The Science and Healing Benefits of Psychedelics | Health | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Since she was a kid, visual artist and musician Emily Ritz has struggled with Lyme disease and juvenile arthritis, an autoimmune disease that has wreaked permanent havoc on her body. Both conditions are under control and arthritis medication keeps her functional, but self-care remains a full-time job. "I've tried everything—holistic treatments, diet changes, exercise with a physical therapist and personal trainer to gain back some strength," she says. "I was doing all this hard work and still having really bad days of inflammation and exhaustion," she says. "I was frustrated by that, and obviously you get depressed because it all adds up."

About two years ago, Ritz heard about microdosing, which involves taking small amounts of psychedelics for a therapeutic effect. "I had done psychedelics recreationally growing up and loved them," she says, "though I stopped tripping a long time ago because I felt like I had received all the messages I needed to download." Exponentially more subtle, microdosing is very different from tripping and generally acts like a mood enhancer; the idea is to take a miniscule dose every few days to experience its benefits. So Ritz filed it away in her mind as something she might try in the future. Psychedelics are illegal, making access tricky. Yet after finding a source for magic mushrooms last winter, she let a stash sit in her medicine cabinet for a couple of months. Come spring, it was calling to her.

"After embarking on some other big efforts to feel better, including a ketogenic diet, I felt like I had space to add this other element in," she says. "And honestly, from day one, it completely changed everything. I stopped having bad days, physically and mentally." Ritz had dreamed of hiking and swimming in the magical places near her home in Hudson but had been too exhausted for adventures like that. Until now. "The day after I started microdosing, I would hop out of bed in the morning early to go hike and swim. I felt so energized. I was living my fantasy." Ingesting a wee bit of mushrooms periodically also seems to help Ritz produce more of her art (featured in our August issue), lending her extra focus and inspiration. "It's the most powerful antidepressant and anti-inflammatory for me, and I think it could help so many people. It's amazing to me that a tiny bit of this fungus could give me such a leg up."

Journeying, with White Lab Coats

Interest in psychedelics is mushrooming these days, with research looking into use of the substances in a range of doses for a wide array of therapeutic applications—whether it's LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety, ayahuasca or ibogaine for drug addiction, or ketamine for treatment-resistant depression. The science of psychedelics is not new, as an initial wave of enthusiasm swelled after LSD's discovery in the 1940s. Yet after Timothy Leary's infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project went up in smoke in 1963, and after the criminalization of psilocybin mushrooms and LSD in 1968, hallucinogens exited the scientific arena and went underground. About a generation later, in the early 2000s, public interest surfaced again thanks to the resuscitative efforts of a small group of scientists, psychotherapists, and "psychonauts" like Dr. Stanislav Grof. Last year, science and food writer Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) shone a national spotlight on the topic with his bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

"We have more clinical trials happening now than at any time in history, even before psychedelics were criminalized," says Brad Burge, spokesperson for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the foremost US organization advocating for psychedelics' therapeutic use. "The key challenge for psychedelic research for the last 40 years has been the chilling effect of the stigma. Once people see that this is a legitimate area of research, and the research is really promising, that encourages a lot more people to get involved."

The research is promising, indeed. MAPS itself supports a wealth of studies involving psychoactive substances, including a clinical trial on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy that shows remarkable results in treating PTSD. In that trial, researchers found that MDMA (a methamphetamine commonly referred to as Molly and a purer form of ecstasy, which is generally cut with adulterants) is safe when combined with psychotherapy and, in most cases either drastically improves PTSD or—56 percent of the time—cures the patient completely of PTSD symptoms. "In combination with therapy, [MDMA] reduces fear, enhances therapeutic alliance, enhances trust and intimacy, and helps people talk very clearly about their memories," says Burge. "I've heard it said that if you could design a drug to treat PTSD, it might look a lot like MDMA." And patients need only take it two or three times, in a guided therapy session, to reap lasting benefits. The FDA designated MDMA a "breakthrough therapy" for PTSD in 2017, fast-tracking its approval. If all goes as planned, MDMA will be the first drug of its kind available for clinical use, which MAPS expects to happen in 2021.

Knowledge around psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms, is leaping forward too, alongside a push toward legalization of the substance by certain advocacy groups. Last year, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy status to a psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression in trials conducted by a London-based life sciences company. And two 2016 studies from Johns Hopkins University and NYU Langone Medical Center found that a single, large dose of psilocybin in a closely monitored session could substantially decrease depression, anxiety, and the fear of death in terminal cancer patients, while increasing a sense of "life meaning" and optimism. Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins has active trials exploring psilocybin as a treatment for smoking cessation.

Notably, psychedelics science has focused mainly on high doses rather than on microdoses—despite the growing popularity of microdosing mushrooms and LSD, which is largely a grassroots phenomenon. One popular use for microdosing is to enhance performance, whether it's athletic, creative, or cognitive performance, although none of these applications have been tested scientifically. "[Right now,] there's very little or maybe no completed research on microdosing for its specific beneficial effects," cautions Burge. "All we have are case reports. We also know that a lot of people are doing it—and that the headlines about microdosing have gotten way out in front of what we actually know about microdosing." Trials are starting, including a basic safety study by the Beckley Foundation in the UK to see if small doses of acid can improve things like problem solving and creativity in healthy patients. (An LSD microdose is about 10 micrograms, roughly one-tenth of a typical recreational dose, taken once every four days or so.) Yet before running out to try Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for your self-improvement project du jour, it's best to stay tuned and wait for the science to catch up with the hype.

Laboratory of the Mind

The psychedelics community is certainly tuning in to the science, but not everyone is waiting for legalization, or even a prescription, to get started. Brandon Richards, a counselor and life coach based in New Paltz who works as a "sitter" for people undertaking psychedelic tripping and as a guide for microdosing, says, "When we know that something works, we do it. We do it as safely and as ethically as we can." Richards (not his real name) recently sat with a woman doing MDMA-assisted therapy, following a protocol laid out by MAPS. "This woman has been haunted by physical and emotional abuse by each of her parents, and it's made her life almost undoable. She's been in therapy for years and does yoga and prayer and journaling—all the right things. But the MDMA is the only thing that gave her the courage and the clarity to speak from a perspective that lifted the burden of what happened to her." Self-medicating with psychedelics is risky business, and Richards notes that his client is working closely with professionals throughout her treatment journey.

"It was an intentional shift as a result of doing a lot of work around my beliefs and values," he says. It was, in short, a new understanding of his life's purpose.

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Of course, interest in psychedelics doesn't just apply to people struggling with a mental health issue or physical illness. Plenty of regular folks are turning to hallucinogens as a route to personal growth and mind expansion. Jake Singer (a pseudonym) first explored psychedelics about five years ago with his partner at the time and had a "very profound experience." Setting out to understand what happened, he discovered the work of James Fadiman, psychologist and author of The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Singer followed Fadiman's protocols and embarked on a program of microdosing mushrooms (one day on, two days off) for four months to see how it might benefit him. He noticed two impacts right away, including a change in the way he perceived light ("everything had more depth to it") and "a much better sense of empathy for the people I interacted with, whether it was coworkers, my partner, or people I would meet," he says. But the impacts did not end there. He also gained deeper clarity about what he valued and a new ability to turn "vague notions" into concrete actions. Within a year of his foray into microdosing, Singer had uprooted his old life—leaving an education-technology job in New York City and moving upstate to start a career in agriculture technology. "It was an intentional shift as a result of doing a lot of work around my beliefs and values," he says. It was, in short, a new understanding of his life's purpose.

Psychedelics, perhaps, have a unique power to shake us loose from habitual thinking patterns, making seismic shifts possible. "Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we're confronted with a new task or situation," observes Michael Pollan in How to Change Your Mind. "Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner.... One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences...[immerse] us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful—wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself." Pollan wrote about full-dose psychoactive experiences—not microdosing—as he set out to follow in the footsteps of current science. As we learn more about microdosing, we might find that it, too, gives us the power to break away from sleepy old patterns and wake up to new possibilities.

A Roadmap for Exploring with Intention

It's easy to get swept away by a starry-eyed vision of psychedelics and human potential—although Pollan, ever the practical thinker, espouses a cautious approach. Embarking on a full-dose psychoactive experience is best done under the guidance of a sitter who will faithfully adhere to safety measures and other protective guidelines. In his own sitter work, Brandon Richards says that having an intention—a clear sense of what you want to get out of it—is very important when you're about to trip with psychedelics. "Without an intention, it's like hitchhiking: it can go well or it might not. It can be dangerous though it's usually not, and it's often uneventful unless you direct it in some way." Equally important is having a positive "set and setting"—a phrase coined by Timothy Leary to describe a bulwark for your experience via your mindset (shortened to "set") and physical and social environment (the "setting").

"But a so-called 'bad trip' teaches you more than a fun-filled fantasy adventure ride where you see colors and shapes, because you're facing fear."

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Finally, dose makes a big difference. Microdosing mushrooms, the mildest experience, involves a miniscule dose of .1 to .2 grams and "is very beautiful, creative, and expansive," according to Richards. Between half a gram and a gram is elevating and energizing; it can raise the libido, fuel creative pursuits, or even help you create a plan for yourself. When you get to a gram, "The visuals kick in, so you don't want to be doing anything that requires any responsibility," he advises. And one to three grams is full-on journeying. "You're going to another dimension where the room can disappear. I've had the awareness that there's something brilliantly useful for me in this playground, in this laboratory," he says. "It's a place to go and bring something back." It's not always comfortable, but that's not necessarily a reason to shy away. "A lot of people are afraid of a bad trip," Richards notes. "But a so-called 'bad trip' teaches you more than a fun-filled fantasy adventure ride where you see colors and shapes, because you're facing fear." Some people describe experiencing a "dissolution of the ego" that can feel unstable or heart-opening, depending on how you look at it. A sitter can gently steer you back to a place of confidence and comfort so you can freely explore.

Still, there are risks. Tripping is not recommended for those with a personal history or family history of psychosis. Certain prescription drugs interact poorly or even dangerously with psychedelics. Dependency is rarely an issue with larger doses, because a full trip is too intense to be habit-forming. Yet when microdosing, people with addictive tendencies might need to check themselves against craving that luminous, supercharged feeling every day. In fact, microdosing doesn't work unless you take days off—otherwise you build up a tolerance for it. Emily Ritz learned this the hard way. "I was so excited about the effects that I took it every day at first," she says. "I was like, 'I need this.' It was fine for a week or two, and then I wasn't feeling the effects anymore." Experienced mushroom microdosers recommend taking it every three days or so, though more research is needed into what constitutes the safest and most effective rhythm.

A Peek into the Mystical

For many psychedelic journeyers—whether they do an ayahuasca ceremony every three to four months, or embark on an annual mushroom trip as a mental health tune-up—it's about transcendence and experiencing the numinous. Such pursuits are therapeutic too, affecting our sense of wellbeing, purpose, and connectedness to the world. One participant in the Johns Hopkins' psilocybin trial for cancer patients described feeling "bathed in God's love," even though she was a staunch atheist.

"Psychedelics give you the direct experience of seeing that everything is made of the same energy," says Aaron Dias, a Kingston-based meditation coach and yoga teacher who is studying shamanism. "Meditation does it too, though it's a slower process. You can read spiritual books all day that say, 'We're all one energy.' But some part of me doesn't believe it until I see it. Psychedelics wake you up. They show you that you have direct access to all of it, and you don't need to have it mediated by anybody else."

Recognizing this potential, Dias adds that it's essential not to belittle the experience by saying, 'Oh, it's drugs.' Such thinking reflects the kind of stigma that needs to dissolve if we want to absorb the teachings that psychedelics bring. "That's why I call it medicine," she says. "In shamanic circles, you don't use the word drug, because right away it starts to separate you from the profundity of the experience. We have to treat [psychedelics] like they're our teachers. They're our guru. And so you treat them with great respect. Humans have been engaging with all sorts of psychotropics all over the world for a very long time. They're some of the most powerful tools we have for self-realization, healing, and empowerment. I think it's great that people are starting to get hip to that in the mainstream."

Ritz agrees that psychedelics, used cautiously, can help initiate a shift in consciousness that's deeply needed in our world today—even just through the subtle effects of microdosing magic mushrooms. "Maybe if everybody were microdosing, we could fix the climate crisis," she muses. Yet it could be a long and bumpy road toward psilocybin's legalization, if it happens at all. In the meantime, Ritz is grateful to have access to her self-administered therapy, even if it is untested. She regards it as natural medicine, and for her, it works. "It opens my heart and it opens my mind," she says. "It makes me feel more connected."

About The Author

Wendy Kagan

Wendy Kagan lives and writes in a converted barn at the foot of Overlook Mountain in the Catskills. She served as Chronogram's health and wellness editor from 2011 to 2022.
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