Quitting smoking may be the most difficult challenge many people face. If you are a smoker, you know the hold that cigarettes have on you. You may have tried quitting cold turkey, using patches or gum, trying prescription cessation medications or even therapy to give up the habit. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., yet giving up the habit for a smoker is incredibly difficult to do.
Yet new research has found a surprising way for smokers to quit, and it involves a controversial substance: magic mushrooms.
Nicotine and Addiction
Quitting smoking is so difficult because of the addictive power of nicotine. Like other addictive substances, nicotine works on reward pathways in the brain. When you smoke and take in nicotine, your brain releases the chemical dopamine, which gives you a sense of pleasure. Over long-term use of nicotine, this dopamine pathway becomes altered. The result is that you feel intense cravings and seriously uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop smoking. This powerful addiction makes quitting so difficult that many people struggle to stop smoking for years, or even decades.
Psilocybin and Hallucinogens
New research on a hallucinogenic substance is giving new hope to smokers who desperately want to quit. Hallucinogens are substances that cause the user to have distorted perceptions that can include imagery, sounds and sensations. Hallucinogens include naturally occurring compounds, as well as those that have been made in laboratories.
Psilocybin is the hallucinogen that is being investigated for smoking cessation. It is a natural hallucinogen that is found in certain mushrooms. It has been used for thousands of years to induce hallucinations in the pursuit of religious and spiritual experiences.
Using Magic Mushrooms to Quit Smoking?
Research into the possible health benefits of hallucinogens has been limited. Because of extensive recreational use of these substances in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as research performed by rogue scientists, working with hallucinogens has largely been unheard of in the scientific community for decades. Now, researchers are returning to these compounds to peer into the workings of the human brain.
Researchers at the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University are getting back to those controversial substances to find out how psilocybin can help smokers. And, they are proving successful. Of the first five volunteer smokers ever to be treated with psilocybin for this purpose, four stopped smoking immediately and had not returned to the habit even a year later. The fifth reduced his smoking to one cigarette every two weeks. Overall, 80 percent of participants have been able to quit using psilocybin. For prescription cessation drugs, the success rate is barely one-third.
The results of the study are preliminary and the sample size is small, but the positive outcome is undeniable. The patients involved in the study were treated in a safe environment, with a physician present, but the psilocybin so far has caused no unwanted side effects or dangerous health impacts. The participants report feeling they experienced something mystical while under the influence of the psilocybin. They claimed to have come away from it feeling that smoking was irrelevant and unnecessary and that the overall experience was meaningful and important.
As positive results come from hallucinogenic research—such as the possibility of helping people quit smoking—more work can be expected. The controversy surrounding these substances may begin to lift as researchers uncover their important uses.