From Recreational Drugs to Mindful Medicine: Psychedelics for Healing

Scientists are looking into whether psychedelics—formerly the provenance of festival goers from bygone days—have more of an effect than their mind-bending recreational uses. For the last few years, researchers have focused on the claim that psychedelics can actually heal mental disorders such as depression, PTSD, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

While some dismiss this claim as an excuse to “get high,” scientists like Cristina L. Magalhaes, PhD, of Alliant International University Los Angeles, suggest that they may have a place among more traditional mood therapies. More research is needed and underway! But what psychedelics also need is a new approach to help navigate the negative cultural and social impressions that come with what might seem like a counterculture solution.

MDMA (ecstasy) for PTSD

As of 2018, MDMA was undergoing clinical trials to prove its efficacy in treating the symptoms of PTSD and social anxiety. MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. It produces feelings of emotional warmth and pleasure. You may be familiar with it due to its popularity at raves in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Today, researchers suspect that, used in conjunction with psychotherapy, controlled doses of MDMA can treat PTSD as well as social anxiety in autistic adults. One patient described using MDMA, under the supervision of her psychologist, as finally allowing her to revisit traumatic memories from finding her mother’s body after a murder-suicide.

Researchers use a pure form of MDMA (instead of “street” drugs, which may be altered) which is precisely dosed. Due to the positive results in the clinical trials, they suspect that there may be new life for the drug outside of trials.

That’s not the only application for MDMA, either. So far, science had failed to come up with a treatment for social anxiety that would have lasting effects, according to Alicia Danforth, PhD, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at the HarborUCLA Medical Center. Volunteers for the study found that the positive effects of using MDMA to cure their social anxiety lasted months, if not years.

LSD for depression, anxiety and mood disorders

LSD and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) are being tested to see if they can help alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. The hypothesis is that because psychedelics enhance feelings of spirituality, they allow patients to better cope with their existential feelings, loss of loved ones, fear of death and other anxiety-producing conditions.

The debate over whether “microdosing” LSD can help depression has been raging for some time now, with proponents claiming that the tiny doses are too small to experience hallucinatory effects—but they believe microdoses still lessen their depression. Recent studies using both LSD and psilocybin have supported this finding, with patients reporting lightened moods, better ability to focus and an overall reduction in other negative effects of depression and mood disorders.

Ayahuasca for suicidal ideation

Ayahuasca, a psychedelic made from Amazonian plants, is also undergoing clinical trials to treat those with severe depression. For those who don’t respond to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), ayahuasca is nothing short of a miracle drug.

The name ayahuasca translates to “the vine of the spirit,” and has been used in Brazilian religions since at least the 1930s. It has been legal in Brazil—for religious use—since 1987, ever since authorities noted that it had a profound uplifting effect.

The drug is not appropriate for those with psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia), which could trigger an episode or aggravate symptoms. However, clinical trials suggest that consuming ayahuasca in a controlled environment has a serious and positive impact on those with severe treatment-resistant depression, including suicidal ideation.

Like those using LSD and psilocybin, users report a deep sense of inner peace and oneness with the universe, allowing them to let go of negative thought patterns.

Is there a future for psychoactive medicines?

With the prevalence of studies researching the efficacy of psychoactive drugs to treat mood disorders, it certainly seems that science is inching ever closer to mainstream acceptance of their positive and medicinal effects. However, one shouldn’t assume that we’ll be able to purchase street-legal psychedelics anytime soon. Research and drug testing could continue for years.

Scientists are hopeful, however, that psychoactive medicine may be the solution that psychologists and doctors have been searching for years. When all other traditional treatments fail, psychedelics could be the key to treating devastating mental and mood disorders.

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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