My dad tells a story about my grandmother’s smoking cessation journey. It goes a little like this- every time my grandmother lit a cigarette, my father charged her a quarter. Unfortunately, it proved to be a fruitful business deal. My dad went on to become an accountant and my grandma did indeed quit smoking after relinquishing countless quarters to her youngest son.
Through the decades, our knowledge on the detrimental effects of smoking has grown exponentially, and so has research regarding how powerfully addictive smoking is and chronically difficult it is to quit. Statistics show that the older the generation, the more likely it is to encounter smoking cessation stories.
To put things into perspective, data from a survey of 1,299 people concludes that for the average American smoker, it can take a shocking number 30 or more cessation attempts before being successful (Chaiton et al., 2016).
All the power to those people who see it through, because it’s understandable how cessation can feel like a futile effort after 10 or more failed attempts. When we try and fail repeatedly at a goal we set for ourselves, it is human nature to feel defeated or downtrodden.
For many reasons, long-term smokers shouldn’t give up hope on kicking the habit just yet, for one very compelling reason: psilocybin or ‘magic’ mushrooms have been shown to be radically effective for helping smoking cessation.
Research suggests that psilocybin – the gift that keeps on giving – can help break addictive patterns of thoughts and behaviors, no matter how ingrained they may be. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how psychedelic mushroom therapy can aid in smoking cessation, and we’ll explore anecdotal accounts from Psychedelic Passage survey respondents who have journeyed this route.
Why is it so Hard to Quit Smoking?
Anyone and everyone who starts smoking can easily and quickly become addicted. Nicotine doesn’t discriminate. Research tells us that smoking is most likely to become a habit during the teen years, and that the earlier you start smoking, the more likely you are to become addicted (Evarardsson et al, 2009).
By the 1960s, evidence against smoking was already pretty damning, but people had been smoking for dozens of generations without thinking too hard about the long term cost and consequences.
Although tobacco was doubled down on and ruefully warned against by the health industry for its damaging and lethal properties, the naturally-occurring nicotine within tobacco is the real cause for addiction and dependence.
Addiction, as defined by the National Institute of Health, is the “repeated, compulsive seeking or use of a substance despite its harmful effects and unwanted consequences.” Nicotine is thought of by medical professionals to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Compile that onto the fact that nicotine is of course legal and far more easily accessible than either of those drugs.
Unfortunately, nicotine does not actually feel like an adverse intruder to our body. It is absorbed easily by the lungs and spreads quickly throughout our bloodstream. It only takes seconds after a first puff of nicotine to reach our brains. It proceeds to flood our reward circuits with dopamine, creating that ‘head high’ or pleasurable feeling that nicotine users attempt to replicate and elongate.
The adrenaline rush and desirable sensation only lasts a few minutes. It knows how to leave you wanting more. When seriously addicted, people feel an unpleasant internal drag or craving that puts them on edge and irritated when they do not have nicotine in their system.
Thus, the mechanism of addiction functions similarly to that of alcoholism or any other substance abuse. When the substance goes in, the user feels good. When the substance leaves, the user feels bad and craves a fix. When they get that, it feels good again, so they continue the cycle.
At the end of the day, our brain chemistry is wired to chase repetitive, feel-good stimulation. Addictive substances play on that vulnerability of our brains to trigger reward systems. When people stop smoking smoke regularly, they suffer both physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms.
So even if they’re consciously aware that cigarettes are a mental and physical health threat, ceasing smoking is rarely a simple task. Reportedly, about 2 out of 3 people who smoke regularly say they want to quit – and half do try to quit each year (O’Keefe et al., 2019), but nicotine has a strong hold over moods, emotions, and behaviors.
The Current Methods For Quitting Smoking
We know that to intervene on a physiological dependence, we need a physiological intervention. While there is no “cure” to addiction, we can find antidotes that work on the same neural systems as the substance that has made itself at home there.
The CDC advises that the best method to quit smoking is a combination of counseling and medication. Counseling can be a useful tool to help create an action plan for quitting, and it can help recovering smokers cope with the stress, urges, and other psychological obstacles that come with the territory of breaking an addiction.
Modern medicine has also found efficacy in a few other pharmaceutical treatments. Medication can help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings at physiological levels.
Nicotine Replacement Therapy comes in many different shapes and sizes (i.e. patch, lozenge, gum, inhaler, spray) and is an FDA-approved method to slowly wean people off of tobacco by providing a fix of nicotine in alternative forms without the other harmful, deadly chemicals in tobacco.
The central function of NRT is to help relieve some of the physical withdrawal symptoms that occur when people quit tobacco. It focuses on reducing the physical dependence on tobacco, so people can make a pointed effort to deal with their psychological dependence.
Studies have shown that pairing NRT with a health behavior change program or therapy can improve chances of quitting and staying in recovery compared to other methods (Hartmann-Boyce et al., 2018).
There are also pharmaceutical interventions. Bupropion SR, an antidepressant medication, is also a first-line of treatment for smoking cessation. It also works to target some of the withdrawal symptoms from a physiological standpoint.
Bupropion inhibits the reuptake of dopamine – kind of in the same way that nicotine itself does. When nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream and crosses the blood brain barrier, it releases that heavy flow of dopamine (Wilkes, 2008).
When talking about processes that involve increasing dopaminergic action, you could almost think of it like this: everyone is in a sense addicted to dopamine. It’s a matter of the source we get it from – whether that’s a thrilling roller coaster, a really good meal, sexual pleasure, or an addictive substance.
Bupropion can reduce the dopamine deficiency experienced in nicotine withdrawal by working on the same receptors and giving those pleasure-seeking pathways the pleasure they’re seeking (Wilkes, 2008).
Results from randomized trials show that approximately 1 in 5 smokers successfully quit and remain quit at a one year follow-up with bupropion therapy (Wilkes, 2008). But as is the case with all pharmaceutical interventions, side effects are a common concern for smokers who use NRT as well as drug therapy.
Additionally, the therapy aspect that is recommended to pair with either of these methods is a crucial piece of the puzzle to target motivation and addictive tendencies. However, talk therapy is always a harder sell than something that feels like it could be a “quick fix.”
How Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Can Aid in Smoking Cessation
What is something that can address the physiological underpinnings of addictive behavior and create rapid behavior change? What is something that can effectively and efficiently “undo” ingrained patterns, including compulsions and addictions?
We’ve previously discussed how psychedelics can be useful in treating addictions. Psilocybin can rewire certain cortical connections, activating new connections that make room for psychological openness and can allow us to reframe our inner dialogues.
Johns Hopkins researchers have spearheaded the momentous and consequential clinical use of psilocybin as a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment program for smoking cessation. Their research reports that some longtime smokers who failed many attempts to quit — also known as “treatment-resistant” patients — were able to do so after controlled administration of psilocybin.
However, what matters most is not just the one-time act of quitting but the sustained effects of that resolution. In these Johns Hopkins trials, the abstinence rate for study participants was 80% after six months. For comparison, success rates of nicotine replacement and other behavioral therapies are typically less than 30%. This is a really meaningful difference.
Results from Psilocybin-Assisted Smoking Cessation Trials
The research team at Hopkins Medicine hold that the quitting outcome that occurs as a result of taking psilocybin is not necessarily a simple biological effect, but a more therapeutic one; as we know, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection and spark motivation to reset, restart, or change.
In these clinical trials, psilocybin was administered via a pill form, starting the day the participant planned to quit smoking. Two subsequent sessions were held at two and eight weeks later, respectively, and upgraded to a higher dose.
Psilocybin sessions lasted six to seven hours and participants were closely monitored by two members of the research team in a homelike setting. This emphasis on setting is referential to standard guidelines for psychedelic therapy, in which the physical environment plays almost a causal role in a positive experience.
These psilocybin administration sessions were part of a larger, comprehensive cognitive behavior therapy program, which included weekly one-one-one counseling sessions focused on teaching therapeutic techniques to address and target cravings.
The conjunction of the psilocybin and psychotherapy in these trials was shown to result in benefits that lasted even after the drug had worn off. This finding is in line with other evidence that success rates of psychedelic therapy are significant compared to other forms of traditional treatment, especially for creating sustained effects and lasting progress.
This particular result holds huge significance and promise for long-time smokers who have “relapsed” after trying different medications that seem to only block cravings whilst taking the pharmaceutical replacement.
Anecdotal Evidence on Psychedelics For Smoking Cessation
While it is always reassuring to hear empirical or scientific proof, it can feel even more compelling to hear success stories from individuals’ lived experiences. In this section we’ll explore some anecdotal reports from Psychedelic Passage survey respondents who have used psychedelic medicine to quit smoking.
“I have a few friends who stopped smoking after a deep psychedelic trip… one of them had the intention for the trip to stop smoking. For the other 2, it just came without any intention. For me, a non-smoker, a 3.5 mushroom trip stopped my gaming addiction.” -Anonymous Respondent
“Last time I did mushrooms. I remember the next morning when I woke up, my craving for nicotine was heavily diminished. I did not go into the experience with any intention for quitting smoking. Although while under the influence of psychedelics, nicotine feels so good.” -Anonymous Respondent
“…I still wanted to be free of nicotine and had struggled with the urge in the past but for some reason I was just able to stop and it was no trouble at all. I had taken psychedelics with intentions and silently observed. Smoking wasn’t the only intention and it wasn’t like I stopped right after tripping…
I said [I would do it] when I was ready and my pack was out and bam after the last one it was gone… I didn’t really think about it over a year later and every now and then I remember that I used to smoke and it seems weird.” -Anonymous Respondent
These testimonies all really underscore how the mechanism of action for psilocybin-assisted smoking cessation is not something nicotine-specific, but instead specific to the physiological experience of addiction and addictive behavior in general.
It’s not that psychedelics have specific smoking-aversion-causing properties in them, but rather they may mirror some subconscious distress associated with harmful addictive behaviors – or they may simply bring to the surface psychological underpinnings that influence and trigger addictive tendencies.
If smokers have reported quitting after a trip without even setting an intention, it is clear that if smoking is something that is consciously a source of distress or a habit that you intentionally want to break, going into a trip with the intention to quit will likely be extremely effective. Psychedelics have a way of helping people work through things that ordinarily are hard to dive into.
Using psychedelics therapeutically, can streamline the process of self-actualization and help the process of tapping into ideas and perspective that the conscious mind wouldn’t think to. This sentiment regarding how psychedelics help with healing– which looks different for everyone– is reflected in the account below that testifies on how that translated to quitting smoking:
“I feel that every time I use psychedelics, they are helping me through a grieving process. They are very good for bringing the things out that I normally don’t want to deal with, and then helping me get past those things and dealing with them, always feel better afterward honestly.” -Anonymous Respondent
Ready to Embark on Your Healing Journey?
Curious if psychedelic medicine might be the right choice for you? Check out our resources page for more information on how psychedelic therapy might help you move closer toward your goals.
If you’re ready to embark on a psychedelic healing journey of your own, we encourage you to book a consultation with us and let us give you our full time, attention, and energy to help you embody your highest self – whatever that may look like.