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Psychedelics and Mental Health: Ancient Medicines Make a Comeback


As humanity continues to battle an overwhelming mental health crisis and conventional medicines fail to address the root of trauma and mental distress, an ancient and natural form of treatment begins to reemerge.


Psychedelics — with their Greek origin, “Psyche,” meaning “mind or soul,” and “Delos,” meaning “to make clear” or “to reveal”— have been used as a sacred medicine by indigenous cultures for thousands of years and were showing promise in modern medicine before being outlawed in 1966 by President Johnson who made the possession of psychedelics a crime and signed the Drug Abuse Control Act. However, Nixon and his “war on drugs” took these charges to a new level in 1970.


Tragically, these medicines were branded as Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning they were labeled as having no therapeutic benefit and posing a high potential for abuse or addiction, despite the overwhelming data that showed psychedelics’ are non-addictive, can treat addictive behaviors, resolve severe trauma like PTSD, and are more therapeutic than conventional medicines.


Why Were Psychedelics Outlawed?


Abuse and Safety

As early as the late 1930s, psychedelics, notably LSD, were being explored in controlled settings before leaking into counterculture and used in the anti-Vietnam-war movement in the 1960s.

Dr. James Giordano, Pellegrino Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center says, “Although the drugs are shown to have capable effects, the social uptake of the drug, and unregulated use of these types of drugs, lead to relevant patterns of misuse, and high abuse ability.”


Additionally, he says, “I think that some of those guidelines, policies, and laws were reflective of what was known about both the drugs and the brain at the time. … The field of contemporary or modern neuroscience was not particularly developed until the late 1970s. The 1980s, if you will, was sort of the decade of the brain. … Up to that point, there was not a thorough understanding of the molecular to biochemical to physiological and pharmacological effects of various substances.”


Moral Panic

A moral panic is a widespread and irrational fear that some evil person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society and is generally fueled by media coverage of social issues.


Following the emergence of psychedelics in counterculture and their recreational misuse, the narrative quickly shifted in how the media portrayed these medicines. Once conveyed as a revolutionary and highly effective solution for treating and, in some casing curing, depression, PTSD, and addictions like alcoholism, psychedelics were later painted as a threat to society.


Misinformation began to spread about these substances, like they fried your brain, were addictive, made you crazy, and were often considered evil from a religious perspective.


A Threat to the System

Many who have taken psychedelics describe an ‘unveiling’ of a corrupt and suppressive system. A system that considers these medicines a substantial threat. One individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, stated:


“It became undeniably clear to me that we have been conditioned to submit to a system that uses fear, manipulation, and consumerism to control and suppress our innate power, freedom, wisdom, and happiness as individuals and a collective society.


We have been led to compete with one another and see others as a threat, question our self-worth, and look outside ourselves for the solutions to our problems and unhappiness.

We unconsciously adopt the belief that we must operate within the confines of these manufactured constructs, and to stray outside of their invisible bounds is unlawful, rebellious, and potentially psychotic.


However, what I have found through my intentional experiences with plant medicines is freedom from the system and a deep connection to my purpose in life. I have found that everything necessary to live a fulfilling life, beyond basic needs, resides within me; that connection to others is critical; there is no “us vs. them” but only us vs. ourselves. And that we are more creative and powerful than we ever thought possible—especially when we work together.”


This sentiment suggests psychedelics’ connection to the rise of counterculture rebellion, anti-war protests, and pro-peace movements, which might have weighed heavily in the decision to criminalize psychedelic substances.


What are the Different Types of Psychedelic Substances?


Classic psychedelics are chemical compounds that can be found in nature and include:

  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)

  • LSD (Acid)

  • DMT (Ayahuasca and other species of plants and animals)

  • Mescaline (San Pedro Cactus or Peyote)


How Do Psychedelics Affect the Brain?


Psilocybin and LSD are chemically similar to serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced in our brain. The functions of which affect our perception and mood.


While psychedelics vary in their effects and how they metabolize, their shared effects include ‘disorganized’ activity throughout the brain and increased neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change and adapt. This increased brain activity may play a role in suppressing our ego and lead to an increased feeling of connectedness, with neuroplasticity a likely cause of the long-lasting positive effects of the medicines long after it has been digested.


Benefits and Drawbacks of Partaking in Psychedelics:


Benefits

Unlike conventional medications that merely treat the symptoms of mental disorders, psychedelics can often resolve unconscious and underlying trauma and offer a sense of acceptance and introspection in many cases. A study at Johns Hopkins found that a mere two doses of psilocybin produced rapid and substantial reductions in depressive symptoms. And further research suggests that a single administration of psychedelics in a therapeutic and controlled environment can yield positive and transformative results months to years later.


In addition to treating treatment-resistant ailments like depression, PTSD, and alcoholism, psychedelics often alleviate or eliminate the fear of death in patients who struggle to face mortality.


Subjects of psychedelic research have also reported:

  • An increased sense of well-being

  • A feeling of love and lightness

  • Feeling relaxed

  • A deep sense of connection to everything and everyone

  • An ability to see themselves without judgment

  • Life-altering spiritual experiences

  • A profound sense of appreciation and care for all living things


Drawbacks

When the substances are used recreationally or without proper precautions and understanding, they can result in undesirable side effects. Even in a favorable clinical setting, patients are not guaranteed to avoid experiencing mild to moderate emotional and sensory discomfort.


Mindset and environment play a critical role in determining the likelihood of undesirable effects, as these substances tend to enhance sensory perception. However, there is no surefire way to know what an individual’s experience will be due to the many factors at play.


As Dr. Giordano points out, “We know that psychedelic drugs have therapeutic potential, and we know that these drugs could have different effects in different individuals, as do all drugs. But it was only as we began to develop a deeper understanding of the human genome that the idea of pharmacogenetics, individual and collective variation, that commonality, that we began to gain some insights into the fact that the ‘devil’ might not be the drug, so to speak, but rather, it lives in the details of how the drug is delivered and how the drug is dosed. And the differentiation of what drugs work best or not in different individuals, at different doses, under different conditions. So, like anything else, both the ‘deities’ and the ‘devils’ live in those details.”


That said, individuals may experience:

  • Increased breathing and heart rate

  • Nausea

  • Undesirable sensory experiences

  • Anxiety

  • A feeling of losing control or sense of self

  • Excessive sweating

  • Panic

  • Paranoia


Even with these unpleasant experiences, many individuals report a sense of peace or overcoming internal challenges after coming down from these medicines.


Will Psychedelics Become Legal Again?


We’re already seeing relative deregulation and some loosening of restrictions and governances like mushrooms. … I think there's going to be a greater appreciation of the dose relevance of psychedelics. … As we just learned within the past couple of months, is that individuals may have a genetic variation that provides certain predispositions to be more or less sensitive to certain effects of different psychedelic drugs,” says Dr. Giordano.


… “What we're seeing is the interface of precision medicine, with a better understanding of how psychedelic compounds can and perhaps should be used, not only therapeutically, to treat things that have ‘gone wrong.’ In other words, where there may be some abnormal, disordered, or dysfunctional condition, like PTSD, we recognize that psychedelics can be exceedingly beneficial in treating certain forms of PTSD or certain forms of other treatment-resistant depression, certain forms of impulse control disorders, certain forms of cognitive inhibitions, and certain forms of cognitive-emotional blockades. We also recognize that based upon the axiomatic term of psychedelics, opening one's mental processes, these can be rather useful in facilitating optimized cognition, emotional stability, and perhaps even improved performance and behaviors, but at different doses.”

 

Would you like to take a deeper dive into the topic? Listen to the raw and unedited interview with Dr. James Giordano. Click Here.


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