Today, fresh findings published by Jama Psychiatry build a strong case for another beloved psychedelic compound: psilocybin, the active ingredient in shrooms and magic truffles.
In what has been dubbed the “first modern, rigorous, controlled trial” of its kind, scientists have proven that taking psilocybin combined with talk therapy can help heavy drinkers cut back on their drinking — or maybe even quit cold-turkey…
Psilocybin as a Cure for Alcoholism
Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, who led the study, said:
“More parts of the brain are talking to more parts of the brain. There’s a possibility of really shifting in a relatively permanent way the functional organization of the brain.”
The study took place over 32 weeks of double-blind observation. 93 participants were given either a placebo (aka a “sugar pill”) or a pill which contained psilocybin, in between sessions of talk therapy with a licensed psychiatrist.
The article describes how it all took place:
“All participants were offered a total of 12 psychotherapy sessions from a team of 2 therapists, including a licensed psychiatrist: 4 before the first medication session, 4 between the first and second medication sessions, and 4 in the month following the second medication session.
“The psychotherapy…included motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy for AUD as well as material designed to help the participants to manage and make use of the psychoactive effects of [psilocybin].”
To ensure comfort while taking psychedelics, psilocybin was given to participants in a specially-tailored set and setting. Such involved the use of cosy couches, eye shades, and a curated playlist on headphones:
“[Psilocybin] was administered at approximately 9 AM, after which participants were required to stay in the session room with the therapists for at least 8 hours (except for bathroom breaks). During the session, participants were encouraged to lie on a couch wearing eye shades and headphones providing a standardized playlist of music.”
Sounds pretty cosy, eh?
Improved Drinking Outcomes
The results? Those who took psilocybin performed better than those who took placebo pills, in the eight months following the dose. On average, the psilocybin group engaged in heavy drinking on roughly one out of ten days. In contrast, the placebo group drank heavily on one out of four days.
Here’s the kicker: nearly half of those who took psilocybin were able to stop drinking completely. The placebo group had only 24% in comparison.
This shows that while talk therapy on its own may help nudge you to quit alcohol almost a quarter of the time, taking psilocybin alongside talk therapy increases your chances to almost 50-50! Who would have thought it possible?
The study’s authors were pleased with their findings:
“In this randomized clinical trial of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy treatment for AUD, psilocybin treatment was associated with improved drinking outcomes during 32 weeks of double-blind observation.
“Although this was, to our knowledge, the first controlled trial of psilocybin for AUD, these findings are consistent with a meta-analysis of trials conducted in the 1960s evaluating LSD as a treatment for AUD.”
‘It cured my alcoholism’
Jon Kostas, 32, first started visiting bars regularly when he was 13.
The New York City native soon got stuck in a vicious loop of alcoholism, in which he drank as many as 30 drinks per night. Despite his genuine desire for change, nothing seemed to work out in terms of erasing the allure of alcohol. Except perhaps for one thing — a fresh, new treatment he stumbled upon which involved the use of psilocybin.
Kostas had his first psilocybin-assisted therapy session in March 2015. Today, he credits his strong sense of self-control to the psychedelic compound.
He told USNews.com:
“It definitely affected my life, and I like to say it saved my life.
“[The psilocybin treatment] worked almost like an antibiotic for me, where I was sick with a disease or a disorder.”
Soon after his cravings for alcohol started to go away, Kostas felt the psilocybin treatment was working well enough for him to stop it gradually.
“I went into this clinical trial. I did psilocybin-assisted therapy, and I left.
“My greatest expectations for this were to be able to manage my cravings, and this surpassed that. [Psilocybin therapy] eliminated all my cravings to the point where it cured my alcoholism.”
Using Therapy to Face Years of Hidden Pain
Paul Mavis, 60, used heavy drinking as a way to ignore the pain of his daughters’ deaths.
For decades, the executive from Wilton, Connecticut sought comfort in alcohol. He tried several times to quit drinking, to no avail. When Mavis decided to participate in a 2019 study — one which used psilocybin-assisted talk therapy to help treat alcoholism — he began to uncover layers of deep emotional pain that had been left festering for years.
Despite being given a placebo, Mavis fully believed he was taking psilocybin along with sessions of talk therapy. The experience was enough to make him think about what might trigger a new episode of binge-drinking if he quit alcohol cold-turkey. The answer was simple: his unexpressed grief for his daughters. He wept for the first time in years.
Thanks to serious talk therapy, which helped to break down his emotional barriers, Mavis started to equate drinking with death.
He told the Wall Street Journal:
“[Examining my pain] was really uncomfortable. I had the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old. That was the age I started drinking.”
Mavis has not touched a single drop of alcohol since the study.
Microdosing to Get Rid of Unwanted Habits
Taking low doses of psychedelics on a scheduled basis (in the study’s case, 25-40 mg of psilocybin given twice in between talk therapy sessions) is nothing new.
Also known as microdosing, the practice has helped countless people to get rid of unwanted habits, such as social binge-drinking and alcohol use disorder. The usual trippy effects of full-on psychedelic doses are not the goal; it’s the sub-perceptual boost in awareness and creativity you are really after.
Take the 215k users on the Reddit forum r/microdosing, for instance, who swear by the power of microdosing to get rid of their unwanted habits. One user shares how microdosing shrooms helped them to hop on the wagon:
“I began microdosing last week of February and quit drinking [the] first week of April, have not had a drink since… Microdosing has definitely been a huge contributing factor.”
Another user revealed just how much alcohol was cut out of their life after microdosing:
“Compared to when I started I’d estimate my alcohol consumption is down 90%.”
Microdosing as a Tool, Not a Magic Pill
In an interview with i-D for Vice.com, Michelle Janikian, author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, spoke about the subtle mood-enhancing benefits of microdosing — and why taking taking psychedelics on their own, especially without talk therapy, should not be seen as a “cure-all” magic pill for substance abuse:
“I’ve had a fan reach out to me on Instagram recently and say that she’d been microdosing to try to stop doing cocaine. She said she was microdosing and still doing coke every weekend. I really didn’t know what to say to her because, you know, it doesn’t really work like that.
“Microdosing can be a tool, but you have to come to it with the right intentions; you have to want to change your behaviours. It can definitely help, but it won’t fix your problems for you.”
Dr. Stephanie Hicks, a clinical psychologist, shared similar views about overcoming substance abuse and addictions. She told i-D:
“When it comes to overcoming addictions, there is never a magic solution.
“Be clear about why you want to make this change and remind yourself of this when it feels like more of a struggle. Spend time noticing what draws you back to old habits and work out new ways to manage these situations. You may not find a solution immediately — it’s about using trial and error to discover what works for you.”
All Shroomy on the Western Front
Thankfully, the future of psychedelic drugs looks bright for the Western world. A slate of legislation changes in favour of psilocybin is coming up this year. A major research centre for psychedelic therapy just opened in Melbourne, and a new clinical trial for psychedelic therapy using music is rocking London.
This milestone study on psilocybin to cure alcoholism is the latest effort to remind people of its other role as a tool for healing, not just for fun. For centuries, and even millennia, indigenous peoples such as pre-Mayan cultures have been using shrooms and magic truffles as medicine.
Why stop now?