Can the mind-blowing effects of psychedelics help heal our traumas?
“The Goop Lab,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix mini-series, tackles the topic in their first episode by sending several Goop employees to Jamaica to ingest magic mushrooms under the careful guidance of psychotherapists.
One young woman, traumatized by her father’s suicide, declares she “went through years of therapy in about five hours.”
What does the scientific community say about the role of psychedelics on our psyche?
It’s an increasingly hopeful thumbs up.
Despite the fact that psychedelics are illegal, the last decade has seen an explosion of research, with results so intriguing that governments are greenlighting studies around the world.
Scientists are busily exploring the role of hallucinogens on treatment-resistant depression, post traumatic stress disorder, cancer-related anxiety, addictions, and even anorexia.
But this is not the first time science became giddy over the potential benefits of psychedelics. That story began nearly a century ago.
The first trip on LSD
It was 1938 when Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman inadvertently synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, while trying to create a treatment for bleeding disorders. He shelved the compound for other research, then accidentally absorbed a small dose a few years later.
Intrigued by the feeling of euphoria, Hoffman tried it again, later realizing he had given himself five times the effective dose.
“The faces of those around me appeared as grotesque, colored masks,” Hoffman wrote in a first person account. “I sometimes observed, in the manner of an independent, neutral observer, that I shouted half insanely or babbled incoherent words. Occasionally I felt as if I were out of my body.”
Hoffman was tripping.
The golden era
Word spread quickly through the scientific community and soon researchers around the world began analyzing, then experimenting with LSD, both on themselves and their patients.
Their methods may not be considered state-of-the-art science today, but that didn’t stop the research. Science began to tackle other age-old hallucinogens: an extract from Mexican “sacred mushrooms” called psilocybin, and a naturally occurring psychoactive found in the peyote cactus called mescaline.
After all, these plant-based psychedelics have been in use by indigenous peoples and ancient cultures for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.
In the 1950s UK psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond began giving LSD to treatment-resistent alcoholics: 40% to 45% of those who took LSD were still sober after a year. Other researchers duplicated his results.
Eager to label the effect of LSD on the mind, Osmond put together the Greek words psyche (mind) and deloun (show). The word psychedelic was born.
During the ’40s and early ’50s tens of thousands of patients took LSD and other psychotropics to study their effects on cancer anxiety, alcoholism, opioid use disorder, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Researchers began to see psychedelics as possible “new tools for shortening psychotherapy.“
Outside the control of a lab, people began to use psychedelics for their mind-bending effects, swearing the drugs improved creativity and made them happier long past the bliss of the high.
Celebrities helped spread the word: Cary Grant used LSD over 100 times in the late ’50s, according to the documentary film, “Becoming Cary Grant,” claiming it made him a better actor.
Grant was so taken with the drug that he decided to go public with his experience in the September 1, 1959, issue of Look magazine. Vanity Fair wrote about the article, entitled “The Curious Story Behind the New Cary Grant,” which was a glowing account of how LSD therapy had improved Grant’s life: “At last, I am close to happiness.”
Influential writer Aldous Huxley, best known for his 1932 novel “Brave New World,” took LSD during the last third of his life. In 1960 he told “The Paris Review”: “While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one’s own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour — and considerably cheaper!”
The Leary impact
When Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert decided to open the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960, research on psychedelics was still in its golden era. That would soon change.
Leary and Alpert were fired in 1962 and their research shut down when Harvard discovered they had been giving LSD to their students. Alpert changed his name to Baba Ram Dass and became a best selling author and New Age guru. Leary began to speak out publicly, encouraging young people to take LSD recreationally. He quickly became the face of the drug counterculture movement with his signature message, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
“Drop out of school, because school education today is the worst narcotic drug of all,” Leary said. “Don’t politic, don’t vote, these are old men’s games.”
No longer administered in the relative safety of a lab or psychiatrist’s office, horror stories of bad “acid” trips at colleges and concerts shared headlines with images of anti-Vietnam protests and unclothed Woodstock attendees.
In 1966, LSD was declared illegal in the United States and research projects were closed or forced underground.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. It classified hallucinogenics as Schedule I drugs — the most restrictive category — reserved for substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
A long dry spell is broken
Twenty five years passed. Then in the mid-’90s, a few scientists in Germany, Switzerland and the US again began to explore the mental and physical impact of psilocybin, mescaline, and a new player in the space: N-dimethyltryptamine or DMT. It’s the active ingredient in an ancient sludge-like brew called ayahuasca, which is used by spiritual healers in the Amazon.
Small, with very few participants and no randomization or other controls, the research was similar to “safety and tolerability” studies designed to prove no harm.
Trying to study illegal substances created challenges for researchers, but many persevered. As the years passed, the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Drug Enforcement Administration began to say “yes” more often than “no.”
Studies on psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline were approved, as were studies of the synthetic drug MDMA, more commonly known as “Molly” or “Ecstasy.”
Research on LSD, which had the worst reputation in the public’s eye, lagged behind until 2008. That’s when the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, received FDA approval to study LSD-assisted psychotherapy on end-of-life anxiety. MAPS called the approval “a transformative moment.”
The study found “positive trends” in the reduction of anxiety after two sessions of LSD administered under the guidance of a psychotherapist.
Fears of any permanent damage from psychedelics were eased by a large 2015 study of 130,000 American adults, comparing users to non-users. The study found no link between the use of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline and suicidal behavior or mental health problems.
However, studies show a minority of people do experience “bad trips,” fueling speculation that the chance of negative experiences may differ depending on the type of hallucinogenic, the dose, even the type of mental disorder. In addition, research shows people who have used anti-depressants for a long time fail to respond well to some psychedelics, leading to concern about their use in chronic anti-depressant users.
To avoid negative experiences, MAPS and other organizations say having trained therapists on hand to guide one through the experience is key, along with a supportive setting, appropriate expectations and proper dosage.
A research renaissance
Today there is a true renaissance of research on the role of psychedelics on mental health.
“Gold-standard” double blind randomized trials have shown “rapid, marked, and enduring anti-anxiety and depression effects,” researchers say, in people with cancer-related and treatment-resistant depression after a single dose of psilocybin. Treatment with psilocybin has also improved obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms and alcohol dependence.
Dosage has become a focus of interest. “Micro-doses’ of shrooms and other psychedelics is a recent trend; users claim tiny, daily doses can improve mood and concentration without the commitment to a hours-long high. Research on micro-dosing is in the early stages.
MAPS is in the final phase of a gold-standard study administering MDMA [Ecstasy] to 300 people with severe PTSD from any cause. Results of the second phase showed 68% of the people no longer met the criteria for PTSD at a 12-month follow-up; before the study they had suffered from treatment-resistant PTSD for an average of 17.8 years.
The results are so positive that in January the FDA declared MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD a “Breakthrough Therapy.” MAPS hopes to turn the therapy into a FDA-approved prescription treatment by the end of 2021 to treat sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.
“We also sponsored completed studies of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for autistic adults with social anxiety, and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety related to life-threatening illnesses,” the group says.
LSD has been shown to help anxiety, and studies find it provides a “blissful state” for the majority of users. Study participants report greater perceptiveness, insight, feelings of closeness to others, happiness, and openness. Some even say they experience long-term, positive restructuring of their moods and attitudes.
But some studies have found unpleasant effects from LSD, both during the high and after. People with negative reactions can have difficulty concentrating, dizziness, lack of appetite, dry mouth, nausea and/or imbalance for up to 10 to 14 hours after taking LSD; headaches and exhaustion can last up to 72 hours.
In the end, it’s too early for science to provide psychedelics a full seal of approval. One of the caveats of this research is that the drugs are administered with psychological support. When that is removed, studies found the benefits were minimal, and in rare cases, may even worsen mental health symptoms.
“Psychedelics amplify painful memories … and emotions,” said MAPS trained psychiatrist Dr. Will Siu in the Goop episode. Taking these drugs in unsupported settings, he said, can “be incredibly destabilizing, and you can actually feel worse in the short term.”
Long term, it appears research into psychedelics is here to stay. Perhaps one day soon a trip to the therapist will include a trip into your mind, and hopefully, a quicker path to healing.