Drugs Used in Psychedelic Therapy

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Psychedelic Therapy Re-Emerging in Research Studies

Psychedelic therapy, an approach to psychological treatment which was largely abandoned in the 1970s, has re-emerged with several studies exploring the potential of these drugs to assist individuals in overcoming psychological difficulties. There are many different psychedelic drugs, and only a handful are being seriously researched in this way. This overview highlights the specific drugs being used, and their potential therapeutic uses.

WARNING: THE DRUGS DESCRIBED HERE ARE UNSAFE AND UNPREDICTABLE IF TAKEN WITHOUT MEDICAL SUPERVISION -- READERS ARE STRONGLY CAUTIONED AGAINST ATTEMPTED SELF-MEDICATION. THERAPEUTIC USE IS HIGHLY EXPERIMENTAL AT THIS STAGE -- IF YOU REQUIRE SUPPORT FOR A LISTED PROBLEM, TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT WELL ESTABLISHED TREATMENTS.

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LSD

Bottle of LSD-25, a product of Sandoz Laboratories, Switzerland
LSD-25. (c) Farmer Dodds, Flickr

LSD, which stands for lysergic acid diethylamide, is one of the best known psychedelic drugs. The general effects of the drug are euphoria and other mood changes -- both positive and negative, altered perceptions including visual hallucinations, and a distorted sense of time and space. Used recreationally, LSD can trigger psychosis, and can cause flashbacks, also known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, which can occur intermittently for years after LSD use has been discontinued. Potential therapeutic uses include treatment for addiction to alcohol, and reduction of anxiety related to terminal illness. At this stage, the risks associated with these drugs if taken in an unsupervised setting are higher than the potential benefit users may experience.

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Psilocybin

Fresh liberty cap psychedelic mushrooms
Magic mushrooms containing psilocybin. (c) Farmer Dodds, Flickr

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic substance found in magic mushrooms. The general effects of the drug are similar to LSD, primarily changes in mood, seeing things differently, including visual hallucinations in some individuals, and time and space perceptions changing. As with LSD, psilocybin carries the risk of psychosis and flashbacks. While some users claim psilocybin trips are not as intense as those induced by LSD, others argue the opposite is true. In fact, precisely predicting the effects of these drugs is impossible, as the effects vary greatly from one individual to another, and dosages are impossible to measure when mushrooms are consumed. Studies have also explored the potential of psilocybin as a therapeutic drug for addiction and for anxiety arising from a terminal prognosis, but the research is highly supervised and results are in the early stages, so readers should not attempt to self-medicate with these drugs.

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Ayahuasca

A glass of prepared ayahuasca brew
Ayahuasca brew. (c) Farmer Dodds, Flickr

Ayahuasca is a plant which can be brewed into a tea. The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT. As with other hallucinogens, the main effects are changes in perception and thought processes, mood, and sense of time and space. As well as the risk of psychosis that other hallucinogens carry, ayahuasca carries the additional risk of serotonin syndrome, as well as potenitally harmful interactions with other drugs affecting the serotonin system, such as antidepressants. Ayahuasca has been explored as a treatment for addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco, and for depression and anxiety. Many well established treatments for these conditions are available, and ayahuasca is not safe to use without medical supervision, particularly for people suffering from these conditions. Talk to your doctor if you need help with addiction, anxiety or depression, even if you have tried other treatments that have not helped.

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Mescaline

Mescaline Hydrochloride
Mescaline Hydrochloride. Farmer Dodds, Flickr

Mescaline is a naturally occurring hallucinogen, from certain cacti. The effects of altered consciousness, visual and auditory distortions, mood changes, and distortions in the perception of time and space are similar to other hallucinogens. As with other hallucinogens, psychosis is a small but significant risk. Mescaline has been explored as a treatment for alcohol addiction, however, it should not be used without medical supervision and other effective treatments are available.

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MDMA (Ecstasy)

MDMA crystals
MDMA. Farmer Dodds, Flickr

MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy, is slightly different in effect from other hallucinogens. It acts as a stimulant, and induces intense feelings of euphoria and empathy. There is often some change in perception, but this is not typically as intense as with other psychedelics. The risks of using ecstasy include neurocognitive deficits, such as memory problems, sleep disruption, and short term, but often intense, depression.  Ecstasy has been explored therapeutically in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although users can feel elated on ecstasy, sometimes panic and distress can occur. In addition, the overlap between the symptoms of PTSD and the effects of ecstasy, makes it particularly risky for self-medication. Effective treatments for PTSD are readily available -- talk to your doctor if you feel this is necessary.

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Source

Tupper, K, Wood, E, Yensen, R, Johnson, M. (2015). Psychedelic Medicine: A Re-Emerging Therapeutic Paradigm. CMAJ. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.141124

Podcase with author interview: soundcloud.com/cmajpodcasts/141124-ana

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