Could Psilocybin Be Helpful In Bipolar Depression? Is it Safe?

on November 18, 2021 6 comments
Could Psilocybin Be Helpful In Bipolar Depression? Is it Safe?

Watch our latest talkBD episode on Psilocybin & bipolar disorder, featuring Dr. David Gard.

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One of the most difficult aspects of living with bipolar disorder is the impact of depression on one’s life. While mania is often cited as the symptom that has the most destructive effects, research into the disorder has shown that depression can be as bad or worse on the day-to-day functioning for people with bipolar disorder.1 Unfortunately, treatment providers are often hesitant to prescribe antidepressant medications (such as SSRIs or tricyclics) to individuals. This is likely because they’re afraid of activating a manic episode – a phenomenon called a “Treatment Emergent Affective Switch,” or TEAS.2 Because of this medication treatment options for depression in bipolar disorder are often limited to mood stabilizers such as lithium.

Psilocybin – a breakthrough treatment of depression

A major recent development in the treatment of depression and treatment-resistant depression has been the use of psychotherapy-assisted psilocybin. Psilocybin is the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms’ and several clinical trials have recently shown that just one high dose of psilocybin, along with a few sessions of psychotherapy in a structured setting, can have enormous benefits.3,4 In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has recently designated psilocybin as a breakthrough treatment of depression.

Given this, it would make a lot of sense if people suffering with bipolar depression were to look to psilocybin as a possible treatment option. However, up to this point, all modern clinical trials testing psilocybin have excluded individuals with bipolar disorder or individuals with a family history of bipolar disorder.

The main question is, why have researchers been so cautious to explore psilocybin as a treatment for bipolar disorder?

Surprisingly, the answer is not quite clear. Most studies refer to the exclusion of people with bipolar disorder but do not include a rationale. One reason may be related to the powerful serotonergic activation associated with psilocybin. That is, it is possible that the increased serotonin from a high dose of psilocybin could activate a TEAS, or a manic episode, in individuals with bipolar disorder. Given that people have been using psilocybin and related substances for decades and beyond, we decided to ask the question: what is the evidence for psilocybin activating mania, or a serious adverse event, in people living with bipolar disorder?

A picture of mushrooms and psilocybin

Existing evidence that psychedelics are unsafe in bipolar disorder

In a recent paper, we evaluated this question. We looked to both the existing research literature and to published case studies of adverse events. While all modern clinical trials have left out individuals with bipolar disorder, there have still been many studies in this area, and so it stands to reason that individuals who have not been diagnosed yet have been in these studies. Some researchers have looked at this.

For example, in an analysis of 227 laboratory-based psilocybin administration sessions, researchers did not find any examples of prolonged psychosis, or mania in any participant.5 Recent research since this time has also not indicated any known incidences of mania being activated in these controlled research trials. While the absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence, this is one data point to consider.

It is also certainly the case that people with bipolar disorder (or at risk of developing bipolar disorder) have used hallucinogens recreationally. In one large-scale survey of more than 130,000 participants, researchers found that hallucinogen use (in approximately 22,000 individuals) was not a predictor for mania, psychosis, or the need for mental health treatment.6 In another large-scale survey of over 190,000 participants, individuals who had used psychedelics were at reduced odds of psychological distress and suicidality, while other recreational drug use increased these odds.7 From these and other studies, there is not a lot of evidence that (at least recreationally) psychedelics induce mania in the general population.

Dr. David E. Gard

Published case studies

Given the limited scientific data on the impact of psychedelic use for people with bipolar disorder, we decided to look at the case study research, which goes back more than 60 years. Case studies are write-ups of outcomes of individuals that researchers and clinicians put together. They are used to help clinicians and others understand things such as diagnoses, substances, interactions of the two, and more.

We carefully reviewed more than 250 published case studies where a psychedelic substance was involved. In these studies, we looked specifically for cases where individuals who had bipolar disorder took a psychedelic substance and had a bad outcome, and cases where someone took a psychedelic substance and developed symptoms of mania. We found 17 cases that met these criteria.

When we analysed these 17 cases, we discovered many themes. These included that most cases were not of people with a previous diagnosis of bipolar disorder; several involved polysubstance use; many negative outcomes occurred after repeated uses of the substance; and all but two cases were in unstructured or recreational settings. This last point is crucial, given the care and structure that is involved in modern clinical trials.

Importantly, even though these case studies have many limitations, the fact that cases were found where mania appeared after taking a psychedelic substance does highlight the need for caution in working with bipolar disorder and psychedelics.

What to make of all this?

While the broader epidemiological and other research does not imply a great deal of risk for the use of psilocybin in controlled clinical trials with bipolar disorder, our findings in the published case study literature highlight that there can and have been negative outcomes associated with bipolar disorder and psilocybin. In other words, the picture is fairly complicated and more clarity is needed.

One issue is certain–there is not a lot of research in this area and more work clearly needs to be done. Perhaps the best way to test this is through a carefully controlled prospective clinical trial. We,8 and others,9 are currently developing such a study, structured to reduce potential risks so that we can test both the safety of psilocybin in bipolar disorder and its potential effectiveness in treating bipolar depression.

More Posts About Bipolar Disorder & Magic Mushrooms
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Study Update: Phase 2 of the Bipolar Psilocybin Project
We have officially closed the survey and are moving forward to the next phase of the study.
A poster with a orange psychedelic-looking mushrooms against a vibrant purple background. 'Bipolar and mushrooms: helpful or not?' is written on it in big letters.
Survey Update: Risks and benefits of “magic mushrooms” in bipolar disorder
An early release of the very first study results is available in this short blog post.

Related videos

From Dr. Josh Woolley’s TalkBD podcast episode on Psychedelics & Bipolar Disorder:

Do Psychedelics Trigger Mania or Bipolar Disorder? 🍄

Is It Safe to Use Psychedelics With Medications? – Lithium, SSRIs, Lamotrigine 💊

Does Microdosing Psychedelics Help Bipolar Disorder?

6 Comments on “Could Psilocybin Be Helpful In Bipolar Depression? Is it Safe?”

  1. I have severe depression, ptsd and bi-polar disorder symptoms and I recently stopped taking the pills that was given. I waited for about four weeks to get cleaned up from SSRI then I tried my first ceremonial-blend capsules in a little higher dosage. I decided to do it alone to consecrate, it was a quite bit of experience for me; since your thoughts gets so intense and affective, bi-polar syndrome makes the experience very edgy. Changing in mood occurs so often and powerful when you on a trip. I was able to control my self from mania or even suicide because I know how to deal with it due to my lots of experiences with shrooms and lcd trips when I was young back in early 90s in East Europa Region where I am originally from. The dynamic of your mood changes from negative to positive and vice-versa is so big and so quick, also it is getting caught on a specific thought or a mood is almost inevitable; I really don’t recommend this kind of experience to anyone who has my symptoms and no experience with psilocybin. I will not go into details about the trip, which would take a lot of time, but after having sharp mood swings in a high frequency makes you a little more flat, self-controlled, and also exhausted, which makes you a little bit more calm. I personally think that with right circumstances and under control of professionals, psilocybin can help people with bi-poler as well. I hope specialists and experts will put more thoughts on that and have more studies and researches.

    • Hello I was diagnosed 25 years ago with bi polar manic depression I came off my lithium in May I feel fine now…can I take psilocybin

  2. My teenage family member was just diagnosed. I’m pretty fearful because she’s had multiple attempts. I don’t know exactly what to even do or how to support yet.

  3. I have BP 1 and recently started microdosing for depressive systems. It, thus far, has been very helpful. I may still feel emotionally sad, but no thoughts of suicide, no laying in bed all day, no avoiding people nor responsibilities. I’m not 100%, but being able to go about my everyday routine is key to moving out of the slump. As opposed to feeling like a 4, I feel more like a 7, not bad.

    I have never taken any antidepressants, as with all of the mood stabilizers, I didn’t want to add another med nor deal with side effects. For me it has been a good solution. In the times that I am not depressed I may dose less or skip days, will see.

    As for the trips turning manic, even the large dosed ones, I haven’t experienced it. If anything it has been therapeutic. I do know that with alcohol I can get bad mood swings and typically avoid it. I have also noticed I don’t have a desire to drink while on shrooms.

    I hope that there is further research in this area. It is a lot of work to grow them and many psychiatrists would rather you take a pharmaceutical drug, albeit maybe not the best solution.

    • Bill , just curious to see how your feeling since your last post. My daughter has been diagnosed with BP1 and is really battling depression right now and has been for quite some time. I’m glad you seemed to have found some freedom from depression. I

  4. I have Bipolar 1 and have been successfully taking psilocybin for over a year. Last week I felt a hypomanic episode starting but it did not go into full blown mania. I took more of a higher dose, around 1gram but was also stressed out and had lost some sleep around the same time. Overall I am finding it helpful. I made the mistake of taking lithium orotate at the same time. It made for a few negative trips.
    I do not take pharmaceuticals for bipolar anymore since I learned it is from trauma. Instead I focus on healing through cbt, dbt and qi gong, accupuncture, breath work and meditation. Changing my diet to ketogenic, taking supplements and vitamins that reduce the inflammation which causes the mood swings. Omega 3, vit D, curcumin, and ashwaganda. Melatonin and magnesium before bed.

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