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Are Psychedelics the Future of Mental Health?

Research has shown that certain psychedelic drugs can help ease depression and rewire the brain for positive thinking.

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A growing volume of research shows that certain recreational psychedelic drugs, such as MDMA, ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), can help ease depression and rewire the brain for positive thinking. Researchers are still sussing out exactly how, but they suspect that, put simply, “psychedelics help parts of the brain open up that are closed,” says Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic doctor in New York City who practices, and lectures on, ketamine-assisted treatments.

The latest buzz in drug-assisted therapy came from a November 2020 report in the journal JAMA Psychiatry that found 20- to 30-mg doses of psilocybin, in combination with talk therapy, work better than antidepressants in treating people with clinical depression.

Another 2020 study looked at a compound called 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (commonly referred to as MDMA) for treating anxiety and depression in people with life-threatening illnesses. Researchers found that patients saw a significant decrease in symptoms and were able to sleep better—even after 12 months. Turns out, MDMA increases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, helping to quickly boost mood.

Meanwhile, ketamine, a derivative of phencyclidine (PCP) that was once used as an anesthetic, may have a reputation as a party drug, but recent research shows it’s actually classified as a rapid-acting antidepressant (dramatic results occur in less than a day), though how it works remains a bit of a mystery. One theory is that it causes connections between brain cells to regrow, ultimately creating new neural pathways for positive thinking.

More research is needed, but the potential of psychedelics in psychotherapy has counseling and neuroscience professionals eager for legalization and broader access. If you’re curious about trying them, don’t do it without medical guidance. Talk to your mental health practitioner about what is legal and available in your state.

This story is part of Yoga Journal’s Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health

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