For Marcus*, the shrooms trip that changed his life also turned him into a tree. There, in the middle of the woods, he melted into a "pattern of sacred geometry that looked like a Persian rug" — an experience that connected him to the rest of the forest, where he became one with every stick and even the ground. "Everything was moving, breathing together in this connected way," Marcus recalls, a hint of awe evident in his voice. "It was intense to experience, but it really leaves a life-long impression on you."
A 30-year-old student, Marcus has also been a forager and grower for the past 10 years and calls psilocybin the best way to "clearly face all of your issues." While that trip relied on a consciousness-altering 3-gram dose, today Marcus prefers to grind his shrooms into a powder that he pre-portions out into 200-milligram capsules for microdosing. As he continues to use psilocybin, he contends that he's just one of many people who have completely altered their lives for the better through the use of shrooms. In fact, he believes so fervently in the benefits of medicinal mushrooms and their potential to help and heal a wide swatch of the population that he recently decided to purchase a small, underground medicinal and gourmet mushroom-growing operation in Portland, Oregon that provides both adaptogenic and psychedelic mushrooms. And, he's definitely not alone.
In the past few years, public perceptions surrounding medicinal mushrooms of all stripes have undergone a drastic transformation. From the explosive growth of the LA-based wellness brand Moon Juice and their adaptogenic mushroom blends to the success of Michael Pollan's 2018 book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, the natural benefits of certain fungi are no longer being dismissed as the stuff of dreadlocked, new-age hippies. Instead, a recent proliferation of media coverage and published research has begun to encourage the view of both adaptogenic and psychedelic mushrooms as natural, holistic health supplements containing compounds powerful enough to help with everything from depression to adrenal fatigue to smoking cessation.
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That said, for the past year or so, the most visible medical mushroom discussion has been centered on the use of psilocybin — the naturally occurring psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms — which is especially interesting given that it's still classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Long maligned as a substance believed to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse, psilocybin's medical reputation has since been bolstered by an avalanche of recently released research from mental health experts arguing that it could be the answer for treatment-resistant depression (TRD).
Some of the most compelling results have come from the UK-based mental health company Compass Pathways' ongoing Phase III trials for a synthesized psilocybin drug that's been designated a "Breakthrough Therapy" for TRD by the FDA — which means the drug has proven so effective that the US government has fast-tracked its development and review so it can be publicly available sooner rather than later. Utilized in a process known as psilocybin therapy — in which a patient is given a large dose of the compound in conjunction with specialized therapy — the compound's efficacy is believed to be rooted in its ability to induce neuroplasticity within patients. And it's this increase in neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change ingrained patterns and behaviors, that subsequently makes targeting the underlying causes of mental health issues much easier.
And though TRD has been the main talking point, other studies have also pointed toward psilocybin therapy's ability to treat substance use disorders, per Project New Day director and co-founder Alli Feduccia. According to Feduccia, whose organization aims to use psychedelic medicine to treat substance abuse disorders, research points toward psilocybin being able to catalyze the effects of therapy for addiction, as psilocybin-induced neuroplasticity "allows for new behaviors to be adapted more readily" — though she adds that this is something that's been known for a while from anecdotal case studies.
So then, what took so long? Well, according to Brad Burge — the director of strategic communications at MAPS, a non-profit dedicated to scientific research into the uses of psychedelics — it was the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that really put a pin in psilocybin research. While the law never restricted the research of scheduled drugs, it still instilled a pervasive "sense of fear" surrounding the research of all common hallucinogens and led many to "assume that these substances were scheduled because there's been some scientific process behind it," Burge explains.
"But it's been an entirely politicized process," he continues. "What that was was a resistance on the part of regulators to even look at the protocols, but for many researchers, there was so much stigma that they feared they would lose federal funding or be labeled a 'political radical,' so everything was stopped."
But as more and more information on the benefits of psychedelic medicine has emerged, Burge says a new kind of attitude has prevailed amongst researchers and academics. However, by the same token, all this publicized research has also led people to try and take these substances on their own without any oversight, often through microdosing.
With microdosing, the amount of psilocybin taken is so small that its effects are not noticed on a conscious level. But as Marcus says, in addition to improving his overall mood and sleep, consistently microdosing after that one big, "intention-setting" trip has even helped his memory and focus in lieu of Adderall — something he says is extremely important to him as a student studying STEM. Explaining that he used to be a "very hyperactive person" who felt at times like "a part of my brain was asleep," Marcus says that regularly microdosing also provides "little reminders" of the larger lessons he learned on his initial trip, all while elevating his mood, boosting his creativity and enabling him to multitask without getting overwhelmed and exhausted. He's also quick to point out that from his time in the psychedelic community, he's been able to see "quite a few people" break their dependence on antidepressants, Adderall and even smoking through continuous microdosing.
While these anecdotes may point to a correlation between microdosing and increased neuroplasticity, according to Burge, there is actually very little to no science-based research in terms of microdosing's efficacy itself, as compared to the aforementioned trials that have included much higher doses of psilocybin. But the amount of anecdotal evidence present has Marcus — and many others like him – convinced of continuous microdosing's efficacy, especially as we continue to experience a rising mental health crisis and inadequate methods of treatment.
"When you have a crisis, there's always a need to respond to it and find a treatment for it," he says, before hypothesizing that people today are more open to "natural" alternatives to things like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. "As a society, we're on the verge of realizing that the benefits are much greater than the harmful effects."
That said, Marcus's comments also touch on a larger trend. Namely, the idea that a younger generation is now more willing to seek out alternative treatments and medicine due to an increased societal focus on wellness — and natural remedies — as a whole. At the same time that psilocybin therapy is emerging as a serious, FDA-vetted treatment option for TRD, others have been hawking another form of medicinal mushroom as a preventative measure that can also potentially help with the symptoms of these illnesses.
Whether we're talking chaga, lion's mane or shiitake, the explosive popularity of adaptogenic mushrooms — a subclass of adaptogens, i.e., plants, herbs or fungi that are supposedly able to help the body resist biochemical stressors of all kinds — have also begun to gain some serious traction, particularly amongst millennials.
Nadine Joseph, founder and CEO of the Seattle-based adaptogen company Peak and Valley, has noticed a growing interest amongst millennials in self-diagnosing, researching and subsequently incorporating adaptogenic mushrooms into their diet — a movement that she believes started because "we as a nation are just stressed and sick."
After all, this is how Joseph herself — as a trained researcher with a background in neuroscience — became fascinated by adaptogens. According to her, a few years ago, she started experiencing severe, adrenal gland-related anxiety and chronic fatigue while (ironically) researching stress as a research fellow at UCSF and UC Berkeley. Bristling at the idea of taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, Joseph instead began researching alternative ways of healing her body online, something she says led to her creating her own blends of adaptogens, which she says markedly decreased her anxiety and increased her energy.
Explaining that mushrooms in and of themselves contain complex carbohydrates called beta-glucans — which have immune-modulating and anti-tumor benefits — Joseph says that, in addition to strengthening the immune system, adaptogenic mushrooms can also help rebalance the body's reaction to stress. Acting on the neuroendocrine system and modulating the "intricate conversation between your brain and hormonal systems," they create a bio-feedback loop and have been shown to facilitate "neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive... and central nervous system-stimulating activity," per a 2010 peer-reviewed paper published in Pharmaceuticals (Basel).
"They actually help the body resist the stress response in a nonspecific way," she says, explaining that adaptogens, quite literally, help your body "adapt" to physical stressors. "With adaptogens, things are less extreme. There's a less intense stress response and the fatigue dip that happens after a stress response actually disappears."
And while adaptogenic mushrooms have long been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions as healing substances, the explosive popularity of adaptogen-centric brands like Moon Juice could also possibly be linked to an increasing skepticism of the pharmaceutical complex and the financial burdens of the U.S. healthcare system for some people. One of these people is a 27-year-old, LA-based freelance graphic designer named Deborah*, who first started reading about and using adaptogens after dealing with a chronic thyroid problem that she says was "dismissed" by multiple doctors — many of whom instructed her to "just drink fluids, even when I felt that there was something actually wrong."
"I just didn't feel believed and I didn't feel welcomed [by these doctors]. I felt like they thought I was exaggerating anything that I had," Deborah explains. "So I wanted to get on top of it to show my doctors, like, 'Look at all these ways I'm taking care of myself.'"
But while her initial use of adaptogenic mushrooms primarily stemmed from her resolve to "never be that sick again," Deborah said that it's a preventative measure that has continued to work for her and something she still regularly incorporates into her diet. And while Deborah admits that she'll occasionally "drop $200 at Moon Juice," she argues that this all is "cheaper for me than having insurance" — an important consideration for her as a freelancer without health insurance.
That said, at this point in time, the adaptogen space still isn't perfect in terms of complete accessibility. As Joseph says, much like the perception of shrooms only being used by white hippies, the wellness sphere at large has also been grappling with its own "whiteness" problem — something that obviously bleeds into the adaptogen space. After all, despite a rapid shift in adaptogens' public perception, alternative wellness as a whole is still primarily associated with wealthy, privileged white women with the ability to buy into pricey, celebrity-fronted companies. Not only that, but it's also a perception that hasn't exactly been helped by the exclusionary pricing of many of these products and lingering skepticism surrounding homeopathic, "new age-y" remedies, as well as the predominance of people like Moon Juice's Amanda Chantal Bacon and Goop's Gwyneth Paltrow acting as the primary arbiters of adaptogenic medicine.
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"The wellness industry as a whole, to be blunt, caters to white women with disposable incomes," Joseph explains. "And as a woman of color in this wellness and adaptogen space, it can be frustrating that minorities aren't really represented in an industry that's supposed to be about mindfulness and self-care. It's important we see people like ourselves."
Granted, she also believes that progress is being made, as Joseph has seen "really big pushes of people trying to become more cognizant of diversity," in tandem with the introduction of other adaptogen-centric companies within the wellness space. She says we shouldn't be surprised to see even more outfits pop up and succeed in the near future as more and more consumers research the efficacy of adaptogenic mushrooms online for themselves — and continue getting sicker, sadder and more stressed.
"It isn't any surprise that we're trying to heal ourselves holistically," Joseph says. "Especially in an age where anyone can learn the actual facts ... It's more about an empowered consumer right now." She pauses for a beat. "They're taking control."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.