Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

What are Hallucinogenic Mushrooms?

Mushrooms, a kind of fungus, come in many varieties. From those on a pizza to those in spaghetti sauce, mushrooms enhance our cuisine and flavor our lives. But not all mushrooms are so harmless. Some contain toxic and/or hallucinogenic compounds. Hallucinogens are substances that alter or produce false perceptions of sight, sound, taste, smell or touch. Some toxic substances in mushrooms can cause severe illness and even death. Most hallucinogenic substances, including synthetic ones such as LSD, are illegal.

Historical Background

The hallucinogenic properties of certain mushrooms have been known for centuries. The discovery of mushroom sculptures in ancient Central and South American ruins suggests that hallucinogenic mushrooms were used by native people during religious ceremonies. The Aztecs used the term "teonanacatl" meaning "flesh of the gods" to describe hallucinogenic mushrooms. Historians have proposed that Aztec spiritual leaders used these hallucinogens to induce an altered state of consciousness that they believed would allow them to communicate with their gods and other spirits.

Types of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

1. Psilocybin/Psilocin Mushrooms

Mushrooms that contain the hallucinogens psilocybin and/or psilocin belong mainly to the genera: Psilocybe, Stropharia, Conocybe, and Panaeolus. The word "psilocybin" comes from the Greek words "psilo" meaning "bald" and "cybe" meaning "head." Some specific mushrooms containing psilocybin and/or psilocin include Psilocybe mexicana, Stropharia cubensis, Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe pelliculosa, Panaeolus subbalteatus, Psilocybe cyanescens, Psilocybe baeocystis.

2. Amanita muscaria

The Amanita muscaria mushroom is also known as "fly agaric" because it attracts and kills flies. The Amanita muscaria does not contain psilocybin or psilocin. Rather, the hallucinogenic chemicals this mushroom contain are muscimol and ibotenic acid.

The fly agaric is related to other deadly mushrooms: the Amanita virosa (the "Destroying Angel"); Amanita verna and Amanita phalloides (the "Death Cap"). These deadly mushrooms contain toxins that destroy cells in the liver and kidneys. Five to 24 hours after eating one of these toxic mushrooms people may become sick with nausea and stomach problems. Later, severe liver and kidney damage may occur.

Psilocybe Mushroom

Psilocybe cubensis
Photographs courtesy of the
Indiana Prevention Center

Effects on Behavior

Psilocybin/Psilocin Mushrooms
Both psilocybin and psyilocin produce yawning, inability to concentrate, restlessness, increased heart rate, and hallucinations (visual and auditory). These symptoms may appear 30 to 60 minutes after the mushroom is eaten and can last about four hours.

Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria contains muscimol that produces feelings of euphoria, hallucinations, muscle jerks, drowsiness, sweating, pupil dilation, and increased body temperature. Symptoms appear 30 to 90 minutes after eating this mushroom and are most intense after two or three hours. People who eat these mushrooms usually fall into a deep sleep. Some people describe the effects of eating Amanita muscaria as similar to being intoxicated by alcohol.

Effects on the Nervous System

The chemical structure of psilocybin and psilocin is similar to the neurotransmitter called serotonin. In fact, the primary effect of psilocin is on the receptors for serotonin. There is also evidence that psilocybin reduces the reuptake of serotonin by neurons in the brain allowing this neurotransmitter more time to act in the synapse.

Muscimol and ibotenic acid from the Amanita muscaria appear to act on the GABA neurotransmitter system. Muscimol activates GABA receptors on neurons. The GABA neurotransmitter system is one of the brain's major inhibitory systems. Therefore, muscimol acts to inhibit the activity of neurons in the brain.

Picking and consuming mushrooms can be a dangerous activity! Identification of hallucinogenic mushrooms can be difficult because they look similar to toxic, deadly mushrooms. It is also possible that mushrooms bought from "street dealers" may be contaminated with drugs such as LSD or PCP. The images used on this web page are NOT meant to be used for mushroom identification purposes.

Did you know?

In 1998 in the United States, 9,839 cases of mushroom poisoning were reported by poison centers. Approximately 69% of these cases (6,796 cases) were children under the age of 6 years. (Statistic from Litovitz et al., Amer. J. Emerg. Medicine, 17:435-487, 1999.)

They said it!

"All mushrooms are edible, but some only once."
-- Croatian Proverb

For references and more information about hallucinogenic mushrooms, see:
  1. Benjamin, D.R., Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas. A Handbook for Naturalists, Mycologists and Physicians, New York: Freeman and Co., 1995.
  2. Blackwell, W.H., Poisonous and Medicinal Plants, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.
  3. Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S. and Wilson, W. Buzzed. The Straight Facts About The Most Used And Abused Drugs From Alcohol To Ecstasy, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.
  4. Spoerke, D.G. and Hall, A.H. Plants and mushrooms of abuse. Emerg. Med. Clin. North Amer., 8:579-593, 1990.
  5. Mushrooms - California Poison Control System
  6. North American Mycological Association

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