Across the globe, indigenous communities have used hallucinogenic substances to treat alcohol addiction for decades. And from the dawn of Western psychedelic research, scientists have long recognized this potential. Read below to explore psilocybin mushrooms for alcoholism, current research in this field, and legal treatment options.
The Burden of Alcoholism
Throughout the pandemic, with more people binge drinking, the Canadian government directly attributed an unexpected 7.6% increase in alcohol-related deaths to Covid-19. To date, statistics now reveal 5% of all deaths annually worldwide are a consequence of harmful alcohol use.
With detrimental effects on the health, social, and work lives of those affected, alcohol use disorder (AUD) marks a significant public health concern. Moreover, despite the multitude of existing therapies, including medications, counseling, and group support, recovery rates are seriously low, with less than half of patients recovering following a year of treatment.
For this reason, mental health researchers are actively trying to find more effective ways to treat AUD.
Psilocybin mushrooms for alcoholism could provide a solution.
Psychedelics and Alcohol Use Disorder
The late Humphrey Osmond, who famously coined the term “psychedelics” to describe hallucinogenic substances, was a major pioneer in psychedelic research.
Osmond’s primary interest lay in how psychedelic compounds, when given in carefully controlled conditions, could help cure substance-abuse disorders, and alcoholism in particular. Between 1954 and 1960, he treated nearly 2000 alcoholics with LSD, finding 40 to 45% of his patients ceased drinking entirely one year following treatment.
Despite the success of Osmond and other psychedelic researchers at the time, psychedelic research for addiction and other mental health conditions largely stopped following the 1970s’ war on drugs.
It wasn’t until 2014 that researchers began re-exploring the potential for psychedelic drugs in curing substance abuse, with a pilot study from Johns Hopkins University showing how doses of psilocybin could help people give up smoking.
Since then, contemporary research into psychedelics and addiction has seen several proof-of-concept pilot studies and clinical trials published.
For example, in 2019, Johns Hopkins researchers conducted an online survey investigating psychedelics and alcoholism, finding that after a psychedelic experience, 83% of participants had either ceased drinking or decreased alcohol consumption so much that they no longer met the alcohol use disorder criteria.
One year later, the team conducted a similar study investigating psychedelics and stimulants, cannabis, and opioid addiction. Their results demonstrated that participants qualifying for a substance abuse disorder decreased from 96% before psychedelic treatment to 27% after.
The Healing Powers of Psilocybin Mushrooms for Alcoholism
Although psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may have been used in healing for centuries, it’s only within the past decade this psychedelic substance has taken mental health treatment by storm.
In recent years, numerous clinical trials of psilocybin have found that the medicine has significant long-lasting outcomes for several psychological disorders, including:
One of the reasons researchers believe psilocybin is so helpful in therapy is because it increases cognitive flexibility: the ability to learn and more easily change thought and behavior patterns.
Underlying this flexibility is psilocybin’s interaction with 5-HT2A receptors, proteins that normally respond to the chemical messenger serotonin. By interacting with 5-HT2A, psilocybin increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule important for rewiring and growing new nerve cell connections.
You can learn more about what happens to your brain on psilocybin by checking out our neuroscience of psilocybin article here.
By increasing neural flexibility, psilocybin could be a particularly valuable tool for AUD, helping patients re-frame and change their unhealthy addictive habits and behaviors.
Moreover, when working with a psychotherapist, doses of psilocybin can help patients dive into the traumas underlying their addiction and gain new perspectives about why they might behave the way they do. By understanding the roots of their addiction, they may be encouraged to make changes in their personal social lives accordingly, improving their wellbeing and reducing the need to “escape” through alcohol abuse.
Demonstrating other mechanisms of psilocybin for AUD, an experiment from the University of Heidelberg, found alcohol-craving behaviors in rats could be explained by problems with the chemical messenger glutamate in the frontal lobes of their brain.
If the rats were given psilocybin, their glutamate function was restored, and there was a significant reduction in their alcohol relapse behaviors, suggesting psilocybin can repair neurological damage associated with alcoholism. However, there’s no human evidence to confirm these findings to date.
Psilocybin Therapy for Alcohol Addiction
Based on these logics and successes from early studies, a relatively new study from researchers at New York University (NYU) investigated whether psilocybin-assisted therapy was beneficial for alcohol dependence.
For the NYU study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, 93 participants, classed as heavy drinkers, were offered 12 weeks of psychotherapy sessions combined with either psilocybin or an antihistamine placebo control. The study was a randomized, double-blind trial, meaning the participants and their therapists didn’t know if they were receiving psilocybin or the placebo drug.
From before to after treatment, those given psilocybin-assisted therapy reduced their heavy drinking days by 83%, in comparison to the placebo group, which had a 51% reduction. Moreover, after eight months following their first dose of psilocybin, almost half of the participants from the psilocybin group had stopped drinking altogether.
Jon Kostas is one of these participants. Having developed a drinking problem at age 12, he had exhausted all options for sobriety. Nothing worked until he took psilocybin as part of the trial in 2015, and he hasn’t drunk alcohol since.
“I’m forever grateful and indebted, this saved my life,” he was quoted in an Associated Press release following the study.
There were various limitations to the trial. For example, it was difficult to keep the study blind, since it was apparent to patients in the placebo group they hadn’t taken psilocybin. Nevertheless, the results are promising for future psilocybin and alcohol research.
“Psilocybin administered in combination with psychotherapy was associated with robust and sustained decreases in drinking, which were greater than those observed following active placebo with psychotherapy,” wrote Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Center for Psychedelic Medicine and lead study author.
“These results provide support for further study of psilocybin-assisted treatment for adults with AUD.”