Teonanácatl was the name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, who received psilocybin mushrooms. This term has been translated as “flesh of the gods.” There are more than 180 varieties of mushrooms that contain psilocybin and psilocin, the alkaloids responsible for the psychoactive effects. Popularly they are called “magic mushrooms”, and are perhaps the best known fungal psychoactive variety and with the greatest influence on the collective cultural imaginary.
The different varieties of psychoactive mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, which contain psychoactive alkaloids such as psilocin, psilocybin, and baeocystin, belong to the families Strophariaceae and Hymenogastraceae of basidiomycete mushrooms, of the order Agaricales. The most common and well-known genera that produce species containing these alkaloids are Psilocybe and Panaeolus.
Some of the best-known species are the Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe cyanescens, Psilocybe azurescens, and, above all, the Psilocybe cubensis, of which there are dozens of varieties such as B +, Ecuador, Mazatapec, and a long etcetera.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been used by different cultures for their intoxicating effects, particularly in the Mesoamerican Aztec peoples of pre-Columbian times and later among the Mazatecs and Zapotecs.
There are more than 180 species of mushrooms that contain tryptamine alkaloids such as psilocybin and psilocin. They include the genera Psilocybe (117 species), Gymnopilus (13 species), Panaeolus (7 species), Copelandia (12 species), Hypholoma (6 species), Pluteus (6 species), Inocybe (6 species), Conocybe (4 species) and Agrocybe, Galerina and Mycena.
The genus Psilocybe is the most common, and most of its species are found in subtropical humid forests. Mexico is the country where more varieties of psychoactive mushrooms are found.
Although psychoactive mushrooms are found both from Alaska to southern Chile, Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii, Europe, Siberia, Japan, and Southeast Asia, precise knowledge about their geographical distribution is not very developed.
The different varieties of magic mushrooms have been used by different peoples since ancient times. Indigenous groups have revered the visions induced by mushrooms, and have used them in their magical-religious rituals to communicate with the spiritual world, the spirits of the deceased, and to gain knowledge and healing.
The oldest samples of probable use of mushrooms, although not entirely conclusive, can be found in a mural in Tassili, in the Sahara desert, southeast of Algeria. That mural dates from between 7000 and 9000 BC. C., magic mushrooms are depicted, as well as anthropomorphic figures carrying mushrooms. It is speculated what type of magic mushrooms are depicted, and some authors have identified it as Psilocybe mairei, a species known from Algeria and Morocco. Some authors, however, doubt the authenticity of such paintings.
Also a mural of Selva Pascuala, in Cuenca (Spain), dated from between the Upper Palaeolithic (6000 BC.C.) to the Middle Neolithic (4000 BC.C.), you can find representations of fungi, which have been identified as Psilocybe hispanica and also as Psilocybe semilanceata. In these murals are represented figures of bulls, so some authors establish the relationship of the growth of fungi with the habitat since these species grow in the bovine feces.
We also found the use of psychoactive mushrooms in Asia. In Japan grows the Gymnopilus spectabilis, known as maitake (“dancing mushroom”), whose use was compiled by Minamoto Takakuni in a book of stories, the Konjaku Monogatari, dating from the late ninth-century AD.C. This mushroom has also been known as owaraitake (“the laughing mushroom”). Parietal pictorial representations have also been found in caves and shelters in South Africa and Australia, among other sites.
In the New World, different groups have used and used psilocybin mushrooms. In particular different Mexican ethnic groups, such as the Mazatecs, the Mixtecs, and the Zapotecs, among others. Mushroom-shaped vessels associated with the classic and classic Mayan periods have been found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador dating from between 500 BC. C. and 900 AD. C. and that suggests the ancestral knowledge of the use of psilocybin mushrooms. The first documented reports of mushroom use are from an Indian named Tezozómoc, who wrote in Spanish in 1598 about the use of intoxicating mushrooms at the coronation celebration of Montezuma II in 1502, in the Aztec civilization.
There are representations of mushrooms in Mexican art that survived the conquest. Good examples of this are the Codex Vindobonensis Mixteca, the Codex Magliabechiano, and the famous frescoes of Tepantitla, in the city of Teotihuacan.
Reports from the Spanish colonizers, such as that of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, called Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva España, described the use of mushrooms not only in celebrations but also in religious, medical, and divinatory ceremonies. Sahagún’s writings describe the use of the name teunamacatlh (teonanácatl) to designate psilocybin mushrooms. Teonanácatl has been translated as “the flesh of the gods”, although other authors suggest that “sacred mushrooms” or “wonderful mushrooms” would be more literal translations.
The Spaniards considered that the use of the mushroom was contrary to Christian morality, and in 1620 the court of the Inquisition declared its use heretical, as well as that of any other intoxicating plant, and harshly repressed healers and those who ingested the fungus. Therefore, the traditional use of psilocybin mushrooms went underground and secret.
The rediscovery of the traditional use of psilocybin mushrooms in the New World occurred thanks to the work of Reko and Schultes, who obtained and identified three distinct varieties of visionary mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in 1938. That same year, Irmgard Weitlaner and Jean Bassett Johnson attended a ceremony with mushrooms, although they did not participate in the ingestion and therefore could not experience its effects.
In 1952, Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina Pavlovna became interested in the cult of psilocybin mushrooms, and after a review of the available documents and after contacting Schultes, Reko, Johnson, and Weitlaner, they began their trips to Huautla de Jiménez. During the summer of 1955, Gordon Wasson and his photographer Allan Richardson attended an evening with psilocybin mushrooms with Maria Sabina—a Mazatec shaman—and were the first Westerners to experience and report the effects of mushrooms and the traditional uses among the Mazatecs.
Chemical composition and dosage
The active substances present in psilocybin mushrooms are psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), psilocin (4-HO-DMT), and biocytin (4-HO-NMT). Psilocybin is the main component of most varieties and the most stable alkaloid of the three.
Psilocybin was isolated by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1957, from Mexican Psilocybe mushrooms, grown in Paris by mycologist Roger Heim from mushrooms collected in Mexico during Heim and Wasson’s expedition. Hofmann is known to have synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and was also the first to synthesize psilocybin in 1958.
Studies on the pharmacology of psilocybin indicate that psilocybin is converted to psilocin once absorbed, and that equivalent amounts of psilocin produce the same subjective effects as psilocybin. Therefore, psilocybin is sometimes considered to be a stable precursor (a prodrug), but the psychoactive alkaloid responsible for the effects of mushrooms is psilocin.
There are no specific studies, and there is very little information about the effects and pharmacology of baeocystin.
The potency of psilocybin mushrooms varies greatly depending on the species and variety, as well as the conditions in which they have grown and the age of the mushrooms.
Common varieties such as Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe semilanceata contain about 6-10 mg of psilocybin per gram of dried mushrooms. Other varieties, such as Psilocybe azurescens and Psilocybe bohemica, contain more psilocybin, about 1.78%, and 1.74%, respectively. There are varieties of intermediate powers, such as Panaeolus cyanescens, also known as Copelandia cyanescens, which contain 0.85% psilocybin.
The doses of pure psilocybin mushrooms are as follows:
Microdose: <4 mg
Low dose: 4-8 mg
Average dose: 6-20 mg
High dose: 20-35 mg
Very high dose: >35 mg
The doses of mushrooms vary depending on the species, their state of conservation, whether they are fresh or dried mushrooms, and other factors, so adjusting the doses of fungi is always imprecise. Usually, the doses for common varieties (P. cubensis and similar) of dried mushrooms are as follows:
Microdose: <0.25 g
Low dose: 0.25-1 g
Average dose: 1-2.5 g
High dose: 2.5-5 g
Very high dose: >5 g
Psilocybin mushrooms produce psychoactive effects in humans very similar to the rest of classic psychedelics such as LSD and mescaline. Most users describe the experience as an internal journey, in which different phases are crossed with different effects. The first effects usually begin to be perceived earlier than with LSD or mescaline, and about 30 minutes after ingestion they can be appreciated. The maximum effects usually establish between 60 and 90 minutes after intake and last for about two hours before starting to decrease. The total duration of the experience is around 4 to 6 hours, depending on the dose.
On the physical plane, the main effects of psilocybin include pupil dilation, slight increases in blood pressure, and heart rate (especially with high doses). The variation in blood pressure seems more related to subjective experience than to the physiological effects of psilocybin, particularly if anxiety appears. Nausea may sometimes occur (especially when mushrooms are ingested, rather than with pure psilocybin), and more rarely vomiting or diarrhea. Tremors, muscle discomfort, and also dizziness may appear.
The physical effects in general are usually mild and insignificant.
Psychological effects are characterized by marked alterations in sensory perceptions, as well as profound changes in consciousness and cognition.
In the sensory field, visual alterations may occur in the form of colorful kaleidoscopic visions with eyes closed, intensification of colors, and distortion in the shapes of objects (surfaces that undulate or move). Auditory disturbances may also appear, such as an increased appreciation of music and sounds. Synesthetic experiences can occur, in which stimuli corresponding to a certain sensory field are perceived and processed by another sense (for example, sounds that are perceived as visions). The sense of touch can also be altered and experience an increase in tactile sensitivity, sensations of cold or heat, tingling or feeling of energy running through the body, as well as paresthesias.
From the cognitive and conscious point of view, the alterations can be very intense and both very positive and frightening experiences appear.
Recent studies have observed psilocybin’s ability to induce mystical experiences in controlled settings and at high doses. Such mystical experiences include feelings of numinosity, deeply positive emotional state, inner unity, transcendence of time and space, ineffability, and a sense of unity and interconnectedness with all things.
Frightening experiences can include feelings of atrocious fear, paranoia, feelings of dying or going crazy, feelings of depression or anger, elevated anxiety, agitation, confusion, and disorientation both Spatio-temporal and internal. This phenomenon has sometimes been called a “bad trip”. Reactions with psychotic symptoms rarely occur, which usually disappear when the effects diminish.
In most cases, however, mushroom-induced experiences contain both positive and pleasant elements, as well as less pleasant elements that can be experienced as a psychological challenge. Experiences in which personal biographical content appears, and about relationships with significant people, are common. In addition, there may be a dissolution of personal boundaries, or dissolution of the ego, with sensations described as “oceanic”, which can be lived as a transcendent experience but can also be lived with anxiety.
Some studies show that psilocybin produces an increase in a positive mood, and a positive bias in the perception of stimuli, related to a possible decrease in the activity of the amygdala (a brain structure responsible for processing potentially threatening emotions).
Effects in controlled settings In addition to psilocybin’s ability to induce mystical experiences, other potentially therapeutic effects have been found in clinical trials.
The use of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and the increase in quality of life in cases of people with advanced cancer diagnoses have been investigated. Psilocybin has also been used in research into the treatment of cluster headaches as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Studies have also been conducted on the use of psilocybin in tobacco and alcohol addiction. Research is currently underway on the therapeutic potential of psilocybin for conventional treatment-resistant depressive disorders, with promising results.
The active substances of psilocybin mushrooms, psilocybin, and psilocin are controlled substances in Schedule I of the 1971 United Nations Convention. That is why the sale of these substances is illegal.
However, fungi containing these substances are controlled differently in different countries, according to each country’s interpretation of Schedule I. In Schedule, I of the 1971 Convention, only active ingredients, not natural materials containing them (such as fungi or plants), appear, which leaves open to the particular laws of each country the interpretation of the prohibition of botanical material. In addition, in many countries, these fungi grow wild.
In most European countries, psilocybin mushrooms are illegal and cannot be bought or sold. The format in which mushrooms had been sold in recent decades was considered a “product” or “preparation” of psilocybin, so any presentation of such mushrooms was considered illegal.
For several years the mushrooms were available for purchase and sale in the Netherlands, in smart shops. Fresh as well as dried mushrooms could be legally purchased, as they were legal until 2002. From that year on, dried mushrooms were declared illegal, although fresh mushrooms could still be sold. That situation changed and the sale of fresh mushrooms has been illegal since 2008. An exception is the Variety Sclerotia, also known as “truffles” or “philosopher’s stones”, which can still be acquired, as it is not a fungus, but mycelium.
The spores, as well as culture kits that do not contain fungi, nor therefore their active ingredients, are sold in smart shops in some countries.
Prevalence of use
The prevalence of mushroom use in the EU is considerably lower than that of cannabis and appears to be equal to the prevalence of ecstasy use (MDMA) in some countries among students aged 15-16 years. Surveys in twelve countries of the European Union indicate that between the ages of 15 and 24, the use of psilocybin mushrooms at some time in life is between 1% and 8%. According to published results from the 2017 Global Drug Survey, psilocybin mushrooms are the eighth-most widely used substance ever in life among the surveyed population, behind alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, high-caffeine beverages, and pipe tobacco (shisha), MDMA, and cocaine. According to this survey, 24.4% of respondents had consumed mushrooms at some time in their lives.
In this same survey, psilocybin mushrooms were the substance that had generated the least requests for emergency medical treatment, only 0.2% of the people who used them requested medical attention. In this sense, fungi have been considered the safest substance reported. As for the occurrence of difficult experiences, mushrooms are the substance that caused the least difficult episodes of all the psychedelic substances investigated, both of vegetable origin (ayahuasca and peyote) and synthetic (LSD, NBOMe, 2C-x, and smoked DMT).
In some EU countries, it is more common to consume mushrooms collected in their natural habitat, while in other countries users usually grow their own mushrooms. In Norway, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Denmark the collection of mushrooms predominates, while in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Finland self-cultivation are more common.
Health and risk reduction
Studies conducted in 2011 concluded that the use of psilocybin mushrooms is relatively safe and that there are few reports of adverse effects, qualified as “light adverse effects”. The same studies indicate the importance of controlling both the quality and the context in which psilocybin mushrooms are used.
Due to the possibility of intense experiences that generate anxiety, people with a history of cardiovascular diseases, in particular those who are taking medication to control these pathologies or who by medical indication have to reduce their physical activity, should refrain from using mushrooms.
As for the quality of the mushrooms, in the case of collecting them in their natural environment, it is essential to know how to identify the fungi correctly and not confuse them with any variety that may be toxic or poisonous. In general, only some varieties of the genera Galerina and Pholiota have toxic or deadly effects and can be confused with psilocybin mushrooms.
While mushrooms pose few risks to physical health as psilocybin is a pharmacologically very safe substance, in addition to having no addictive potential, there are psychological health risks that must be taken into account. Some of these risks may occur during the experience, and others later, in the medium term.
The main risk of psilocybin mushrooms is that they trigger a difficult experience, in which there are unpleasant symptoms such as fear, anxiety, paranoid ideas, fear of death or going crazy, symptoms of a psychotic nature, or the feeling that the trip will never end. This type of experience can occur with any dose, although its manifestations in such cases are different.
At low and medium doses unpleasant psychological contents may appear and the person may try to resist them, this resistance usually generates greater anxiety. In such cases, a change in context can help decrease anxiety. A calm environment and a willingness to indulge in the non-judgmental experience often help to continue the journey and resolve these difficult times.
At high doses, resistances are lower due to the intensity of the experience, and people are usually totally immersed in the journey. In such cases, difficult experiences may occur in which there is a high emotional intensity, cathartic expressions, and unusual psychological manifestations of a psychotic nature, which usually disappear when the pharmacological effect decreases. In these situations, physical and emotional restraint and support during the experience by a caregiver, preferably sober, are needed.
After difficult experiences, subsequent psychological difficulties of different kinds may occur, which affect the health of the person beyond the experience itself. Symptoms of acute stress may appear after a traumatic experience with fungi, which persist over time and require specialized psychological attention. The occurrence of severe and persistent psychiatric disorders following the use of psilocybin mushrooms, although it can occur, is very rare. In the case of experiencing psychological difficulties after a psychedelic experience, integration psychotherapy sessions can help reduce symptoms and properly process the mental contents of the session.
Most difficult situations can be prevented by taking into account the context in which the experience takes place, the dose, the company, and the vital moment in which it is decided to use the mushrooms.
Regarding the context, the usual recommendations regarding the set & setting are especially important when using psilocybin mushrooms. A quiet, safe environment, free of interruptions and unexpected interference, aesthetically cared for, with pre-selected music and above all with the company of trusted people, is suitable for the type of experience that mushrooms induce. Less controlled and safe environments can imply a greater possibility of unexpected events that can generate anxiety. Therefore, it is essential to take into account in what context the mushrooms are going to be used and decide on the elements that are going to be part of it.
It is also important to have a certain psychological preparation when taking mushrooms. Good theoretical knowledge of the potential effects that can appear with each dose can be of great help to enter the experience with greater confidence.
Mushrooms, like any other psychedelic substance, have the possibility of making unconscious contents emerge. Therefore, it is important to take into account the psychological state at the time of taking the mushrooms. Psilocybin mushrooms consumed in times of stress, worry, depression, or life difficulties, can increase the intensity of such symptoms during the experience.
Although from a therapeutic perspective it is considered that precisely this is the mechanism by which psychedelic substances can be useful in psychotherapy, it must be borne in mind that the experiences induced by mushrooms can be intense and involve difficult emotions more easily if one is going through a complicated vital moment.
A good vital and emotional stability, as well as a good preparation, a careful context, in the company of trusted people, and a willingness to enter the experience, whatever happens, are factors that can contribute to making the experience with mushrooms pleasant and fruitful.