As a biohacker, I’ve made it my mission to look high and low for ways to upgrade my biology. Today I’m going to write about a controversial biohacking topic: psychedelics.
First things first: psychedelics are illegal in the United States, and each one comes with significant risk. However, research and anecdotal evidence show that they can be powerful biohacks.
This article will look at the benefits and detriments of Ayahuasca, LSD (acid), psilocybin (mushrooms), and MDMA (ecstasy). I am not suggesting you use any of these. This article is purely informational. It’s based on a combination of clinical research, my personal experience, and the experiences of others.
The potential of psychedelics – In Bulletproof Radio #329 I chat with Dennis McKenna. Dennis is director of ethnopharmacology at the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit organization looking at psychedelic therapy. In this 1-minute excerpt, he talks about the possible uses – and challenges – of psychedelics.
A brief history of psychedelic research
In the 1960s, psychedelics were an exciting new area of clinical research. LSD and psilocybin showed promise as therapies for everything from addiction to depression. More famously, though, they were a major part of the counterculture hippie movement at the time, drawing a lot of negative attention from politicians and government officials.
Ultimately, the US government classified psychedelics as Schedule I substances in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, claiming that they:
- Have high potential for abuse
- Have no medical use
- Are unsafe, even under medical supervision
Today, a number of scientific organizations argue against psychedelics’ illegality. Research has found that psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin are non-addictive and effective forms of medicine when taken under a doctor or psychiatrist’s supervision. In the last 20 years, scientists like Bulletproof Radio guest Rick Doblin have convinced the government to allow psychedelic research again. So far it’s been promising.
Let’s take a closer look at each psychedelic and the research behind it.
I first took Ayahuasca in 2003 – in Peru, where it’s legal.
I was fat, burned out from Silicon Valley, and battling mold poisoning at the time. The traditional medical approach had failed me, so I began looking into alternative ways to improve my mood and cognitive performance. I ended up in a guest house in the Peruvian Andes, asking the owners – in horrifically broken Spanish – to connect me to an Ayahuasca shaman. I met the local shaman and we planned a ceremony for the following day. I knew the shaman was good when he asked me whether I was taking MAO inhibitors or other antidepressants that interact with banisteriopsis caapi, one of the plants used to brew Ayahuasca.
At dawn the next morning, the shaman led me to a hill overlooking the Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) ruins, just outside the capital of the ancient Incan Empire. He set up a tent and pulled out a little bag of stones, which he laid around us in a circle while he chanted.
I was skeptical of the stones and chanting, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy watching.
The first cup, to my surprise, he poured right into his dog’s mouth. He explained that his dog always journeyed with him. He drank the next dose, and then gave a double dose to me (I’m 6’4” and weighed around 260 lbs. at the time).
I don’t remember much from the few hours that followed, but I did come away from the experience with enormous, bounding energy. It felt like my whole life up until that point I had to push to do everything because I was always tired. All of a sudden that was gone. The feeling lasted for several months.
Of all the psychedelics on this list, Ayahuasca has the least research behind it. What little there is, though, is promising.
Me and the Ayahuasca shaman, 2003 (just kidding. She was a friendly girl we met while hiking).
Benefits of Ayahuasca
- In a 2015 pilot study, researchers gave Ayahuasca to 6 patients with treatment-resistant depression. The patients showed a ~70% decrease in depressive symptoms 21 days after taking a single dose of Ayahuasca and reported no significant side effects except vomiting shortly after drinking the brew, which is normal  (in fact, shamans consider it cleansing and essential to the experience).
- 12 participants who did Ayahuasca-assisted therapy (therapy sessions while on Ayahuasca) reported significant decreases in alcohol and cocaine abuse 6 months after the therapy ended . Interestingly, Ayahuasca-assisted therapy did not help with cannabis or painkiller use.
Downsides to Ayahuasca
- The most serious risk with Ayahuasca is having a bad trip, which can lead to psychological trauma (see the section “Bad trips” below). If you do decide to use Ayahuasca, I recommend doing it legally, either in the US with an established Ayahuasca church, or in South America, with a shaman whom you trust. Ayahuasca tourism can be dangerous – there are a lot of charlatan “shamans” who don’t know what they’re doing. Try to find a referral from someone who has done it before and had a positive experience.
LSD is probably the most famous psychedelic. Ironically, it’s derived from a mycotoxin, ergotamine, that’s common in rye.
Effects and benefits of LSD
Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered LSD’s effects in 1943 when he accidentally ingested some in his lab. He was terrified, at first, that he’d poisoned himself, but when his lab assistant checked his vitals and told him he was fine, he settled down. He later explained LSD’s effects:
“Little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.”
In addition to visual effects, LSD can open your mind to perspective-altering insights and intensify emotions, which may explain some of its therapeutic benefits.
- A 2014 double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study recruited 9 people with life-threatening illnesses and gave them 2 sessions of LSD-assisted psychotherapy. The experience decreased anxiety and fear of death in 77.8% of participants . The researchers followed up 12 months later and found that the effects had lasted. Participants also reported easier access to emotions and increased overall quality of life, with no negative side effects over the 12 month period.
- A second double-blind, placebo-controlled study ran the same protocol with 12 participants who had life-threatening illnesses. Again, participants showed a significant decrease in anxiety 12 months after LSD-assisted therapy, and again, there were no negative side effects or safety issues .
- A meta-analysis of 536 participants taken from studies in the ‘50s and ‘60s found that a single dose of LSD significantly decreased alcoholism . Again, the effect lasted for many months after the single dose.
- A 2006 study found that LSD and psilocybin both decreased intensity and frequency of cluster headaches .
- A survey of 190,000 U.S. citizens found that hallucinogen use correlated with decreased psychological distress and decreased suicidality . Another survey found that LSD is not associated with increased psychosis or depression .
- LSD is not addictive [9,10].
- Historically, not a single person has died from an LSD overdose .
And here’s an interesting side-note: Steve Jobs credits LSD for part of his success with Apple:
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.” — Steve Jobs
Downsides to LSD
A 2012 study ranked LSD the 4th safest recreational drug – far safer than alcohol or nicotine . That doesn’t mean it’s without risk, though:
- The most serious risk with LSD is having a bad trip, which can lead to psychological trauma (see the section “How to avoid a bad trip” below).
- LSD also makes you more suggestible. You’re more likely to agree with something you wouldn’t normally agree with. This effect makes it especially important to surround yourself with good people you love and trust, if you decide to use LSD.
- You may experience flashbacks – temporarily returning to a trip-like state – or lasting visual distortions from taking LSD or other hallucinogens. A UC Berkeley 2006 survey of more than 18,000 people concluded that this is likely to happen to fewer than 0.66% of hallucinogen users. The researchers also noted that their numbers could have been statistically meaningless, and that the actual prevalence may be even lower. Unfortunately, the study didn’t make it to publication and the data are no longer available online. It seems flashbacks and visual perception issues are unlikely – but they are possible.
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in several varieties of psychedelic mushroom, the most common of which is the gold cap mushroom.
Effects and Benefits of psilocybin
Psilocybin, like LSD, makes you see colors more brightly. It can cause rippling and “breathing” effects, like inanimate objects are inhaling and exhaling, as well as synesthesia – the combination of senses, where you can see sounds, hear colors, etc.
I know. It sounds weird. It’s hard to imagine without experiencing it. Which I haven’t, of course. That would be illegal.
Psilocybin shares some of LSD’s benefits and brings new ones to the table as well:
- Psilocybin decreases and prevents cluster headaches [6,13].
- An fMRI scan study found that psilocybin affects the brain similarly to the way prescription antidepressants do, enhancing mood and positivity – but without any notable side effects .
- A pilot study gave psilocybin to 9 people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Participants showed a marked improvement in OCD symptoms and OCD-related depression after taking psilocybin . The improvements lasted for several months in most participants, and in some cases the OCD went away entirely. Interestingly, this study didn’t pair psilocybin with psychotherapy. The participants just took the drug and then sat by themselves in a comfortable room for 8 hours, listening to music chosen by the researchers.
- A 2006 study from Johns-Hopkins gave 36 participants psilocybin to study its psychological effects. None of the participants had taken it or any other psychedelic before, and all of them were interested in spirituality or religion. They took 2-3 doses of psilocybin, with each dose two months apart. A third of the participants rated taking psilocybin as the most spiritually significant moment of their lives . 70% rated it in the top 5 most meaningful experiences in their lives, on par with the birth of a child. Two months after the study, 79% of participants said they were happier overall and felt less anxious/depressed. 12 months after that, 64% of participants said their life satisfaction and happiness continued to be higher.
- A 2011 study gave patients 2-5 doses of psilocybin, with 3 weeks between each dose. Participants reported lasting positive changes in personality a year later: increases in sensitivity, imagination, appreciation for beauty, and tolerance for others’ viewpoints and values .
Downsides to psilocybin
A 2011 study ranked psilocybin the safest common recreational drug, closely followed by cannabis . However, it still has risks:
- Possibility of a bad trip (see “Bad trips” below)
- Lasting visual perception changes (again, a tiny percentage of people experience this, but it’s possible)
- In the Hopkins study of spiritual meaning, about 1 in 5 participants reported anxiety or paranoia while on psilocybin . However, the anxiety went away in all participants as soon as researchers reassured them. This emphasizes the importance of taking psychedelics in a supportive environment.
MDMA, the main component of ecstasy, is in a different class than Ayahuasca, LSD, and psilocybin. MDMA is not strictly a psychedelic. It’s an amphetamine (stimulant) with some psychedelic properties. It also carries more risk than the other drugs on this list. We’ll get into that below. First, let’s take a look at the research on MDMA.
Benefits of MDMA
- A 2008 pilot study planned to look at MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for 29 women with severe PTSD, but “political pressures” shut the study down before it could be completed. The researchers only ran 6 participants. In those 6 there were no side effects or downsides to using MDMA in low doses and in a medical setting .
- Two years later, a successful pilot study used MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for 20 women with severe, treatment-resistant PTSD. 83% of patients showed significant healing of trauma, compared to 25% in the normal psychotherapy group . There were no significant side effects.
- In 2012, another study with a similar setup found that patients with PTSD self-reported improvements after MDMA-assisted therapy, and that the results lasted up to a year later . The clinician’s interview found no significant improvement, although fellow scientists who looked at the data disagreed with the authors’ conclusions, interpreting that there was a large improvement in PTSD, and that the reason the data weren’t significant was that the study wasn’t large enough . In any case, there were no negative side effects.
Downsides to MDMA
MDMA has more potential downsides than the other drugs on this list.
- While all the drugs on this list are illegal (except Ayahuasca, under certain circumstances) and good sourcing is an issue, MDMA is the most difficult to find in a pure form. Mushrooms look like… well, mushrooms; a seller can’t really cut them with anything. LSD is rarely impure. With a good shaman or church, Ayahuasca is usually pure as well. MDMA is different. Because people use it as a party drug, it’s often cut with other stimulants like speed or meth. If you’re going to use MDMA, the safest way is to sign up for a clinical trial, where you’re getting pharmaceutical-grade MDMA in low doses.
- MDMA causes intense euphoria, especially at higher doses, by releasing the stores of serotonin and dopamine in your brain. This can cause short-term withdrawal, anxiety, and depression if you take too much. Some people report withdrawal symptoms that last as long as three weeks. According to research, withdrawal isn’t an issue at lower doses.
- At higher doses, MDMA destroys brain cells in primates .
Microdosing with psychedelics
You don’t have to take a full dose of a psychedelic to garner benefits. Microdosing is becoming more and more popular with entrepreneurs trying to get an edge. It involves taking around a tenth of a full dose of LSD or psilocybin. It’s not nearly enough to make you hallucinate and it hasn’t been studied, but people report that it produces some valuable effects nonetheless. According to recent news articles, many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are taking it a couple times a week; they report increased creativity, focus, empathy, and positivity.
A friend of mine – who happens to also be a CEO of a biohacking company – microdosed LSD every day for one month. He says he noticed increased creativity, especially with words, as well as a general lift in mood and occasional giggling during board meetings.
He also noticed increased suggestibility – a tendency to approve of others’ ideas. That impaired judgment could be a downside. Studies show that you build tolerance to LSD if you take it regularly, but my friend didn’t notice that when microdosing. He continued to get effects from the same small dose, every day.
The main risk with LSD, Ayahuasca, and psilocybin is having a bad trip – running into painful or negative thoughts that consume you and can cause lasting psychological damage. This is a very real downside. Protecting against a damaging bad trip comes down to what psychedelic researchers call “set and setting.”
- Change your mindset. Many people view psychedelics as recreational drugs – akin to smoking pot or getting drunk. If you take a psychedelic purely to have a good time, you’re actually setting yourself up to have a bad time. Rick Doblin explains in the video below:
- Look at a psychedelic trip as an experience, not a pursuit of pleasure. Acknowledge that something bad may come up, acknowledge that you can handle it and work through it, and set the intention to explore negative thoughts instead of running from them. This frames you for psychological growth instead of psychological trauma.
- Take psychedelics in a safe, comfortable setting. Choose a place where you can stay undisturbed for 8-12 hours. Remove any pressures, appointments, or obligations.
- Surround yourself with close friends and/or loved ones. It’s best to have people with you whom you trust. If something bad does come up, they’ll be able to support you and help you work through it. They will also lend a general feeling of security to your experience. The safer you feel, the more productive your trip will be.
- Don’t combine psychedelics with other drugs, including alcohol.
A few final thoughts
Psychedelics show great promise as alternatives to current pharmaceutical drugs, but they come with significant risk. They’re also illegal, and you absolutely should not take them lightly.
If you do decide to try a psychedelic, one option is to sign up for legal psychedelic medicine clinical trials. Otherwise, be mindful of set and setting, find a source you trust, and be aware that you’re taking a risk and probably breaking the law.
I know this is a controversial topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Please, keep it friendly. Thanks for reading, have a great week, and subscribe below for more biohacking content.