The Risks and Dangers of Mushrooms

man high on mushrooms in business attireSince ancient times, humans have sought out hallucinogenic plants for their mind-altering effects. Images found in prehistoric rock paintings imply that mushrooms containing psilocybin, a psychoactive compound, have been used for thousands of years. Today, psilocybin mushrooms continue to be used recreationally for their psychedelic effects, including:

  • Visual hallucinations, such as floating shapes or bizarre images
  • Synesthesia, or the confusion of senses (“hearing” colors or “feeling” sounds)
  • Distortions of the perception of time or space
  • Heightened emotions or feelings of intimacy with others
  • Unusual philosophical or spiritual insights
  • Mystical visions

But psilocybin mushrooms can also cause unpleasant or dangerous reactions, including panic attacks, nausea, vomiting, and psychosis. In the 1960s, the compound psilocybin was explored as a way to enhance the effects of psychotherapy. However, it soon became clear that the dangers and health risks of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms outweighed the therapeutic benefits.

Today, psilocybin is classified in the US as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it has no accepted medical use and that it is illegal to possess, sell, or use this chemical. Mushrooms — commonly known as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” — may seem harmless compared to harder street drugs like heroin or meth, or more powerful hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy. However, psilocybin mushrooms are just as illegal and can be just as dangerous as any other controlled substance.

How Do Mushrooms Work?

Psilocybin is the primary chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms. After you ingest a mushroom that contains psilocybin, this compound converts into psilocin, which can alter your sensory perceptions, thoughts, moods, emotions, and memories. Both psilocybin and psilocin occur naturally in over 50 species of mushrooms, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Most of these species are native to South America, Mexico, and the United States. These species contain trace amounts of psilocin as well as larger amounts of psilocybin.

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Hallucinogenic mushrooms can be found growing in the wild and eaten fresh, but most users obtain the mushrooms in dried, cooked, or powdered form. They can be eaten, brewed in a tea, or taken in capsules. Psilocybin is also produced synthetically in laboratories. After ingestion, psilocin interacts with specialized receptor cells in the brain to produce sensations of sensory distortion, relaxation, and alteration of reality.

The effects and potency of hallucinogenic mushrooms can vary greatly from one user to another, or from one episode to another. The intensity of an experience with mushrooms, sometimes known as a “trip,” is influenced by a number of factors:

  • The species and genus of the mushroom
  • The way the mushroom is ingested (fresh, dried, or brewed)
  • The dose of mushrooms
  • The individual’s sensitivity to hallucinogenic substances
  • The user’s past experiences with and tolerance to mushrooms
  • The use of mushrooms with other drugs (LSD, Ecstasy, alcohol, or other substances)

Because it’s difficult to predict the duration, intensity, or specific reactions to any given dose, taking mushrooms can be extremely dangerous, especially for new users. After ingesting a small dose of mushrooms, most users start to experience psychedelic changes within 30 minutes. The effects of a smaller dose may continue for several hours, while larger doses may have much longer side effects.

What Are the Psychological Dangers?

The psychoactive effects of mushrooms are much less predictable than the effects of synthetically produced drugs. Some users report pleasurable sensations of relaxation, giddiness, empathy with others, spiritual insight, or interesting sensory distortions. Others experience nightmarish hallucinations, terrifying distortions of time or space, and anxiety attacks. Some of the adverse psychological side effects of consuming mushrooms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Poor judgment
  • A sense of separation from the body
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Delusional thinking
  • Confusion

The results of a survey published in Substance Abuse and Misuse suggest that negative effects like paranoia and anxiety occur in up to one-third of users who take mushrooms.

In a focus group of 174 younger adults who took hallucinogenic mushrooms, 32 percent reported feeling anxious and 35 percent stated that they felt paranoid after using these psychoactive drugs.

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Mushrooms affect the areas of the brain that regulate mood, emotions, judgment, and perception. A “bad trip” with mushrooms could result in an accidental injury or self-inflicted harm. Even a positive experience could lead to high-risk behavior such as having unsafe sex or abusing other drugs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an overdose of hallucinogenic mushrooms could cause an extended bad trip, long-term psychosis, or even death.

According to Brown University, mushroom consumption is especially risky for people who suffer from mental illness. With its psychoactive effects, psilocybin can worsen the symptoms of psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia. Some users have such terrifying experiences on these psychedelic drugs that they feel psychologically traumatized for years afterward.

What Are the Risks to Physical Health?

Axis-TalkBecause hallucinogenic mushrooms grow naturally and have been used for thousands of years by indigenous cultures for religious rituals or vision quests, they are often considered to be “safer” and easier on the body than synthetic psychedelic drugs like LSD. But in fact, mushrooms can have adverse effects on the body as well as the mind. The negative side effects of mushroom use include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Accidental poisoning

Overdosing on mushrooms can cause serious or fatal reactions. Users who try to harvest their own mushrooms in the wild are at risk of accidental poisoning from toxic species. Taking mushrooms can increase the risk of injury by causing impaired judgment, confusion, drowsiness, and loss of motor coordination. Hallucinogenic drug abuse increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents, assault, drowning, falls, and unprotected sex.

Mushrooms are not generally considered to be addictive. Most users do not experience the hallmark signs of drug dependence, such as compulsive use or repeated relapse. However, frequent users may become tolerant to the effects of psilocybin and may start to seek higher doses in order to achieve the same euphoric or mind-altering sensations.

How Are Mushrooms Abused?
What Are the Signs of Abuse?
What Treatments Are Available?

Studies show that a large percentage of individuals who use mushrooms also abuse other drugs. In a study of 882 college students that appeared in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, students who used psilocybin mushrooms were significantly more likely to abuse other drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, narcotic painkillers, and LSD. Mushroom users were also much more likely to believe that mushrooms are non-addictive and relatively safe compared to other drugs.

Teenagers and young adults who like to experiment with drugs are most likely to try hallucinogenic mushrooms. But according to Clinical Pediatrics, combining mushrooms with alcohol or other drugs can increase the risk of dangerous side effects or an overdose exponentially. The journal reports that many incidents of acute poisoning associated with mushrooms are caused by the synergistic effects of multiple drugs.

Mushrooms affect the user’s behavior, appearance, and emotional states. Reactions to mushrooms can vary from one person to another, but most users will display some level of disorientation, confusion, or sensory alteration. If someone in your life is using mushrooms recreationally, you may notice that they seem unusually drowsy, confused, or tired. They may be uncharacteristically clumsy and have a stumbling gait. Other users may act giddy, silly, or euphoric. They may describe bizarre visions or delusional experiences. Users who are experiencing negative side effects may become agitated, edgy, anxious, or fearful.

Regular mushroom use is often reflected in the user’s lifestyle. Someone who’s experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs may adopt new styles of dress or hair that reflect this underground counterculture. They will often neglect their more conventional activities and friends in order to spend more time with other people who use drugs. Mushrooms are often distributed or sold at underground concerts, raves, clubs, or parties, along with other hallucinogenic drugs like Ecstasy or LSD.

A psilocybin overdose is potentially life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. Look for these signs of a possible overdose:

  • Severe confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

Although overdosing on mushrooms alone is fairly rare, combining mushrooms with other drugs, especially alcohol, greatly increases the risk of a severe or fatal reaction. Call for emergency medical help immediately if you suspect that someone you’re with has overdosed on drugs.

Poly-drug abuse — or the misuse of multiple drugs at the same time — is common among people who take mushrooms. Individuals who take mushrooms on a regular basis are likely to have a problem with one or more other drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, or LSD. Treatment for these individuals must address all of the chemicals involved, not just mushrooms.

Recovery programs for mushrooms and other hallucinogenic drugs are thorough and intensive. After a period of detoxification, in which the patient is medically monitored while the drugs clear his or her system, patients begin individual and group therapy. In rehab, clients learn about the physical and psychological hazards of hallucinogenic drug abuse. Through intensive therapy, they explore the roots of addictive behavior and the destructive thought patterns that foster compulsive substance abuse. The core treatments of a comprehensive drug treatment program include:

  • Extensive evaluation and assessment at the intake stage
  • An individualized treatment plan that reflects the patient’s needs
  • One-on-one therapy with a counselor or therapist
  • Group therapy sessions with peers in recovery
  • Behavioral modification classes to teach new coping skills
  • Dual diagnosis treatment for patients with co-occurring mental illness
  • Family counseling for loved ones and significant others
  • Holistic therapies like yoga, guided meditation, or massage
  • Aftercare services to provide ongoing support after rehab

Axis treatment centers offer personalized treatment plans that utilize the latest, cutting-edge therapies. To ensure the best possible outcomes for our clients, we tailor our programs to each individual’s needs. For more information about our individualized treatment plans, call our intake counselors today.