Probably the most well-known hallucinogen is LSD, popularized in the 1960s when the drug sub-culture experienced a notable surge. LSD was originally believed to be helpful in psychotherapy; experts believed it opened the subconscious for exploration, understanding and healing. Recreational use of LSD naturally followed rumors of the fantastic, euphoric high, and soon hundreds of college students were “tripping.”
In time, and with further study, hallucinogens were understood to be dangerous substances. But just like with opium, the addiction had already taken hold. New sources of hallucinogenic experiences were discovered, some even manufactured. After the crazy, wild years of the 1960s and 1970s, it was impossible to un-ring the bell of hallucinogens. While some substances wane in popularity, new ones emerge.
What Are Hallucinogens?
As the name suggests, hallucinogens are substances that cause a person to hallucinate, or perceive things that are not really present. Under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, people hear and see phenomena that are not real, such as other people who are not in the room or music that is not really playing. Hallucinogens disrupt the communication system between the brain and other parts of the body, specifically the senses.
There are natural hallucinogenic substances found in plants, cactus and mushrooms. These can be extracted or ingested in their whole form. Some hallucinogens are synthetic and created in a laboratory to mimic the natural compounds. LSD, for example, was created in the 1930s by a chemist looking for a blood stimulant. Its hallucinogenic properties were accidentally discovered several years later when that same chemist ingested the substance.
Since the 1940s, LSD’s popularity has grown and waned and was the cornerstone of the 1960s drug movement in the US and Great Britain. The drug goes by several different street names, including:
- Battery acid
- California sunshine
- Looney tunes
- Purple heart
- Golden dragon
- Heavenly blue
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are four common types of hallucinogens:
- LSD. Manufactured from a substance found in a fungus that grows on grains like rye, LSD is one of the strongest mood-changing drugs.
- Peyote. A small needleless cactus that contains mescaline, which is also produced synthetically.
- Psilocybin. Found in certain types of mushrooms in trace amounts along with another hallucinogen, psilocin.
- PCP. Created as an intravenous anesthetic in the 1950s but no longer used due to disturbing side effects, including hallucinations.
If it seems like there are more hallucinogens out there than just these, it’s because each one goes by several different names on the street. Here are some of the most common street names for hallucinogens:
- Magic mushrooms
- Yellow sunshine
How Can Hallucinogens Affect Your Body?
Like every drug, legal or illegal, hallucinogens enter the body and alter the status quo. Most hallucinogens are ingested, swallowed, dissolved on the tongue or mixed with food. For instance, one common form of ingesting shrooms is sprinkling them on pizza just like regular mushrooms. Peyote can be brewed into tea or powdered. Peyote powder is sometimes added to marijuana and smoked. For the synthetic powdered varieties of hallucinogens, snorting or mixing them into a liquid, like alcohol, is common.
The physical effects of hallucinogens include:
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of appetite
- Dry mouth
- Sweating or chills
- Altered body temperature
Once in the body, hallucinogens affect the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This is the portion of the brain located in the front behind your forehead, and it’s responsible for executive functions like distinguishing the difference between good and evil, predicting future consequences and making decisions. Hallucinogens mimic serotonin, a brain chemical used to transmit messages from the senses. The drugs attach to serotonin receptors in the brain, transmit false messages and inhibit the actual serotonin messages from getting through.
Since hallucinogens interrupt the communication system between the brain and other parts of the body, it is understandable why a person under the influence of the drugs might perceive someone standing in the room with them when no one is really there. Any messages transmitted from the senses to the brain cannot be trusted while there are hallucinogens in the system.
How Can Hallucinogens Harm You?
So they cause false messages, hearing voices and seeing visions. How can hallucinogens be dangerous? The body relies on the five senses to negotiate the world and protect itself from harm. Seeing things that are really not there might seem like a fun break from reality. But imagine the consequences of not seeing something that really is there, like a wall or a tree, or seeing a bridge across the water where none exists. That’s where it becomes evident how hallucinogens can be deadly.
Movies are good at glamorizing the ill effects of LSD, but what about the guy who takes drugs and suddenly thinks he can fly, or doesn’t perceive the distance between his balcony and the pool below? Some drug-induced visions can affect mood by creating a feeling of fear or anxiety. Suddenly seeing your dead friend standing in front of you could invoke a terrified reaction.
The brain is our greatest tool for survival, and it is a very complex organ. Knowingly and purposely interfering with its natural functioning is a recipe for disaster.
Can Hallucinogens Cause Mental Illness?
Scientists are still trying to fully understand the workings of the human brain, but the thought processes that hallucinogens disrupt are fairly well understood. Messages are carried from the body through the central nervous system to the brain by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Hallucinogens disrupt this communication process in at least one area of the brain because they are chemically similar to serotonin, one of those neurotransmitters. The resulting hallucinations are consistent with this type of disruption.
Until fairly recently, we believed that the brain stopped growing as a person entered adulthood, leaving him with a set number of brain cells. The fear was that drugs and alcohol abuse killed brain cells and might eventually leave a person without enough to perform basic functions. What we now know is that the brain continues to grow new cells throughout life, replacing old ones just like the rest of the body.
However, there are still questions related to drug interaction in the brain. It’s not clear how quickly new brain cells are created, so it’s impossible to gage the rate at which killing off brain cells with booze, or other substances, is safe from a rate-of-return perspective.
The other issue is the type of cell the brain is producing. We’re quite sure there is no one-for-one production quota. When you kill a message cell, like one that tells your brain it sees green, there is no proof that another green message cell grows to take its place. It may be replaced by a brown message cell.
This lack of complete understanding of brain function is the basis of the mystery that still exists between hallucinogens and mental illness. If the brain receives hallucinogens instead of serotonin and thereby perceives messages that are not real, how can we be sure that the brain will snap back when the drugs are gone? The receptors could get used to the “fake” serotonin and then not respond properly to the real stuff. With prolonged exposure to hallucinogens, the brain may stop making new serotonin cells. It might forget how.
Can Hallucinogens Cause Psychosis?
Hallucinogens were originally believed to be an effective tool in psychotherapy. Even today, for some extreme conditions, hallucinogenic drugs are used by some in small doses and under close monitoring. However, modern brain science has proven that hallucinations are not an opening of the sub-conscious. In fact, they are just mis-interpretations based on imposter brain chemicals. Where it was once believed hallucinations were providing insight into deep psychosis, it’s now understood that is not the case.
When it comes to mental illness, brain cell disruption has serious implications. While under the influence of drugs, you might believe you can fly because the decision-making part of your brain is altered. With enough repetition of this altered state, your brain could begin building permanent pathways to this thought that you can fly. What might happen if those thought paths have to co-exist with the older ones that say you cannot fly? What if they replace the old thoughts entirely?
The definition of psychosis includes an impaired contact with reality. By their very nature, hallucinogens create, if only temporarily, a state of disconnect with reality. Our current understanding of brain chemistry suggests that it is possible, and even probable, that the continued use of hallucinogens could produce a permanent psychosis. Paranoia has certainly been described by drug users as part of their experience while under the influence. When the brain reaches a point where it cannot switch back and forth between drug-induced thinking and normal functionality, paranoia could become a permanent state.
Hallucinogens Mixed with Alcohol
Not knowing exactly how they affect the brain in the long-term should be reason enough to avoid using hallucinogens. You only have one brain and the risk of irrevocably altering it has no potential rewards. However, mixing hallucinogens with other drugs is a recipe for disaster.
For centuries, alcohol has been the socially acceptable drug. Only in recent decades have the dangers of alcoholism been truly understood. Still, many people believe it is completely safe to use, and in any quantity.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions, making people under the influence more likely to say and do things they ordinarily wouldn’t. For many, risk-taking becomes a big part of that, and experimentation with drugs follows closely behind.
You may know someone who is a part-time smoker — he only smokes when he drinks. This is not uncommon. He knows smoking is bad for him and would prefer to protect his health and that of others around him. But when he has had a few drinks, he is less concerned about the risk to his health. He probably says it relaxes him or gives him something to do with his hands and that nervous energy that builds up when he is at the bar. Overconsumption of alcohol tends to lead to all kinds of risky behaviors, including experimentation with hallucinogens.
Mixing hallucinogens with other drugs, like alcohol, is a dangerous practice. There is no way to predict exactly how a combination of substances will affect an individual. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. Hallucinogens also affect the workings of that same system. One of the most common physical side effects of hallucinogens is altered body temperature. Alcohol also affects body temperature. You can see where consuming two substances that produce some of the same effects can easily lead to overdose.
Mixing drugs and alcohol makes you lose control of the situation. If you don’t know how long hallucinogens can last, then you are not really sure if you’re adding to their effects with another drink. It’s like a chemistry experiment gone wrong, except this one is taking place inside your body — mostly in your brain.
The effects of hallucinogens can last up to 12 hours. The average rate of social drinking is one drink per hour. At that rate, you could consume 12 drinks while under the influence of one dose of hallucinogens. You may not think you would do that, but once your inhibitions are relaxed, what’s to stop you?
How Bad Can Hallucinations Get?
What might have started out as curiosity can turn ugly very quickly. The idea of drifting out of reality for a while might seem like harmless fun. Unfortunately, it’s not harmless. Hallucinogens sometimes deliver a “bad trip.” Paranoia and anxiety are common, and when taken to the extreme, they are frightening and awful experiences that may last longer than the high. There is no way to predict or avoid these negative experiences with hallucinogens.
Some of the physical side effects can be deadly, as well. Regulating body temperature is important to life as a mammal. Humans can only sustain life within a small range of temperature. This is why fevers above 103 degrees are dangerous, and frostbite or hypothermia can cause death. There is no way to control the effects of hallucinogens, and compounding them with alcohol and other drugs only makes it worse. The only way to avoid a bad trip, or other serious consequences, is to stay away from hallucinogenic drugs.
If you or someone you know takes hallucinogens, 12 Keys is here to help. Whether you are still using or just feeling the psychological effects from past usage, we can help you feel better.
Addiction and depression are serious life-threatening conditions that we deal with here at 12 Keys every day. No matter how bad you feel, with the right guidance, it’s possible to overcome your condition and live a happy, substance-free life. Let us put you on the path to recovery and help you get your life together. Call 12 Keys today, and we will answer all of your questions about rehab and recovery. Based on your unique situation, we can customize a recovery plan for you. Let’s get started right away.