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Does microdosing magic mushrooms help people with mental health issues? Science is trying to find out

WARNING: This story contains mentions of suicide

“Microdosing saved my life,” says Andrina Stan. 

Stan, 35, works as an integrated therapist in Toronto and has struggled with her mental health at times. Stan says she believes it was psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in magic mushrooms, that helped her turn her life around. 

“In December 2020 I found myself in the middle of this living space, curled up in a ball,” she explains. “It was a very dark space. So I was contemplating suicide.”

Stan says she tried different therapies but nothing really helped until she found magic mushrooms — which are illegal to produce, possess and sell in Canada without special permission. 

“I’m not sure that I would still be here if it weren’t for microdosing,” Stan says.

Andrina Stan said she believes microdosing psilocybin saved her life. ‘I’m not sure that I would still be here if it weren’t for microdosing.’ (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Stan has been microdosing psilocybin for three years.

She says she is aware that using that psilocybin can pose health risks, and deciding to microdose is not something she took lightly.

“I think that there’s a bit of a craze with psychedelics, and I know a lot of people, especially people my age, they just think it’s a fun thing to do,” she says. “I don’t see it as something that you should just pick up and try.”

What microdosing psilocybin allowed her to do, Stan says, is work through her issues. “It slowly brings that pain up so you can safely deal with it.”

Stan’s experience with microdosing psilocybin is a powerful anecdotal story, but what does the science say about the practice as a potential mental health treatment?

First clinical trial into microdosing psilocybin 

Neuroscientist Rotem Petranker kneels in front of a safe in a nondescript medical building in midtown Toronto. He punches a code into the safe, opens it and takes out a bottle of pills. There’s a security camera attached to the wall nearby.

When your clinical trial involves an illegal substance like psilocybin, this is how the drugs are stored. 

Through the University of Toronto, Petranker is leading the first clinical trial examining the effects of microdosing psilocybin on major depressive disorder.

And when your trial is the first of its kind in the world, there’s another kind of responsibility, Petranker says.

We’re taking it very seriously, because we are setting the foundation for what will hopefully be decades more of research,” he says.  “We need the foundation to be solid.”

A man with wavy hair and a beard, with a serious expression on his face, holds up a pill bottle.
Rotem Petranker, the director of the Canadian Centre for Psychedelic Science, holds a bottle of placebo pills used in the world’s first trial of microdosing psilocybin for major depressive disorder. The trial is being funded by the University of Toronto. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

There are 20 participants in Petranker’s eight-week trial, and each suffers from clinical depression. Once a week they either get a microdose of psilocybin or a placebo, and then Petranker and his team put them through a series of tests to determine if they experience an improvement in their mood. 

Zeina Beidas, the lead research assistant, says microdosing is so trendy right now that many people in the general public simply believe it works. 

“This is just a bunch of people with personal experiences that said, ‘Oh, yeah, this works for me,'” Beidas says. “So now everyone thinks microdosing helps with depression, but actually there’s no research, there’s no systematic controlled research.”

Due to the way the trial is structured, Petranker doesn’t know who is taking psilocybin and who was given a placebo. And while he doesn’t have any concrete findings yet, he has some initial observations. 

“I’ve been seeing people getting better. A lot of people have gotten a lot better,” he says.

“Some people were having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning or even holding a job. And by the end of the trial, they no longer meet criteria for major depressive disorder. So that’s a very dramatic shift.”

A woman with long dark hair sits at a desk in front of a laptop, and looks to one side with a serious expression on her face.
Zeina Beidas is the lead research assistant on the clinical trial into microdosing psilocybin. She said microdosing is very trendy right now, even though there is no definitive science to prove it works. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Still, Petranker cautions that people shouldn’t get too excited just yet.

It’s a small study over a short period of time, and it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. Also, he explains because the trial dose is so low, many participants can’t tell if they’ve taken psilocybin or a placebo.

“And so because they don’t know what they’ve taken, but they come in with a lot of expectations and hopes, it’s possible that just because of those hopes and because they come into the lab and they feel like they’re doing something for themselves already, this affects their depression in very profound ways,” Petranker says. 

“And so this might be the placebo effect in action.”

To know more definitively, Petranker says he would need to extend the clinical trial by six months and recruit 20 to 30 more participants. The trial has been funded by the University of Toronto, but Petranker says more funding would be needed to keep it going. 

“This research is important, because people are already microdosing in droves,” Petranker says. 

“So the science is far behind what the actual practices in real life are. It’s extremely important to see whether microdosing is effective and also whether microdosing is safe.”

Selling magic mushrooms

Even though there’s no hard scientific proof, some Canadians are buying into the practice of microdosing psilocybin anyway. Magic mushrooms are readily available on the internet and there are a growing number of bricks-and-mortar dispensaries in cities across the country. 

Mush Luv is one of them. Its first store opened in April of 2023 in downtown Toronto. The company quickly expanded to two stores and plans to open a third. 

Mush Luv has a “head of outreach,” but because the stores sell illegal products he uses an alias – Bezo West. There’s no single type of person who comes to the store looking to microdose magic mushrooms, West says.  

“It goes from your regular, you know, construction worker, it could be a person in finance in the office,” he says. “It could be an elderly couple, maybe who just want to add a little bit of vibrancy to their day.”

A young man with dark curly hair wears a golf shirt with a heart-shaped 'Mush Luv' logo.
Bezo West does public outreach for Mush Luv, a mushroom dispensary with two stores in Toronto. He says business is good and the company plans to open a third store soon. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

West says a lot of the demand is from people who say they are looking for help with their mental health problems.

“I have seen so many people, personally, come in being like, ‘Oh, I’m on antidepressants. I don’t want to be on this anymore, these aren’t working for me. I’d rather go get mushrooms instead of going to take antidepressants.”

The magic mushroom products Mush Luv sells are illegal in Canada. And while it hasn’t been raided, police have pressed charges at similar dispensaries across the country. 

When asked if it worries him that he works in an illegal store, West smiles. 

“I feel like I’m doing a little bit of God’s work,” he says. “Just helping people find a path to whatever helps with them. You know – it genuinely makes me feel happy.” 

West doesn’t think psilocybin should be illegal. He says he believes that every Canadian should have the right to safe, equitable, regulated access to the drug. 

“I genuinely think it’s going to go straight to where cannabis is. We’re right there in that process. So it’s very interesting times,” West says.  

A serious warning

Dr. Ishrat Husain is a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental health in Toronto. He’s been studying psilocybin as a potential treatment for certain mental health conditions for several years. 

He’s aware of how popular microdosing magic mushrooms has become – and how little science there is to back up the practice.  

“There’s no evidence to support the benefits of microdosing,” he says.

A man with dark hair and wearing a shirt, tie and jacket, looks off to the side of the photo with a serious expression on his face.
Dr. Ishrat Husein is the lead investigator in a clinical trial commissioned by Health Canada to test whether psilocybin could be a viable treatment for some mental health conditions. He is also hoping to learn if psilocybin needs to induce a psychedelic trip to have therapeutic benefits. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Dr. Husain says people should be careful if they get psilocybin online or at a dispensary, because he stresses it’s impossible to know where the mushrooms come from or how strong they might be. 

“People who self-medicate with psychedelic drugs like psilocybin may in fact damage their mental health,” he warns. 

“I work in the CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) emergency department. Anecdotally, I see young people in particular coming in after using powerful hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin, and leading to really, really negative mental health outcomes, like even a psychotic episode.”

Dr. Husain says his concerns extend to microdosing. 

“Although theoretically the risk may be lower with lower doses of the drug, we just simply don’t know whether that’s the case, because there have been no studies in people with mental health problems taking microdoses of these substances.” 

Andrina Stan, who graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Toronto, continues to use psilocybin, but she urges others thinking of microdosing to do it safely. 

“You should inform yourself. And you should definitely speak to professionals before, during and after. It’s not something to joke about or to do for fun.”

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