Consciousness-changing Therapies (partial)

Also known by these names

  • Entheogenic substances
  • Psychedelic substances
  • Psychotropic substances

Psychedelics are consciousness-changing therapies used to “produce a nonordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.”1 These are typically of two origins:

  1. Ethnobotanical substances naturally produced by organisms, such as psilocybin produced by hundreds of varieties of mushrooms
  2. Synthesized substances such as MDMA (ecstasy) 

Highlighted Video

BCCT advisor, hospice and palliative care physician and author BJ Miller, MD, discusses the use of psychedelics in palliative care.

Many cancer patients experience anxiety and depression related to diagnosis, treatment, and end-of-life concerns. Like medical cannabis, these alternative mood- and consciousness-altering therapies have marked potential for changing quality of life, often in profound ways.

Psychedelics are very ancient medicines. They were actively suppressed in medical research in the US for decades after a brief period of flourishing in the 1960s. But they never lost their popular appeal. Like many powerful psychopharmacological agents, they are readily subject to abuse and misuse. But an underground network of practitioners continue to provide counsel on their safe and beneficial use for cancer and many other conditions as well as for personal growth.

James Fadiman's The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys is a classic in the field and one of many similar guides.

The use of psychedelic agents in cancer care has gone mainstream. The turning point was the publication of Michael Pollan's groundbreaking How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence in 2018. In addition to his book, Pollan published a New Yorker article that is an excellent short introduction to the field and includes information on research trials at New York University. Also see Pollan’s conversations with Michael Lerner:

Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness

Managing or relieving side effects or symptoms, reducing treatment toxicity, supporting quality of life or promoting general well-being

A 2020 evidence-based review of the literature reported these results:

The most significant database exists for MDMA and psilocybin, which have been designated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “breakthrough therapies” for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression, respectively. The research on LSD and ayahuasca is observational, but available evidence suggests that these agents may have therapeutic effects in specific psychiatric disorders.2

A small study found that people experiencing grief who participated in indigenous Shipibo ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru reported reduced severity of grief at various time from 15 days to 12 months after the original (baseline) assessment.3

Therapy Summaries

Research and Clinical Trials

Johns Hopkins University has the leading psychedelic research center in the US, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, but many other research centers are now engaged. The leading advocacy organizations include MAPS: The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Heffter Research Institute which focuses specifically on the use of psilocybin for cancer distress and addiction. 

Consciousness-changing therapies are being studied in clinical trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health:

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