You’ve likely heard that psychedelics can improve your mental health. For example, psilocybin — the natural chemical found in magic mushrooms — is highly effective in treating depression, according to a recent study published in Nature Medicine. But do psychedelics offer any benefits for our physical health?

Dr. Geoff Bathje, Ph.D., a psychologist, and professor at Adler University, tells The Beet, “The physical health benefits of psychedelics are relatively less studied than the mental health benefits. Still, there are indications that psilocybin-containing mushrooms and other psychedelics have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect on the body.” This is good news, considering inflammation is associated with various chronic diseases and autoimmune conditions.

Besides improving symptoms of depression and other mental disorders, psychedelics can help with physical brain health. Dr. Bathje explains, “Psychedelics (like psilocybin) can promote neurogenesis — the growth and development of nervous tissue. This can be helpful for migraines, cluster headaches, Alzheimer’s disease, and recovery from traumatic brain injury.”

Psychedelics may also serve a valuable role in general health care. For example, “Ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, is used to “disconnect a person’s awareness of physical pain for surgical procedures," says Dr. Michael McGrath, MD, of The ‘Ohana Addiction Treatment Center. New research is also being done on psychedelics in end-of-life or hospice care to help a dying person deal with the pain and suffering of a terminal disease.”

Can psychedelics help with mental health?

Anxiety and depression — two of the most common mental health conditions — have become increasingly prevalent among Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, says research published in Psychology & Health. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults each year, with one-half of those also suffering from depression. Fortunately, instead of relying on prescription medications to alleviate symptoms, a 2019 meta-study reviewed a growing body of research indicating that careful use of psychedelics in controlled settings can yield various mental health benefits.

According to the meta-study, psychedelics — such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, DMT, and LSD — have been found to modulate neuroplasticity, especially after trauma. Translation: They can help the brain recover after a traumatic injury by forming new synaptic connections.

“Psilocybin-containing mushrooms are currently being researched, in combination with psychotherapy, to treat depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction. The results so far are promising, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may approve them for one or more of these purposes as soon as 2024,” states Dr. Bathje. “Other psychedelics are being researched with positive results for treating PTSD, eating disorders, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.”

Psilocybin in particular seems to have the most significant impact on mental health. In one of the studies from the meta-analysis, 94 percent of participants stated their overall well-being and life satisfaction increased significantly after their psilocybin experience. As for LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT, the analysis determined they were all beneficial (in varying degrees) in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression while increasing measures of well-being and mindfulness long term.

According to Dr. Bathje, this suggests that psychedelics address the root causes of multiple mental health issues. He explains, “Psychedelics effectively disrupt patterns of thought, emotion, defenses, and behaviors. When they’re taken in a supportive, therapeutic context, it’s possible to integrate those temporary changes into long-lasting changes.”

Are psychedelics safe?

Psychedelics are some of the safest drugs when taken in a controlled environment, (e.g., psilocybin-assisted therapy in a clinician’s office). A 2022 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology demonstrated that the medical risks of psychedelics are minimal. In addition, the researchers concluded that most commonly held negative perceptions of psychological risks associated with psychedelics are unsupported and that adverse effects have not been observed in any medical context. However, psychedelics can interact with other drugs and have adverse effects (like prolonged anxiety or psychosis), so always speak with your healthcare provider before undergoing therapy.

Dr. McGrath warns, “Any psychoactive substance has risks. The relative risks of psychedelics are low, but anyone considering using them should know their individual risk profile. The risk of adverse outcomes, such as sustained anxiety or psychosis, is increased by a personal or family history of certain mental health and substance use disorders. These factors should be assessed by a professional with experience in psychiatry and addiction medicine.” He adds, “The psychological and environmental conditions one uses a psychedelic have also been shown to influence the safety of the experience.”

Should you consume psychedelics?

“Some people microdose small amounts of psilocybin by consuming about 0.1 grams of “magic mushrooms” up to three days per week,” says Dr. Bathje. However, there are concerns that frequent microdosing can pose cardiac risks because of serotonin receptors in the heart which psilocybin can bind to and potentially cause heart valve issues.

Treating depression with a plant-based diet

Ultimately, the research on psychedelics' optimal frequency and dosage are inconclusive. Dr. McGrath explains, “There’s no medical consensus yet on the appropriate dosing of psychedelics.” So until further research is done on the benefits of psychedelics for mental and physical health, the best strategy you can do for your overall health is to adopt a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet.

A new study published in March 2022 provides clear evidence that the most effective and sustainable action we can take to boost our long-term physical and mental health is to eat a WFPB diet. The study’s authors recommend psychiatrists embrace this critical shift in our understanding of diet to include WFPB dietary advice when caring for patients.

Bottom Line: Studies Show Psychedelics Work for Depression

The latest research is promising for future treatments of mental health with psychedelics, but until further studies can be done the safest and easiest way to boost your brain health and mood is with a whole-food, plant-based diet – and always consult your medical provider if you believe you need clinical treatment for any mental health issues.

For more great expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles. 

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