Could eating mushrooms help cure depression? Yes, but not the type of mushrooms you can find in the produce section. Psilocybin – the chemical found in “magic” mushrooms – helps the brain lower the effects of severe depression by fostering stronger connections between different regions in the brain, according to a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco and Imperial College London.
The research team just published this new study in Nature Medicine on April 11 which analyzed how psilocybin impacts the brains of people suffering from depression. By examining nearly 60 participants over the course of two psilocybin trials, the study concluded that the “magic” mushroom chemical significantly alleviated depression in ways conventional antidepressants can not. A recent study suggests that psilocybin may potentially work as an effective treatment for depression when administered by a medical professional.
“For the first time we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants – making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression,” Head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research David Nutt, DM said. “This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”
An estimated five percent of adults globally suffer from depression, and researchers continue to test solutions to manage the debilitating mental illness. The research team turned to “magic” mushrooms because psilocybin and other serotonergic psychedelics impact 5-HT2A receptors, which become abundant in people that have overactive depression.
Psilocybin and Depression
During the study, researchers divided the participants into two groups. The first group all had treatment-resistant depression and knowingly ingested the psilocybin. The second trial was a double-blind, randomized trial that compared psilocybin to escitalopram – a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. The research teams administered brain scans for all participants before and after the study periods.
Upon examination, the scans showed the psilocybin treatment reduced connections within brain areas that correlate with depression while increasing other regions of the brain which help improve brain functioning. The participants who took the psilocybin became less emotionally avoidant and their cognitive function improved. The effects lasted three weeks after the second psilocybin dose. Most notably, no similar changes were recorded in the subjects who received escitalopram instead.
“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this, Ralph Metzner Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Behavioral Sciences and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences Robin Carhart-Harris said. “We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression.”
The study’s authors warn that although the results are promising, people should not begin self-medicating with psilocybin, a substance that is still illegal in most of the United States. The team conducted the research under controlled, clinical conditions, and patients received psychotherapy throughout the duration of the study.
For decades, researchers have believed that psilocybin and similar hallucinogens could potentially combat depression as well as several other mental illnesses. During this study, the research team worked to build on the immense foundation of hypotheses regarding the brain-altering chemical. The study also considered how depression is typically associated with hyperconnectivity or unincorporated regions of the brain.
“In previous studies, we had seen a similar effect in the brain when people were scanned whilst on a psychedelic, but here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which suggests a carry-over of the acute drug action,” Carhart-Harris said.
The study also noted that the changes observed in the participant’s brain functioning were consistent with previous insight into the acute action of psychedelics. Despite positive results, the researchers stated that larger-scale trials will be needed to establish the generalizability of psilocybin’s positive effects.
Plant-Based Diets Can Improve Mental Health
Until further research proves psilocybin’s effects on depression, there are several legal, at-home solutions to help minimize common symptoms of depression. Recently, a team of Harvard Health researchers released a report that asserted that there is an irrefutable connection between diet and mental health.
“A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression,” according to the Harvard report. “A dietary pattern characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.”
Before we turn to “magic” mushrooms, another study found that other kinds of legal mushrooms can help lower the risk of depression. A study from Penn State University collected data from 24,000 American adults to conclude that people who consumed more fungi showed lower levels of depression. The report suggests that mushrooms’ high levels of ergothioneine, could lower the risk of oxidative stress.
For more research and findings in the health world, check out The Beet’s Health & Nutrition articles.