Psilocybin’s unique properties make it particularly effective for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Psilocybin’s unique properties make it particularly effective for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder. Image Source: Flickr user kooikkari.

As the dark days of winter stretch out ahead of us, you may be feeling the icy grip of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD, a depression caused by the reduced sunlight during winter, can make you feel groggy, unfocused, and irritable. It’s common for American to experience such winter blues; around 4-6% of people suffer from winter depression, and another 10-20% experience mild symptoms of SAD. And SAD isn’t just about disliking cold weather; for many people, it has negative effects on their professional and personal lives, making it hard to form bonds with others or be productive.

There are several conventional treatments for SAD, including light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressant medications. While these treatments may work for many people, they can also be cost-prohibitive, difficult to access, or a daily nuisance, and for some people with treatment-resistant depression, they simply do not work. Because of this, it is helpful to consider alternative treatments for SAD, one of the most promising of which is psilocybin therapy. Psilocybin is a fast-acting solution against depression that can potentially treat SAD with a single dose or through multiple low-doses.  

Psilocybin and the Serotonin System

Like commercially available antidepressant medications, psychedelics have various effects on the mood-regulating serotonin system. Psilocybin may be particularly effective in treating depression because it binds to 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, which are found in high amounts in people who have committed suicide or suffer from depression. Too many active 5-HT2A receptors can cause over-activity in the prefrontal cortex, resulting in an obsessive focus on oneself and the common “downward spiraling” sensation that many people who suffer from depression describe. At the same time that psilocybin works to control 5-HT2A receptors, it also reduces how strongly the amygdala—responsible for basic emotional processing—responds to negative stimuli and increases its response to positive stimuli. Together, these two major effects of psilocybin can help individuals control or cure depression.

And while psilocybin works to reset the serotonin system, at active doses, it also provides a non-normal state of consciousness that can make traditional therapy more effective when treating depression. Psilocybin depresses several brain activities—including the fear and anxiety response—while also temporarily dissolving your preconceptions regarding how the world is structured. The result is that you are more open to different ideas and more receptive to traditional forms of therapy. By combining psilocybin with traditional therapy, it may be easier to remember and process experiences that contribute to your depression while learning lasting coping mechanisms for future depressive episodes.

While all this shows that psilocybin may be particularly effective at helping those with treatment-resistant depression, it is interesting to consider why it may be an effective way to treat SAD specifically. Psilocybin treatment for SAD has two potential forms: a single large dose when symptoms flare up or a continuous low dose throughout the winter season.

A Hard Reset When Symptoms Flare Up

Many people who take currently available antidepressants complain that it can take a long time to feel the results of the medication. Some people may not start to feel better until they have taken SSRIs for several weeks, and others will take an SSRI for months only to find out it just doesn’t work for them. This is particularly frustrating for people who only experience depression for a few months each year since it may be several years before they find a treatment approach that works for them.

In the recent psilocybin trials, participants reported feeling positive results immediately after two doses (a trial dose of 10mg and a therapeutic dose of 25mg). Even more interesting, many participants reported a continued positive response for up to three months after the treatment. Since SAD is often experienced for only a few months each year, this long-lasting effect after a single treatment is particularly appealing. People suffering from SAD may be able to control their mood with a single large dose of psilocybin when they first notice their symptoms as opposed to taking pills every day throughout the year.

Microdosing and the Serotonin System

Another option for treating SAD with psilocybin involves frequent microdosing throughout the winter season. Microdosing means taking a dose of psilocybin that does not put you in a non-normal state of consciousness but can still positively affect your mood and energy levels. Although studies in microdosing are still in progress, anecdotal evidence indicates that a small dose of mushrooms taken once every 3-4 days may help control symptoms of depression. Once again, this can be particularly appealing to individuals who do not want to take traditional SSRIs on a daily basis or who have negative side effects caused by traditional SSRIs.

Microdosing psilocybin also seems to have an almost immediate effect, working within 1-2 days after the first dose. Plus, it can be stopped without apparent side-effects, whereas traditional SSRIs need to be slowly stepped down to prevent depression or withdrawal. This can allow patients to start their psilocybin treatment when they notice the first symptoms of SAD and discontinue it as soon as the seasons change rather than continuing unnecessary treatment during the months surrounding their depression.

For those who suffer from SAD—especially treatment-resistant SAD—psilocybin may provide hope for a more stable mood throughout the year. It could help people feel in control of their depression and offer more a more targeted, less time-consuming treatment that can assist individuals in getting through the difficult winter months. Psilocybin may not simply replace the current medicines available on the market but could actually become an effective alternative that can work in conjunction with currently available treatment methods like light therapy. The studies so far are positive, and with further research, psilocybin could offer a better, safer, more targeted method of reducing the depressing effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder.