Psilocybin & Psilocin

Psilocybin and psilocin are the psychoactive compounds in some hallucinogenic mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms. Despite being illegal in the largest part of the world, there are many different kinds of popular mushrooms, such as the Psilocybe Cubensis and the Psilocybe Mexicana. This popularity is partly due to the easy accessibility, for instance by growing one’s own mushrooms from spores. In many countries experienced foragers also gather psychedelic mushrooms in the wild, though this carries a risk of misidentification and potential – sometimes lethal – poisoning.

While magic mushrooms are occasionally used in ceremonies it’s a psychedelic that’s also very popular with solo psychonauts. In recent years the scientific community also pays more and more attention to the use of psilocybin and psilocin for therapeutic purposes, including the treatment of depression as well as cluster headaches.

History

With psilocybin and psilocin being commonly found in over 180 species of mushrooms it’s hard to say when people first discovered the magic of fungi. Some claim the use of magic mushrooms can be traced back to as far as thousands years ago in Northern Africa, Southern Europe and Central America. These ideas largely rely on archeological evidence, such as sculptures and murals. However, it’s highly debated whether or not the objects depicted in these artefacts are actually mushrooms.

In his book ‘Food of the Gods’ Terence McKenna argues magic mushrooms might have been instrumental in radically influencing how humans have developed so differently from other mammals. While not impossible, this theory too lacks evidence.

More recently, magic mushrooms were introduced in the West in 1957 through the photographic essay ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ in Life Magazine by Robert Gordon Wasson. In this article Wasson shared his experience with psilocybin mushrooms in a Mazatec ceremony in Mexico. From that moment on, magic mushrooms have gained popularity in the United States until in the 70’s a ban on psilocybin was enforced.

In recent years psychedelics, and psilocybin amongst them, have experienced a renaissance and several countries have reviewed their laws. As a result magic mushrooms are decriminalized in for instance Portugal (Europe). In May 2019 Denver, Colorado (USA) will vote on decriminalization as well. And while magic mushrooms are illegal in the Netherlands, magic truffles, which also have psilocybin and psilocin as the effective compound, remain legal.

Where to find psychedelic mushrooms?

Both psilocybin and psilocin psychoactive compounds of magic mushrooms and magic truffles. But what are magic mushrooms and truffles exactly? To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at mycology (the science behind mushrooms), more specifically the way mushrooms grow.

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungus. So what does that mean? Imagine an apple tree. The tree is the actual plant at it will produce apples for procreation purposes. With fungi it’s quite similar: there’s the actual ‘plant’, the mycellium. This is an underground network that can span vast distances: thousands of kilometers even. Mushrooms are the ‘apple’ a fungus creates to procreate and it’s the part of the fungus we actually see above the ground and the part we consume in psychoactive mushrooms.

However, with some psychoactive fungi types there is also a different part that can be consumed: the sclerotiae. These are hardened parts of the mycellium that contain food reserves. Because of their appearance and the fact they are found underground, they are usually known as magic truffles.

In some countries psilocybin mushrooms grow in the wild and rather than buying (or growing) some people choose foraging. Unfortunately it can be tricky to correctly identify the right mushrooms and small differences can lead to big issues, resulting in (occasionally fatal) poisoning. There is a saying: “all mushrooms are edible, but some are only edible once”. If you consider foraging make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.

As an alternative many people choose to grow their own mushrooms. Resources on ways to do this can be found all over the internet. Growing mushrooms takes patience, but is relatively cheap, especially if you consume them on a regular basis. You can either grow mushrooms from scratch or – in some countries – buy a growthkit. Be aware that in many countries – even countries that sell growthkits, such as The Netherlands – growing psychoactive mushrooms is illegal.

Pharmacology of psilocybin and psilocin

As mentioned above psychedelic mushrooms consist out of two psychoactive compounds: psilocybin and psilocin. When you consume mushrooms orally, most of the psilocybin is broken down into psilocin and so that’s the substance that eventually causes the psychedelic trip (however, researchers have found that when psilocybin bypasses the digestive tract it also causes a psychedelic experience).

Once the compound is in your system, it eventually bypasses the blood-brain barrier and attaches to several different receptors in your brain. While the entire process is complex and only partly studied, it’s safe to say the compounds act as agonists on the serotonin-5HT2a-receptor, a receptor with many functions, including neuronal excitation, memory and learning. The agonist-role means psilocybin and psilocin activate the receptor to produce a response.

The half-life of psilocybin is around 163 minutes, meaning it will take approximately 2,5 hours for half of it to clear out of your system, with less than 15 hours to have everything cleared. However, an average trip lasts much shorter, which can be explained by the fact that the psilocybin is turned into psilocin. Psilocin only has a half-life of less than an hour and is cleared out of your system in less than 5 hours.

There are different substances that may interact with psilocybin/psilocin in your body and will lead to a different trip experience. Two substances worth noting are SSRI-inhibitors (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and MAO-inhibitors (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), both used as anti-depressant.  Certain other foods and supplements also have effects on your nervous system that might interact with psilocybin and psilocin. For instance, the herb / supplement St. John’s Wort acts as a mild MAO inhibitor. Research on how drugs and supplements in combination with magic mushrooms and/or truffles might affect your health is still limited, but generally the advice is to do extensive research (or consult a professional) instead of using yourself as a guinea pig.

Psilocybin mushrooms are not addictive. However, once they are consumed, a tolerance is built, meaning you’d have to use more to achieve the same effect again. The tolerance is gone after about  a week.

Effects

Once the magic mushrooms or truffles are consumed, it usually takes 30 to  90 minutes for the trip to start. Depending on the dosage of mushrooms you may experience any or all of the following:

  • Enhanced senses, like becoming more sensitive to sounds, lights and smells.
  • Loss of hunger.
  • Hallucinations, including fractals and patterns, especially when looking at objects with a lot of detail, such as textured walls or trees, ranging to visions of a fully different reality.
  • Increased creativity and understanding (ability to connect the dots in your mind).
  • Feelings of love and unity, connection with the universe and those surrounding you.

On the other hand, you may also experience some of the negative side-effects. On a physical level, the best known side effect is light nausea (eating a dry cracker may help you overcome this). On a mental level you may experience paranoia, anxiety and fear and even lose touch with reality. The right set and setting and responsible use will go a long way in lowering the risk to a bad experience.

On average the trip will last around 5 hours, though the experiences may leave you disoriented for a long time after the trip.

Consumption of magic mushrooms

Unlike ayahuasca and mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms and truffles are often used outside of a ceremonial context (though you can easily find reports of ceremonial use as well, especially in countries like Mexico). A possible reason is the easy accessibility: it’s relatively easy to get your own mushrooms, so people feel les sneed to rely on a shaman for providing the mushrooms.

When deciding on the right dosage of mushrooms or truffles, you should ask yourself a couple of things:

  1. What kind of trip do you want? When microdosing, you’ll usually stick to around a tenth of a regular (mild) trip. With a regular or heavy trip, your doses are higher.
  2. Are you using magic mushrooms or truffles? With truffles, common dosages for a regular trip are between 5 and 15 grams.
  3. If you’re using mushrooms, what kind of mushrooms are you using? Some kinds are much stronger than others.
  4. Are you consuming fresh or dried mushrooms? For most mushrooms, you’ll need 10x as many grams when eating the mushrooms fresh. For instance, a mild trip with Psilocybe Cubensis will start around 10 fresh grams or 1 dried gram.

Many people do not particularly enjoy the taste of mushrooms and truffles. Luckily, you can easily mask it by grinding the mushrooms and mixing them  with foods, like apple sauce, a cold tomato soup or yoghurt. A different, though somewhat more complicated, option is to create mushroom chocolates.

Safety

Mushrooms are considered relatively safe psychedelics. The expected toxicity based on animal research is somewhere around 17kg of fresh mushrooms, not a dosage anyone would consume, and all evidence indicates neither psilocybin nor psilocin is addictive.  The main risk for mushrooms specifically is misidentification when foraging: psychoactive mushrooms tend to have many similarly looking yet toxic siblings.

Just like any other psychedelic, mushrooms are never completely predictable. That’s why it’s wise to stick to basic safety guidelines, especially if you’re tripping for the first time or trying a higher dose. Almost all anecdotal reports of (fatal) incidents with magic mushrooms include either pre-existing medical conditions, a combination with different  substances or a dangerous environment. As a rule of thumb, the safest environment to trip would be one where you’d feel confident leaving a 5-year old kid by themselves for a while. Sharp objects and open fire are generally a bad idea, and so are areas with a risk of falling and busy (rail)roads. Check our article on set and setting for more tips.

Magic mushrooms can cause major psychological issues if you (or a close relative, such as a parent) are suffering (or have suffered) from psychoses, schizophrenia or the bipolar disorder.

Last but not least, though research is limited, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are discouraged from doing psychedelics.

Magic mushrooms and research

In recent years research around psilocybin has resurfaced and different researchers investigate whether the substance can be used for medical purposes. Current research is still in very early stages, but there are indications psilocybin can be used to treat a variety of mental issues, such as different addictions, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depressions and cluster headache.

Trivia

  • Have you heard of the forbidden fruit? According to the bible, Adam and Eve got cast out of paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. While many interpretations of the story include an apple being the fruit of knowledge, recent theories speculate whether it may have been a magic mushroom.
  • Magic truffles are not actual truffles. Actual truffles are not sclerotiae, but the underground fruiting body of certain types of fungi.

Resources

The Shroomery

The pharmacology of Psilocybin

Psilocybin Retreats & Experiences

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