Article written by
Ruth LemonVP of Operations
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Psilocybin (and psilocin) is the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms while THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Cannabis and psilocybin have a long history as plant medicine and as an aid for the expansion of human consciousness.
In recent decades drug prohibition has hindered and suppressed valuable information about the role these compounds have played in human development. Luckily people are starting to dig back to their roots. Researchers are starting to gather hard data that backs up millennia of anecdotal and historical evidence supporting THC and psilocybin as invaluable tools that heal the mind and soul.
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Psilocybin vs. THC: Similar or Not?
The main difference between psilocybin and THC is that psilocybin is the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms while THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Both drugs induce incredibly different states, but both are known entheogens (which are usually substances found in the natural world). Entheogens are compounds of plant origin that are ingested to induce non-ordinary states of religious or spiritual origins.
THC and psilocybin are both unique because both blur the lines between recreational drugs and spiritual medicine, but both can be effective based on the dosages and setting. There’s also compelling evidence that both THC and psilocybin were used in religious ceremonies to produce such states of religious and spiritual origin.
Sula Benet was a Polish anthropologist who theorized that the biblical incense known as “kaneh bosm” was actually cannabis. Benet believed that there was evidence in the Old Testament, but her work suggests the first Christians borrowed their hemp uses from the Scythians. These ancient nomadic people roamed around Eurasia sometime between the seventh and third centuries BC. A research paper published in Science Advances also found proof of similar cannabis use around the same time in ancient China 2,500 years ago.
Carl Ruck is a professor in classical studies at Boston College who corroborated Benet’s findings. Ruck believes there’s no doubt that cannabis was the active ingredient in the ancient priest’s holy anointing oil and one of his graduate students recreated a batch to prove its potency.
Sacred Mushroom and the Crossby John Marco Allegro also offers compelling evidence of the influence of magic mushrooms in Christianity. Allegro argues that Jesus Christ was a figure created by ancient Christians while under the influence of magic mushrooms during fertility ceremonies. The theory was met with a lot of ridicule when the book was first published, but modern-day critics and scholars have warmed up to the theory.
Plant and fungal medicines are becoming easier to study, thanks to changing views on drug prohibition. Clinical researchers and scientists have longer leashes to research the effects psychedelic drugs have on people suffering from different kinds of mental illness. Cannabis is legal recreationally or medically in 19 states and Washington D.C. Psilocybin is decriminalized in Oregon and Washington D.C, making them more accessible than they’ve ever been in modern history.
Researchers are finding evidence that decodes psychedelic-induced religious experiences into scientific data. There’s data proving that using cannabis and psilocybin can suppress symptoms of mental illness and even heal trauma. THC and psilocybin have been shown to help some of the same disorders like PTSD and depression.
According to the Cannabis Health Index (CHI) by Uwe Blesching, cannabis has the ability to modulate mood in depression via different pathways and mechanisms in the brain. Full-spectrum cannabis and THC seem to be the vital component in these effects and there are several studies that suggest cannabis is a solid candidate for treating people with clinical depression.
The CHI isn’t as confident in recommending cannabis as a PTSD treatment because there is much less data. However, the anecdotal evidence on the subject is incredibly convincing, especially when you hear stories of war veterans falling peacefully into their first nightmare-free sleep in years after using cannabis for the first time. Johns Hopkins showed in one study that PTSD sufferers were 2.5 times more likely to recover from their PTSD after cannabis was added to their treatment program.
In recent years psilocybin research has exploded and we now have proof that it’s a powerful tool to help treat and cure depression. Johns Hopkins’ latest study showed that patients with clinical depression were 54 percent more likely to be in remission after their trials with psilocybin. Psilocybin may be equally as effective for treating trauma related to PTSD, anxiety and drug addiction.
Cannabidiol (CBD) seems to be most similar in effect to psilocybin mushrooms, as both seem to affect the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a network of interacting brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world. Altering the DMN can change patterns of thinking and reduce the impact of overwhelming external stimuli. This makes both CBD and psilocybin useful for the treatment of drug & alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and autism.
The other key area of similarity between cannabis and psilocybin and how it treats mental health conditions is serotonin. THC, CBD, and psilocybin all interact with serotonin receptors, albeit in different ways. Psilocybin interacts with serotonin 2A receptors, and one single, large dose combined with integration and talk therapy can have lasting effects alleviating depression and anxiety for up to six months or even a year afterward.
CBD, meanwhile, interacts with the serotonin receptor 5HT1-A, and the effect is not as long-lasting. CBD and low-to-moderate doses of THC can help treat anxiety and depression while reducing reliance on antidepressants and sedatives. This can start the “daily maintenance” of ensuring good mental health (i.e. eating well, sleeping well, and exercising).
Another aspect of both cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms (and plant & fungal medications in general) is the entrourage effect. Cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes working together to promote anti-inflammatory and even neurogenic (brain cell growth-boosting) properties. Psilocybin mushrooms contain psilocin (which is also a highly potent tryptamine and psychedelic), baeocystin, norbaeocystin, norpsilocin, aeruginascin and beta-carbolines. This mixture of compounds is said to give psilocybin mushrooms more neurogenic properties. Other fungi like lion’s mane are also said to have such brain-boosting and antidepressant effects, and some suggest “stacking” such fungi (and vitamin D as well) for their immune system-boosting and brain-saving properties.
There are some reports that large amounts of cannabis can deliver the oceanic boundless feeling associated with heavier psychedelics like psilocybin. Another similar effect between the two is an increase in the appreciation of nature. So, although the mechanism of action is different with plant cannabinoids and psilocybin mushrooms, there are some aspects of both that cross over. This is perhaps due to the fact that both are natural substances that are well tolerated by the human body, on top of the fact that both have been made illegal over the past century or so and have a cultural association with alternative social movements.
Both THC and psilocybin are contraindicated for conditions like schizophrenia. Those who suffer from depression that includes delusional thinking, hallucinations or psychosis may also want to tread carefully.
The biggest difference between THC and psilocybin is that the former is widely accepted as a recreational drug, much like alcohol. The most common way to get psilocybin is still on the black market which makes the subcultures around it much more secretive. Psilocybin is slowly catching on as an alternative medicine for mental illness, but it has quite a ways to go before it’s accepted on the same levels of cannabis.
Psilocybin will always be more quickly associated with spiritual healing than cannabis. Whether people are taking mushrooms to watch a hippie jam band at Burning Man or laying on a bed in a controlled setting at a clinic, they’re seeking the intense hallucinogenic states associated with large doses of psilocybin. Part of the reason for this is because, unlike many other drugs, psychedelics are not usually associated with drug-seeking behavior. If anything, it is the opposite, and may actually reduce the desire for alcohol and addictive drugs.
Many people who use cannabis just want to relax after work, get loose with their friends, or relieve the pain of a nagging injury. Cannabis is usually used more regularly, whereas the effects of psilocybin/psilocin are usually extreme enough not to want repeat dosages soon afterwards!
Cannabinoids and psilocybin treatments differ quite widely. Psilocybin treatment usually involves a single main treatment session, blindfolded, with headphones and music on, and two experienced trip sitters. There will also be talking and integrative therapy before and after the psychedelic experience. Although the experience can be joyous and insightful, many also find it difficult.
Cannabinoids are usually consumed and can be used to replace or supplement other drugs and medications. This can cut down on the number of pills a patient needs to take, possibly reducing the number of side effects associated with pharmaceuticals such as sedatives and painkillers.
New Ways to Treat Pain: How Cannabis and Magic Mushrooms May Help
After World War II, a doctor & nurse, Dame Cicely Saunders, helped establish the foundations of the hospice and palliative care movement. She was not only instrumental in helping develop a treatment for terminal patients, but also our understanding of pain. That is, the concept of total pain, which includes not only physical but also mental, emotional, and spiritual pain.
Physical pain, which is relatively simple to measure compared to the other types of pain, can be treated with anti-inflammatories, analgesics, and opioids. Cannabinoids are extremely helpful for the treatment of chronic and neuropathic pain and can help reduce or replace the need for opioids. This is because both THC and CBD can “talk” to and influence the behavior of opioid receptors, effectively “turning down the volume” of the pain signals being sent. Furthermore, the multi-receptor action of cannabinoids and their ability to regulate the immune system gives them potent anti-inflammatory and mood-improving effects.
Cannabinoids can also help treat mental, emotional, and spiritual pain to a certain extent thanks to their ability to target and affect multiple receptor types, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and GABA receptors, amongst many others. Cannabinoids can make an excellent alternative to the daily intake of antidepressants, sedatives, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, and opioids.
Antidepressants have been shown to be very useful in the treatment of mental and emotional pain, and for a number of people, it helps control their depression, anxiety, and PTSD. As constant anxiety, insomnia and depression can affect sleep and dampen the immune system, mental pain contributes to physical pain. Antidepressants can therefore treat somatic pain as well.
However, there are several problems with antidepressants, including:
- Many people need to try several different antidepressants over the course of several weeks to gauge how effective it is.
- Antidepressants need to be taken every day.
- Many people suffer from treatment-resistant depression and anxiety, making antidepressants effectively useless in such circumstances.
- Coming off antidepressants can cause withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, sweating, insomnia, stomach issues, and even further depression & anxiety.
- Antidepressants need to be taken daily in order to be effective – psilocybin, meanwhile, can have an incredibly meaningful effect from a single dose.
We have an incredibly limited understanding of spiritual pain. We don’t have any drug that can help heal this sort of trauma available on the market, but psilocybin may well be the compound that can. This is certainly one of the reasons why Professor Roland Griffiths is conducting research into psilocybin’s effects on spiritual leaders and those who meditate in a controlled version of the Good Friday Experiments. Psilocybin and magic mushrooms could be of immense use when it comes to treating trauma, grief, addiction, and the long-term effects of persistent stress, depression, and anxiety in a way that antidepressants never could.
At the end of the day, THC and psilocybin are both powerful compounds that need to be used carefully. While both of these plant medicines have the power to heal, they’re not for everyone. It’s known that smoking cannabis can trigger schizophrenic fits in adolescents and young adults with a known family history of mental illness or psychosis, according to the CHI. This is why it’s important to tread cautiously with cannabis use if you’re under the age of 25.
Most claims of hallucinogenic-induced psychosis have been overstated through the decades, and studies show that people who use hallucinogenic drugs may be less likely to suffer from mental health issues than those who have not. So you don’t have to worry about taking psilocybin and going crazy, but you do have to be cautious of having a bad trip and the setting is vital for a breakthrough experience. Similarly, those who are prone to psychosis or have a family history of hallucinatory or schizophrenic disorders should avoid psilocybin.
Bad trips can be terrifying experiences that scare people away from something that could be a valuable tool to heal their trauma, but sometimes even these experiences can be useful if approached appropriately. In some instances, people can feel nothing at all, which can sometimes be frustrating. Much of the therapeutic value of psilocybin can come from the mindset and intentions one sets before embarking on a spiritual walk with psilocybin. This is why it’s important to do your research and consult a medical professional before delving into your own psychedelic adventures with psilocybin or experiments with cannabis.
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