Johns Hopkins, University College (London) and NYU are the leaders now researching the wide-ranging effect of psilocybin, and a raft of studies show its positive impact on alcohol and nicotine addiction, OCD, depression, anxiety, and as powerful treatment for those facing end of life. What these conditions have in common, researchers argue, is that brain circuitry may have become “stamped in,” and what they’re finding is that a single dose of magic mushrooms seems to uniquely reset the brain…and not just during a trip but for months. Using brain-scanning tools (like fMRI) they’re discovering what happens to the brain on psilocybin. First, parts of the brain that are typically hyperactive (the ego or “orchestrating centers” that, say, make you worry) shut down. At the same time, other brain regions that normally don’t communicate suddenly strike up conversations, eliciting new emotions, memories, wishes, etc.—essentially returning us to the state of a child (or long-term meditator). Which is why people report such a sense of connection with the world and other people and a new ability to see the “big picture.” And psychedelics knock down old brain patterns and jumpstart new ones by acting on the too-little-studied serotonin 2A receptor (while commonly prescribed SSRIs only activate the serotonin 1A receptor).
As lead researcher Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College put it, magic mushrooms essentially “shake the snow globe” and benefit people that suffer from disorders involving excessively rigid patterns of thinking—as well as unlocking creativity.
This Mechanism Underpins Why Studies Have Been So Exciting for:
Depression: A headline-grabbing 2017 Imperial College study revealed clear changes in brain activity and significantly reduced symptoms for treatment-resistant depressives lasting weeks after a single dosage. The findings proved so exciting that the researchers are undertaking more robust studies testing psilocybin against a leading antidepressant in 2018.
End-of-Life Distress: Many psilocybin studies focus on patients with a terminal cancer diagnosis to measure impact on end-of-life anxiety. The results: powerful. In NYU/Johns Hopkins studies, 80% of cancer patients showed dramatic reductions in anxiety sustained seven months after a dose. Two-thirds of participants rated the magic mushroom experience as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it #1. As Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins put it, “I don’t want to say mind-blowing…but to a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
Addiction: Studies reveal brain-resetting psilocybin’s impact on various addictions. One small study showed that after two psilocybin treatments, 80% of long-term heavy smokers had still quit six months later, while another indicated that a couple of mushroom doses had a significant effect on reducing drinking at eight months for the alcohol-dependent.
Deepening Spiritual Life: Because mystical experiences are at the heart of most religions (Moses saw that burning bush…), NYU and Johns Hopkins are now studying clergy to investigate the neurobiology of both mushroom and religious experiences. And while the study isn’t yet published, the researchers report very similar brain states with a psilocybin dose and what religious leaders have experienced at meditation retreats.
Improving Personality: While research has long indicated that after age 30 your personality is pretty much a done deal, studies show that a single psilocybin dose has a positive, maybe even permanent, effect on people’s personalities: making them more open-hearted, creative and curious.
This new evidence is so unexpected that a year ago, nearly the entire issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology was devoted to the impact of magic mushrooms (14 studies). Because many studies are small (true for most wellness studies that aren’t funded by the deep pockets of Big Pharma), the familiar chant is “more, larger, high-quality studies are needed.” Agreed. But as Professor Craig Blinderman of Columbia University noted in his commentary in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “If these findings are confirmed in large randomized controlled studies…the classification of psilocybin as a Schedule 1 drug should be challenged, for this would represent a treatment unlike anything in psychiatry: a rapid, sustained reduction in depression and anxiety with a single dose of a psychoactive compound.” Professors at Ivy League universities don’t often fling these kinds of statements around. The pace of research is seriously quickening in 2018, and it’s the research that will determine whether laws banning their use—and consumer attitudes—get a reset.
Safest Recreational Drug
The 2017 Global Drug Survey (examining data from over 50 countries) concluded that magic mushrooms are the safest recreational drug in the world: dramatically less likely to require post-usage medical treatment than alcohol, LSD, cocaine or opioids like OxyContin. Studies also show that there are no significant abuse concerns: they’re non-addictive and non-toxic to the body’s organs. And while psilocybin’s effects are similar to LSD, it’s less strong and long lasting and doesn’t carry the negative cultural baggage. And crucial to many wellness consumers: They’re natural, rather than concocted in a lab. However, very few would argue that this should be seen as a license to “try a pile of shrooms at home” as the positive effects in clinical trials have much to do with correct dosage, setting and supervision.
Movement on Legal Front
The legal status of magic mushrooms varies complexly worldwide. The UN categorizes them as Schedule 1 drugs, so most countries regulate or prohibit them—but with much selective enforcement. However, they’re legal in countries like Spain, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Austria; and while technically illegal in the Netherlands, a loophole means the sale of “magic truffles” is rampant. Some interesting legalization action is now underway: a measure to decriminalize them in California has cleared the first hurdle for the ballot in 2018, and there is a push to put them on the Oregon ballot in 2020 (for use in organized clinics, not at home). We know that with cannabis legalization where California went, so went much of the US. And when you wrap your mind around how fast and radically laws and attitudes toward cannabis have recently changed, you can see how a safe, evidence-backed psychoactive like magic mushrooms might soon see a similar legal and mindset shift.
EXAMPLES OF TREND
Microdosing: Straight Outta Silicon Valley
Microdosing psilocybin (and other psychedelics) means taking very small amounts (maybe 1/10th of a dose) every few days over several months. It doesn’t cause a consciousness-altering trip but is designed to be large enough to affect thinking, creativity, problem-solving, connection to others, and anxiety. It’s all about cognitive enhancement—a biohacking of the brain—so it’s no surprise it was pioneered among Silicon Valley professionals, whether engineers or artists. Popularized by Ayelet Waldman’s 2017 book A Really Good Day, microdosing is now spreading around the world, attracting white-collar professional experimenters far beyond some “druggie” fringe.
YouTube tutorials and Reddit groups on how to microdose mushrooms are spawning. Tech entrepreneur, Paul Austin, a professional microdosing coach, offers Skype consulting sessions and an online course through his website The Third Wave—and is building a Microdosing App that will track people’s progress and experiences. And if no formal studies have analyzed the science behind microdosing, that will change in 2018 as UK-based nonprofit the Beckley Foundation undertakes the first research.
A New Kind of Wellness “Trip” – Magic Mushroom Retreats
It’s striking that when a psychiatrist like Julie Holland imagines the future of psychedelic experiences, she envisions a place that’s “a cross between a spa/retreat and a gym…where they can be experienced in a safe, supportive environment.” And it’s a fitting model: an expert-led, sensory-focused retreat where a psychedelic “trip” happens within a wellness trip (as psilocybin, unlike cannabis, is hardly an everyday drug). We’ve had ayahuasca retreats in South America for years (and the media had delighted in chronicling these spiritual journeys favored by the hip and famous). But now all-inclusive magic mushroom retreats in countries where psilocybin is legal (like Jamaica, Costa Rica and Holland) are on the march and quickly getting more luxe.
MycoMeditations is a pioneer with weeklong retreats on a private Jamaican bay, with airport pickup, lovely food, guided hikes and massages, and evening by-the-fire-and-ocean group mushroom sessions. Last month MycoMeditations’ founder and comedian Shane Mauss teamed up for a luxury mushroom retreat on the island. The exclusive Alquimia Centre of Healing Arts in the Colombian jungle (that accepts guests who receive one of their much-sought internships) serves up serious education on Amazonian medicine and enlightenment through expert-led natural psychedelic experiences like magic mushrooms. Paul Austin’s The Third Wave has begun full-blown magic mushroom retreats in Costa Rica, the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica and the Netherlands. Sites like OpenMindTrips.com aggregate psychedelic and mushroom retreats worldwide, and while there are far more heavier-dose ayahuasca retreats now, mushroom retreats are popping up everywhere from Ibiza to Bali. It’s not “high” on every traveler’s bucket list, but in an age where “the trippier, the better” rules in wellness travel (we seek everything from shamans to crystal healing) mushroom retreat offerings will only evolve and expand.
A shift in mindset about magic mushrooms (and other natural psychedelics like ayahuasca) is underway. After decades of demonization that shut down medical research, studies just keep appearing that magic mushrooms may prove better than existing treatment for depression, anxiety and addiction—as well as having powers to improve creativity and personality. More, bigger, better-funded global studies are coming in 2018, and it’s the research that’s spurring the new conversations about why they’re classified as illegal Schedule 1 drugs in the first place. Concrete action is being taken, like pushes to get measures legalizing them on the ballot in California and Oregon. No, they won’t be legalized in the US or most European countries this year (that happens when phase 3 clinical trials are completed and the drug is approved by the FDA and European Medicines Agency). And one issue to note: Because there’s not a lot of crazy profit to be made (since psilocybin treatment is not addicting, very occasional, and results last months), it will be harder to get cha-ching-seeking Big Pharma behind development. But top researchers like Imperial College’s Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris predict that psilocybin “could become legal medicine within the next five years.”
As the microdosing trend among creative professionals (from San Francisco to Sweden) shows, wellness seekers often take matters into their own hands. The drugs people most seek always say so much about our current culture: With so much anxiety, depression and digital overload, people desperately seek a “brain reset,” whether with shamans or sound baths. And the medical evidence indicates an actual brain reset is precisely what magic mushrooms deliver. Magic mushroom retreats, in nations where legal, will continue to pop up and weave in more “luxury wellness.” When you think about it, while professional/clinical guidance is key, the perfect-fit environment is not a cold, scary hospital but a type of spa/wellness retreat—where caring, professional support; immersion in nature; and safety, comfort and sensory exploration is already the brand.
While a very different psychoactive experience and smaller potential market, the magic mushroom trend now bears some resemblance to the early days of the now-raging cannabis-as-wellness trend. Who would have thunk even three years ago that there would now be glossy magazines devoted to the luxury “cannabis lifestyle” or that a fancy hotel like The Standard Hollywood would be putting a high-end cannabis boutique smack dab in the lobby? We’ve seen how legislation, and minds, can change lightning fast. And movement on the magic mushroom front is really quickening. Scientists at Sussex University have just created a drug-free virtual reality machine that simulates the experience of taking magic mushrooms (to understand altered states of consciousness), while a lead Johns Hopkins scientist has just released the best (science-based) playlist (think Bach, Vivaldi and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”…) for a mushroom trip.
Forecasting the Future
- It is the medical research (not hype) that will likely see psilocybin reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug or legalized for regulated use in more states/countries. And the findings keep rolling in. One recent NYU study indicated that one dose of magic mushrooms reduced anxiety and depression in cancer patients (and for years). A new study from Johns Hopkins sheds light on why people have been consuming psilocybin for millennia and why it differs from other hallucinogens, involving increased psychological insight; awareness of beauty; and feelings of empathy, inner peace and amazement.
- Given the legal cannabis and CBD market’s recent explosion, investment corners love to exclaim that psilocybin is an even bigger market opportunity. The future will be less simplistic analogizing. Psilocybin is hardly a daily recreational drug: It may be transformative, but it’s intense, which is why it has an extremely low potential for abuse. And most legalization will be focused on medical/psychiatric applications and environments.
- Researchers are now studying what best impacts treatment success: dosage, how many sessions/when, and what kind of therapy/support is best during and between sessions. Medical experts argue that the right model is psilocybin-supported psychotherapy. While professional, clinical oversight is key, environments for delivery may move beyond the hospital, and one can imagine that more people would seek a medical-wellness environment/destination, where immersion in nature, sensory experiences and warm support are the brand.
This is an excerpt from the “Mushroom Emerge from Underground” trend in the 2018 Global Wellness Trends Report.