Disclaimer – The intent of this article is to provide education and harm reduction information for individuals who are already intending to use psilocybin (“magic mushrooms” or “shrooms”). The writer does not encourage the use of any illegal substances, including psilocybin.
Most of the misconceptions relating to harm caused by magic mushrooms and psychedelics began in the 1960s when sensationalized media reports and misinformation were spread in an attempt to crack down on the counterculture movement. This misinformation continued to be spread throughout the mid-late 20th century as part of the failed war on drugs.
Magic mushrooms, or "shrooms," are a relatively safe substance that are not toxic at usual doses. As with any medication, supplement, or drug, harmful reactions can result from taking higher doses than recommended or with certain underlying medical conditions. Millions of people have taken psychedelics like magic mushrooms worldwide, and reports of serious harm are exceedingly rare. There is also mounting research evidence to support the benefits of magic mushrooms taken as part of a guided or assisted-therapy program.
People use magic mushrooms for many reported reasons; recreationally with friends to enhance experiences, to help gain insight on a problem in life, improve mood, enhance creativity, or to simply experience an altered state of consciousness – to name a few.
The active compound in magic mushrooms is called psilocybin, which is found in over 200 species of mushrooms. Psilocybin-containing mushrooms grow naturally across the world, including the Pacific Northwest, southern United States, and Mexico. They tend to flourish in humid forests, although they can be found in urban environments growing in favorable conditions like damp wood chips.
Evidence supports that humans have been taking magic mushrooms for millennia based on art created by ancient cultures. The earliest known written records of magic mushroom use were in the fifteenth century by the Spanish in Central America. They reported that the Aztecs and Chichimecas peoples used these mushrooms in their sacred rituals.
Psilocybin-containing mushrooms act on serotonin receptors in certain parts of the brain. This results in changes in perception, sensations, thought patterns, mood and the way we think about ourselves and others. These temporary alterations can cause a shift in perspective, thinking, and mood lasting far beyond the acute effects.
Psilocybin can also be beneficial in disrupting negative thought patterns that underlie major mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and addictions. These potential positive changes are best attained when psilocybin is used as part of a guided therapy program, including preparation and integration with experienced therapists. Mystical experiences and emotional breakthroughs can occur, usually with a supportive set and setting. Increased social and environmental connectedness is often reported with psilocybin use – which could help to reduce the isolation and disconnection that underlies conditions like depression.
The predominant theory explaining these effects is that psychedelics like psilocybin create a temporary state of brain disorganization and increased ability to change (neuroplasticity). During this temporary state, new connections can be created in the brain, and existing pathways can be disrupted.
The recreational dose of psilocybin is usually 10 to 50 mg, roughly corresponding to 1 to 5 g of dried mushrooms. There can be considerable variation in the concentration of psilocybin in dried or fresh mushrooms depending on origin, species, and growing conditions.
Psilocybin is broken down to Psilocin in the body and starts to take effect roughly 30 minutes after taking it orally and usually lasts 4-6 hours. Magic mushrooms are typically taken orally in dried form, brewed into tea, or ground up and combined into chocolate. Another technique is called lemon tekking, where mushrooms are soaked in an acidic liquid like lemon juice to help with mushroom breakdown. There are anecdotal reports that lemon tekking causes a faster onset of effects and reduces nausea.
If you choose to take magic mushrooms, it's best to start at low doses and not take more until it's been at least 2 hours – when the effects peak. Magic mushrooms last 4-6 hours, so taking too much too soon increases the risk of having an unpleasant experience.
At typical doses – or well above – psilocybin is not toxic to any organ in our bodies. The lethal dose of psilocybin is extremely high. It is estimated to be 280mg/kg based on animal studies, which is roughly 800 times the dose commonly used in psilocybin-assisted therapy.
Several behavioral fatalities have been reported in people who have taken or are suspected of having taken magic mushrooms. Many of the reported cases of behavioural deaths like falls also involved other substances like THC and alcohol. In some cases, psilocybin intoxication was suspected by police but never confirmed by lab tests. People shouldn't take shrooms, or any other substance for that matter, in potentially risky environments.
Psilocybin has the potential to interact with certain medications like antidepressants or drugs that increase serotonin. People with underlying heart disease or conditions where temporary increases in blood pressure and heart rate could be harmful should not take magic mushrooms. There is a theoretical risk that psychedelics like psilocybin could worsen or precipitate psychosis. Individuals with a past psychotic episode or a family history of conditions like schizophrenia should avoid psilocybin.
Mushroom poisoning can be a serious thing. Especially if you don't trust the source of your shrooms or you're out foraging in the wild.
So while it's nearly impossible to overdose on shrooms, all it takes is a tiny amount of the wrong mushrooms to cause life-threatening harm, potentially even death.
Compared to most other substances, magic mushrooms are very safe substances for our bodies. The greater risk is psychological – having a “bad trip.” There is also a risk in taking a (currently) illegal substance outside of a research study or government exemption pathway.
Unpleasant side effects usually occur at higher doses, although these effects can be unpredictable. The most common reported adverse effects are temporary nausea, vomiting, anxiety, headache, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Rarely, disorientation and hallucinations may occur at high doses.
Psilocybin should be taken orally. Smoking mushrooms could result in a serious lung infection. Injecting mushrooms can also be extremely dangerous and could result in widespread life-threatening infections.
Tolerance can occur with frequent psilocybin use; however, there is no evidence to support that psilocybin use results in dependence or addiction. Psilocybin is, in fact, thought to be anti-addictive and is currently being used in research to treat problematic drug and alcohol use. While anyone who drinks alcohol has experienced withdrawal symptoms (also known as a hangover), mushrooms and psychedelics, in general, don't leave us regretting that tequila shot.
"Flashbacks" refer to re-experiencing the effects of a psychedelic like psilocybin without taking it recently. Flashbacks are not well understood, and it is still unclear how this effect might occur. They are a rare occurrence, self-reported in less than 1% of magic mushrooms users.
"Bad trips" or challenging experiences can happen after taking magic mushrooms; however, this is more likely with high doses in settings that are not supportive. Psychedelics’ can be confronting, so if you have past trauma or a mental health condition, there is a greater risk that you could feel worse without the guidance of an experienced mental health professional. It’s important to note that challenging experiences, with appropriate support and integration, can facilitate personal growth or processing of past trauma. Recent research has shown that nature and calming music may help to reduce symptoms of a challenging trip. Many wonderful organizations can provide help and integration after a challenging experience, like the Fireside Project, which provides free call or text psychedelic peer support.
Written by YAWN
Did you know magic mushrooms are being studied and are starting to clinically show that they support people with problematic substance use? The largest study to date was with people struggling with alcohol addiction. A recent clinical trial found that approximately 50% of patients who received psilocybin therapy stopped drinking compared to only 25% in the placebo therapy group.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration even proposed a massive increase in the production of psilocybin for research purposes, as they believe it can aid in developing new federally approved therapeutic medications.
Maybe our favorite snippets from our research came from the American Addiction Centers' post on psychedelics. They go on to say, "There appear to be no documented case studies of fatalities as a result of overdosing on magic mushrooms alone, as individuals who have suffered fatalities after using mushrooms are also known to have used other potentially dangerous drugs in combination with the mushrooms. Of course, this does not mean that it is impossible to overdose to the point where there is a potential risk. There are also no reports of physical dependence developing from chronic use of psilocybin."
Psilocybin has shown potential to revolutionize the treatment for addictions. There are many studies underway looking at treating other problematic substance use like opioids and cocaine which are traditionally very difficult to treat. The future ahead is exciting and we’re grateful to see the magic of mushrooms leading the charge.
Conclusion written by YAWN
The short answer is no. It would take A LOT of psychedelic mushrooms to overdose on shrooms, maybe too much to stomach. Or it would take shrooms mixed with other drugs, which is not a good idea. Mixing drugs is asking for a bad trip, or worse.
If you feel like you or a friend took too much and is in a panic, call Fireside Project. A call there can help you mentally reconfigure your experience.
As we shared earlier, it's best to start low and go slow. If you aren't feeling the effects, wait at least two hours before consuming more. Ideally, you'd wait a whole day, but that's not always realistic for some.
Dr. Lindsay Mackay, MD, CCFP
Dr. Lindsay Mackay MD, CCFP, Department of Family Medicine, UBC is a clinician-scientist and addiction specialist. She is a primary care and addiction medicine physician with PHS Community Services Society and Vancouver Coastal Health in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She currently provides ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA-assisted therapy for people with mental health concerns.
Lindsay is a graduate of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, NIDA-funded International Collaborative Addiction Medicine Research Fellowship. She is experienced in the exploration of psychedelics as novel therapies and is currently involved with clinical trials evaluating psychedelic therapy for treating mental health conditions and problematic substance use.