Psychedelics are gaining popularity in the mental health space for their potential therapeutic effects on the brain, treatment-resistant depression and addiction. We delve into the impact the natural compounds psilocybin and ibogaine have on the human brain and how they can affect mental well-being, including serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
NutritionInsight speaks with Stephan Tap, education and research assistant at the faculty of behavioral and movement science, clinical, neuro- and development psychology at the Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “Bringing neurological insight into how psilocybin works, we know more about how this substance affects the brain and how it might help combat addiction,” says Tap.
“Multiple reviews have been released in the past couple of years stating that psilocybin, and other psychedelics, help individuals overcome their addiction as they target serotonin receptors (5-HT1A and 5-HT2A) that regulate emotional and cognitive processes.”
The researcher further explains that recently, it has been posited that psychedelics reorganize disordered neural pathways in the default mode network (network of interacting brain regions) and mesolimbic reward circuitry (a dopaminergic pathway in the brain) while also inducing neuroplasticity and altering brain network connectivity.
“But I am particularly interested in how serotonergic psychedelics, such as psilocybin, seem to also be active at the 5-HT2C receptor site. This receptor has been demonstrated to inhibit dopamine release in the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens to primary regions implicated in addiction,” Tap explains. A study previously showed that psilocybin might hold potential for treatment-resistant depression and other demonstrated therapeutic effects on the brain.
The inflection point
Tap expresses uncertainty regarding differences in addiction to different substances such as alcohol, drugs, sugar or nicotine, although adding that all addiction probably arises from the same underlying neural substrates.
“Human beings can become addicted to anything, be it shopping, gambling, sex or social media. Technically, you can become addicted when you fall in love, as neuroscientist Marc Lewis has stated. Addiction is a powerful habit that has spun out of control, and this is why individuals keep using despite adverse consequences, as the almost age-old adage goes.”
“I think what psychedelics do, in general, is significantly shaking up the [brain] system, accompanied by mystical experiences with deep insights about life and being in awe of the universe that leads to a so-called ‘inflection point’ in someone’s life.”
Moreover, the researcher states that psychedelics allow the individual to truly and deeply re-evaluate the values in life and exemplifies that it will enable thoughts of consequences to occur, such as: “What am I doing to myself? Eating, smoking or drinking too much is so bad for me.” “Whether psychedelics have specific effects on certain addictions remains to be explored because the field is too young to draw any hard conclusions.”
Tap details that based on current evidence, psilocybin is particularly good for alcohol addiction, while ibogaine works particularly well for opioids. The duration of both substances differs as ibogaine takes about one to two days, whereas psilocybin lasts for four to five hours, inevitably leading to differences in treatment.
“The few clinical trials that have been done so far with psilocybin often involve an adjunct of 12-week psychotherapy and, particularly, motivational enhancement therapy. Ibogaine has not entered the academic field yet, but it is often done in group ceremonies with one shaman accompanied by indigenous music and chanting.”
Forecasting the nutrition industry
Meanwhile, Tap says not to be a big proponent of legalizing these substances as “individuals can become very vulnerable while under the influence of psychedelics, and this makes them particularly vulnerable during a guided session. Some shamans or guides, with bad intentions, might harm them.”
“But I believe that microdosing, particularly with psilocybin, will only become bigger in the coming years, despite the null effects coming from the scientific literature. There is still a lot of discussion about whether it is just a placebo or whether it works, and there are good arguments for both.”
Further detailing that the nutrition sector might integrate psychedelics with particular diets, which is already “somewhat happening,” Tap exemplifies the Paul Stamets protocol – using microdoses of psilocybin in combination with Lion’s mane and vitamin B3/niacin. This is purported to induce neurogenesis – creating new neurons that support brain health.
“One individual in Brabant, the Netherlands, died due to cardiac arrest during an ibogaine ceremony. People with cardiac problems should not try ibogaine as it severely reduces heart rate and blood pressure, which can then lead to cardiac arrest. It is safe to say that individuals should always use these substances under supervision with trained guides and facilitators,” Tap stresses.
By Beatrice Wihlander