Hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) have unique effects that are neither practical nor purely recreational. While people might take stimulants to be more productive at work or use opiates to alleviate pain, they might take hallucinogens to help them find the answer to a spiritual question or to resolve a personal dilemma.
The reason hallucinogens serve this unique function for some people has to do with how they affect the brain. Researchers don’t completely understand the way they work, but some studies suggest that they foster new connections between different brain regions while deactivating regions that separate information from different senses. This loose cognitive functioning may be why using hallucinogens can provoke new insights.
Updated understanding of how hallucinogens like LSD affect the brain may explain why they are receiving renewed attention as potential wonder drugs. The idea that LSD might have a positive psychological function is not new. A decade after LSD was synthesized in 1938, it was marketed as a psychiatric cure-all with the power to treat everything from schizophrenia to addiction.
Widespread use of LSD by people involved in the 1960s counterculture (who often referred to it simply as acid) complicated its image. Some people who took acid trips felt enlightened, while other people had what they called bad trips that left them feeling trautmatized. The drug was outlawed in 1968 and was targeted by anti-drug initiatives for decades.
Today, people are once again asking questions like, “Can LSD cure depression?” The answer is neither a simple yes nor a simple no. The truth about LSD and depression is more complicated. In specific contexts, the drug can yield positive effects, while in others, it can be dangerous and potentially psychologically destructive.
LSD for Depression Treatment
One of the sources of renewed controversy over whether LSD cures depression is the tech culture trend of LSD microdosing. People like Ayelet Waldman describe the curative effects of small doses of LSD that subtly impact perception but don’t induce hallucinations. Proponents of microdosing say that taking low doses of LSD every few days helped them overcome depression after years of therapy and standard antidepressant drugs had no effect.
Recent research also supports the possibility of LSD as treatment for depression. Studies have shown that it helps the brain regrow cells and form new connections in regions that typically exhibit cell death in people with long-term depression or anxiety.
Other research suggests its effects come from its interactions with serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is implicated in a wide range of mental health conditions including depression. The most frequently prescribed class of medications for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which help increase the amount of serotonin available to the brain.
Unfortunately, even new insights from research don’t fully answer the question, “Can LSD help depression?” Microdosing, despite its popularity, still isn’t legal and LSD depression therapy is only available to people who participate in clinical trials. Time and further research will reveal whether the outcomes of using LSD for depression are positive enough to support medical use of the drug.
In the meantime, the answer to the question, “Does LSD help depression?” is not simple. Studies show that LSD can have therapeutic effects but don’t clarify how wide-ranging or long-lasting these effects might be. It is also important to note that studies supporting the potential psychological benefits of LSD didn’t examine recreational LSD use. Instead, these studies reported on the administration of a pure form of LSD in a supervised setting as an adjunct to targeted therapy.
Does LSD Cause Depression?
While many studies show that LSD has either positive or neutral effects for people who are depressed, other people who use LSD report long-term negative effects, including persisting perceptual disturbances, anxiety and depressed mood.
The reasons that LSD can trigger negative moods for some people are the same reasons it can yield psychological benefits for other people. Drugs that impact serotonin production, especially those that cause sudden spikes in serotonin levels followed by crashes, can cause a subtle form of physical tolerance. Over time, drugs that increase serotonin can cause imbalances in the brain that increase the risk of depression.
Another way LSD can cause depression is through the aftermath of a bad trip. The effects of LSD are unpredictable. Some people who take it experience psychotic states that resemble paranoid schizophrenia. Instead of seeing visual hallucinations of helpers and spirit guides, they may find themselves surrounded by frightening figures. Rather than gaining insight into a psychological problem, they may have paranoid or depressive thoughts and perceptions that are reinforced by their experiences on the drug.
People who hope that LSD use will lead to a spiritual experience may mistake drug-induced perceptions as meaningful. For example, someone might have depressed or hopeless thoughts during a drug-induced hallucination and take it as proof that their negative self-image is accurate.
One key difference between recreational LSD use and LSD-assisted psychotherapy is that a therapist can guide a person through instances of self-confrontation and help them glean insight rather than confusion from them.
Many people who take LSD say that one of its most important and spiritual aspects is its ability to cause ego dissolution. By dissolving the sense of self, LSD can cause some people to question negative self-directed thoughts and pessimistic perceptions about the world for the first time. However, for other people, loss of ego integrity can exacerbate underlying problems with self-perception. People with mental health conditions or histories of trauma often have issues with self-image and self-integration that are only made worse by drug-induced experiences that further splinter the sense of self.
Key Points: LSD and Depression
Some relevant facts to remember about LSD and depression include:
- Drugs like LSD provoke polarized reactions from the public. Some people see them as a saving grace while others insist that these drugs do nothing but destroy lives.
- Most drugs, illegal or legal, have positive effects for some people and negative effects for others.
- The reason drugs like LSD can alleviate depression for some people and make it worse for others is that the brain is too complex to respond the same way to the same drug every time, even for the same person.
- In time, a fuller clinical picture of the potential psychological benefits of LSD-assisted therapy is likely to emerge.
- For now, buying LSD is illegal and using it recreationally carries many risks.
- Like many other drugs, LSD is often cut or mixed with other substances that can increase the risk of negative side effects.
- Taking LSD in anxiety-inducing social scenarios increases the chances of having negative LSD-induced experiences.
While LSD does not have physical withdrawal effects, it can be psychologically addictive and people can become tolerant to it over time. Negative effects of hallucinogen dependence can include problems at work or home, memory loss, slowed cognitive processes, persisting perceptual distortions and depressed mood and anxiety.
If you are struggling with co-occurring depression and substance use problems like LSD use disorder and know you need help, you can contact a representative at The Recovery Village to learn more about treatment options that can meet your needs.
Cell Press. “Psychedelic Drugs Like DMT and LSD Promote Neural Plasticity in the Brain.” June 12, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. CBS News. “LSD: A Wonder Drug Once Again?” March 18, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. Ly, Calvin, Greb, Alexandra C., Cameron, Linday P., et al. “Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity.” Cell Reports, 23(11): 3170-3182. June 12, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. UNC School of Medicine. “This Is LSD Attached to a Brain Cell Serotonin Receptor.” January 26, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018. Gasser, Peter, Kirchner, Katharina, and Passie, Torsten. “LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy for Anxiety Associated with a Life-Threatening Disease: A Qualitative Study of Acute and Sustained Subjective Effects.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(1). November 11, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2018. Baumeister, David, Barnes, Georgina, Giaroli, Giovanni, and Tracy, Derek. “Classical Hallucinogens as Antidepressants? A Review of Pharmacodynamics and Putative Clinical Roles.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 4(4): 156-169. August 2014. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Cell Press. “Psychedelic Drugs Like DMT and LSD Promote Neural Plasticity in the Brain.” June 12, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018.
CBS News. “LSD: A Wonder Drug Once Again?” March 18, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Ly, Calvin, Greb, Alexandra C., Cameron, Linday P., et al. “Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity.” Cell Reports, 23(11): 3170-3182. June 12, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018.
UNC School of Medicine. “This Is LSD Attached to a Brain Cell Serotonin Receptor.” January 26, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Gasser, Peter, Kirchner, Katharina, and Passie, Torsten. “LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy for Anxiety Associated with a Life-Threatening Disease: A Qualitative Study of Acute and Sustained Subjective Effects.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(1). November 11, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Baumeister, David, Barnes, Georgina, Giaroli, Giovanni, and Tracy, Derek. “Classical Hallucinogens as Antidepressants? A Review of Pharmacodynamics and Putative Clinical Roles.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 4(4): 156-169. August 2014. Accessed December 10, 2018.