Introduction to How Magic Mushrooms Work

An unusual item among our many different food sources, the mushroom is a fungus, not a plant. This means that it grows from a spore, usually in the dirt or on decaying plant material, such as a log. While some varieties contain vitamins and nutrients, mushrooms are mainly used to give an earthy flavor and meaty texture to everything from pizza to risotto.

Some mushrooms, however, are famous for more than their taste. Known as magic mushrooms, shrooms, mushies, psychedelic mushrooms, psychotropic mushrooms or psilocybin, these mushrooms cause differences in mood, perception and behavior that are commonly known as "tripping."

These types of mushrooms belong to the genus Psilocybe. Mushrooms of other genera can also cause hallucinations, but many purists insist that Psilocybe mushrooms are the "true" magic mushrooms. Psilocybe mushrooms cause hallucinations because they contain the psychotropic tryptamines psilocybin and psilocin (some species also contain other, weaker psychotropic compounds like baeocystin or norbaeocystin). A single mushroom contains anywhere from 0.2 to 0.4 percent psilocybin.

Magic mushrooms are one of the most widely used recreational psychotropic drugs because they can be found in the wild or grown fairly easily and inexpensively. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 8 percent of adults over the age of 26 in the United States have used magic mushrooms [source: Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration].

Unlike manufactured psychotropic drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms have a long history dating back thousands of years as part of religious or spiritual ceremonies. However, magic mushrooms also have a lot in common with LSD. Let's start with looking at how eating them can affect people.

Similar to an LSD trip, tripping on magic mushrooms can cause a distorted sense of space, time and reality.

©iStockphoto.com/cinoby

Tripping on Shrooms

­Mushrooms have a lot in common with LSD in terms of how they affect the body. Both are psychotropic drugs and act on the central nervous system to produce their effects. Many people have described a mushroom trip as a milder, shorter version of an LSD trip. Like LSD, magic mushrooms don't technically cause hallucinations, or visions of things that aren't actually there. Instead, they distort the perception of actual objects.

People tripping on mushrooms might see things in different colors or see patterns. Existing colors, sounds, tastes and textures may be distorted, while feelings and emotions intensify. It can feel like time has sped up, slowed down or stopped completely. There can be a changed perception of one's place in the universe and a feeling of communing with a higher power.

As with LSD, what happens on a mushroom trip varies by person, dosage and the type of mushroom eaten, as some are more powerful than others. "Set and setting," or the emotional state of the user and the type of environment he or she is in, play a big part in whether the trip is positive. Users who are in a poor mental state or a highly structured environment are more likely to have a bad trip, which is when you feel paranoid, anxious, nervous or even terrified instead of euphoric. The only way to get over a bad trip is to wait it out. New users are often advised to have an experienced friend with them to guide them through the experience.

Taking mushrooms can cause dizziness, nausea and other stomach problems, muscle weakness, loss of appetite and numbness. These symptoms subside as the trip comes to an end. Some mushroom users smoke marijuana to combat the nausea.

Mushrooms aren't considered to be addictive, but tolerance builds up very quickly -- taking mushrooms two days in a row often results in a less intense experience the second day, for example. There may be cross-tolerance with some other psychotropic drugs like LSD, mescaline and peyote, which means that taking one can build up tolerance for another.

So, are they dangerous? People with mental illnesses (diagnosed or not) have had their symptoms exacerbated through the use of mushrooms. There's no evidence of death caused by magic mushrooms; the amount that one would have to eat to cause death is hundreds of times greater than the normal dose. Death can result from taking misidentified mushrooms, however. With that in mind, let's look at the different types of magic mushrooms next.

The liberty cap, or P. semilanceata, is a common magic mushroom found in many places around the world.

©iStockphoto.com/kulicki

Types of Magic Mushrooms

Foraging for wild mushrooms is dicey. There are thousan­ds of species, many with very similar features. Some toxic mushrooms can simply cause stomach problems, but others can cause organ failure and death. Hunting for any type of edible mushroom is generally best left to people who are very knowledgeable about mushroom identification. Even people who have been hunting mushrooms for decades have made mistakes. One part of the identification process is the creation of a spore print, which involves pressing the cap gill-side down onto a sheet of paper (usually both dark and white to see contrast) so that its spores are released. (We'll talk more about the uses for spore prints later.)

There are dozens of species of mushroom within the genus Psilocybe. Most of them are on the small side -- the average size is a 3-inch stalk and a 1-inch cap. When fresh, they usually have light grayish, yellowish or brownish stems with brown or brown-and-white caps and dark gills. We'll look at just a few of the most well-known varieties.

  • Psilocybe cubensis is on the larger side as far as magic mushrooms go. It's also one of the most common. Called the common large Psilocybe, golden cap or Mexican mushroom, it has many different types. The cap is usually reddish brown, with a white or yellowish stem. When bruised or crushed, its sticky flesh often turns bluish. Some people consider this a definitive sign of finding a magic mushroom, but some toxic types of mushrooms bruise as well. It's usually found in moist, humid climates and grows on the dung of grazing animals like cattle.
  • Psilocybe semilanceata or liberty cap is a common psilocybin mushroom. In general, P. semilanceata is found in damp, grassy fields usually populated by cattle or sheep but unlike P. cubensis, it doesn't grow directly on the dung. It's a small mushroom, either light yellow or brown, with a very pointed cap. Another psilocybe mushroom, Psilocybe pelliculosa, is often mistaken for P. semilanceata, but its psychotropic properties are weaker.
  • Psilocybe baeocystis has a dark brown cap and brownish or yellowish stem when fresh. It can be found in fields in addition to growing on rotting logs, peat or mulch. Nicknames include potent Psilocybe, blue bell and bottle cap.

So do people who take magic mushrooms just pop a few into their mouths? Next, let's learn about what's considered a "dose" and the ways in which people consume magic mushrooms.

Mushroom Dosages: Feed Your Head

The dosage and intensity of magic mushrooms depends not only on the species, but where it was grown and how it has been handled. For example, there are several different strains of P. cubensis; Thai P. cubensis mushrooms are considered to be stronger and can result in a more intense high, while those found on the Gulf Coast are supposed to be produce a "mellower" high. The psylocybin content in the mushrooms also tends to deteriorate when they're dried, so people ingest more to compensate. Mushrooms are generally sold in the U.S. in eighths, meaning one-eighth of an ounce (3.5 grams), which usually costs around $20. The effects of magic mushrooms will always vary from person to person in addition to from mushroom to mushroom.

In general, people new to taking mushrooms are advised to start with 1 gram of dried mushrooms (the equivalent of about one P. cubensis), wait an hour, and then, based on how they feel, decide whether to take more. Many people do simply chew on fresh or dried mushrooms, but they don't always taste good. Some magic mushrooms are described as having a floury taste, while others are sour or bitter -- eating them with fruit such as strawberries can combat the flavor. People who really dislike the taste and texture come up with recipes for everything from smoothies to chili, although cooking the mushrooms for long periods of time will likely break down the psilocybin and result in a weaker psychotropic effect.

Magic mushrooms don't actually have to be eaten to feel their effects. They can be brewed into a mushroom tea by grinding them, steeping them in hot water and straining the resulting liquid. Proponents of this method claim that this has no impact on the intensity of the trip. Since alcohol and magic mushrooms are often used together, sometimes the mushrooms are soaked in rum or tequila and the liquid used in mixed drinks or simply drunk. People who have tripped on mushroom tea or extract say that they begin to feel the effects quicker than if they simply ate the mushroom. Finally, sometimes the dried mushrooms are ground and packed into gelatin capsules to create mushroom pills. This way, the taste and texture are avoided completely.

Most people simply buy their magic mushrooms. As mentioned above, picking them in the wild is an option. However, some enterprising magic mushroom lovers cultivate their own at home. We'll look at this next.

P. cubensis growing from a substrate cake.

©iStockphoto.com/labuda

Mycology: Growing Shrooms

Most mushrooms cultivators start with P. cubensis because it's the most common and the easiest to grow. There are several different ways to go about growing mushrooms, but we'll just look at one basic method. All methods begin with one important element: the spore. A spore grows into a single mushroom, and a mushroom can produce hundreds of thousands of spores.

Spore prints, in addition to being used for identification of wild mushrooms, can also be used to cultivate mushrooms. The dry spores on the print must be hydrated for use. Sterility is important in all aspects of mushroom growing; bacteria or mold can keep them from growing altogether, but may also result in contaminated mushrooms. Many mushroom growers purchase spore syringes (filled with spores and sterile water) from suppliers rather than make their own. A spore syringe can cost from $10 to $20 depending on the particular strain.

Other equipment includes a large plastic container, canning jars, a pressure cooker or canner, brown rice flour and vermiculite (a mineral gravel used in potting plants), as well as basic kitchen items. The brown rice flour is mixed with the water and vermiculite to create a loose, fluffy substrate cake, a nutrient-rich environment in which the mushroom spores will grow. The substrate is then put in the canning jars, which are sealed and sterilized using the pressure cooker or canner.

After the jars cool, the substrate is inoculated with the spore syringe through holes punched in the jars' lids. Then they must be incubated at a steady temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23.9 degrees Celsius). The spores should begin to grow within a week and typically look like ropes of white fuzz called mycelium. If mold grows instead, or nothing happens, then something went wrong.

When the cakes are covered in mycelium, they are placed into the plastic container for fruiting. While in the container, the cakes must get light and a lot of humidity. If all goes well, mushrooms begin to grow after a week or two and are ready to pick when the caps begin to turn upward. Each cake can produce mushrooms for up to a month, usually in waves. A single cake can produce hundreds of mushrooms. They can rot pretty quickly, so mushrooms are usually refrigerated or dried to preserve them.

Growing mushrooms isn't all that expensive, but obtaining the spore prints or spore syringes can be difficult because it's not always legal to buy, sell or possess them. In the next section, we'll learn about the legality of magic mushrooms.

Mushroom growing kits lay on display in a store July 2005 in London, right before the sale of fresh mushrooms was prohibited.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Magic Mushrooms and the Law

The legality of possessing, taking, growing or selling magic mushrooms greatly depends upon where you live. In the United States, psilocybin is a Schedule I drug under an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act called the Psychotropic Substances Act. This means that it has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use and isn't safe for use even under a doctor's supervision. Since psilocybin is a psychotropic substance in magic mushrooms, this is usually interpreted to mean that the mushrooms themselves are illegal. However, since mushroom spores don't contain psilocybin, some have pointed to this as an ambiguity in the federal law.

Usually busts related to magic mushrooms occur under state law (unless they're in extremely large amounts) and most states ban possession of them. As of February 2009, Florida is the sole exception when it comes to fresh wild mushrooms -- essentially, the law reasons that since mushrooms grow wild, it's possible for people to pick magic ones accidentally and be in possession of small amounts of without prosecution. In California, Georgia and Idaho, it's illegal to possess magic mushrooms in any stage, including spores. In addition, many states have prosecuted for anything related to mushrooms or growing them under laws related to drug paraphernalia and intent to sell.

Some growers in the United States used to purchase spores from other countries, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began cracking down on possession of the kits in 2003. Possession and selling of fresh mushrooms and spores (dried mushrooms are almost always illegal) is still legal in many places around the world, but there has been a wave of banning them in various European countries in the 2000s. For example, until 2005, it was legal to sell fresh magic mushrooms in Great Britain. Spore possession is still legal. The Netherlands, once known as a hotbed for drugs illegal elsewhere, banned the sale of dried mushrooms in 2001 and fresh mushrooms in 2008. In other countries, it may be legal to have them but not sell them.

Some countries, such as Mexico, make exceptions to bans on magic mushrooms when used by indigenous populations in religious ceremonies. We'll look at the history of mushrooms next.

A Brief History of Magic Mushrooms

Some historians believe that magic mushrooms may have been used as far back as 9000 B.C. in North African indigenous cultures, based on representations in rock paintings. Statues and other representatives of what appear to be mushrooms that have been found in Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America. The Aztecs used a substance called teonanácatl, which means "flesh of the gods," that many believe was magic mushrooms. Along with peyote, morning glory seeds and other naturally occurring psychotropics, the mushrooms were used to induce a trance, produce visions and communicate with the gods. When Spanish Catholic missionary priests came to the New World in the 16th century, some of them wrote about the use of these psychotropic substances.

However, the idea that magic mushrooms have a long, holy history is highly controversial. Some believe that none of this evidence is definitive, and that people are seeing what they want to see in the ancient paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. There is confirmed use among several contemporary tribes of indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mazatec, Mixtec, Nauhua and Zapatec.

Magic mushrooms began to be eaten by Westerners in the late 1950s. A mycologist (one who studies mushrooms) named R. Gordon Wasson was traveling through Mexico to study mushrooms in 1955. He witnessed and participated in a ritual ceremony using magic mushrooms. It was conducted by a shaman of the Mazatec, an indigenous people who live in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Wasson wrote an article about his findings, which was published in Life magazine in 1957. An editor came up with the title "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" and the article is the source of the phrase, although Wasson didn't use it. One of Wasson's colleagues, Roger Heim, had enlisted the help of Albert Hofmann (the "father" of LSD), who isolated and extracted psilocybin and psilocin from the mushrooms Heim and Wasson brought back from Mexico.

Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of psychotropic drugs such as LSD, read the Life article and was intrigued. From there, magic mushrooms became inextricably tied to the hippie movement and its search for a new form of spirituality for the rest of the decade. The 1970s brought a ban on psilocybin except for medical research, which only recent began again after more than 30 years.

Seeking more information on magic mushrooms? Want to learn about the CIA testing LSD on Americans or the existence of hallucinogenic frogs? We've got links to HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.

Lots More Information

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