Taking magic mushrooms may seem to be a rather radical treatment for erectile dysfunction (ED). You could be forgiven for assuming that it is the fanciful invention of ageing hippies or wacky Californian wellness gurus. However, a new study from researchers at the highly respected Imperial College London is behind the theory.

Researchers from the university’s Centre for Psychedelic Research have conducted the first known scientific study into the effects of taking psychoactive compounds on sexual performance. The results are published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. 

The study involved 300 people who were divided into two groups: those who took psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms or LSD for recreational or ceremonial purposes, and those who were taking part in a clinical trial of psylocibin (a compound present in magic mushrooms) to measure its effectiveness in treating depression.

Each participant was asked to complete a questionnaire evaluating the quality of their sexual experience for a period of six months while taking the drugs. The questions related to their overall satisfaction with sex, attraction to their partner, level of arousal, and sense of connection with their partner. 

On average, people reported greater levels of satisfaction and sexual function. Of particular interest were the group who were taking psylocibin. Almost half reported improvements in their sexual arousal and overall satisfaction, whereas a control group taking traditional antidepressants reported a decrease in sexual function.

The researchers believe that this could potentially lead to the development of antidepressants that don’t have unwanted side effects including loss of libido and reduced sexual desire and response. 

Antidepressants are one of the most widely prescribed medications in the UK. However, one of the most popular types of antidepressants, known as SSRIs, can have negative side effects including ED. This can be a particularly complicated problem to solve, because in many cases depression can be a cause of ED in the first place.

Therefore if a patient is prescribed antidepressants to alleviate ED, it can be difficult to know if the results are effective or if the medication is inhibiting the libido. 

Furthermore, ED that is caused by other factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes can lead to depression as a side effect, because of the emotional distress, loss of self esteem, or damage to relationships that it causes. 

Therefore it can be very difficult for medical professionals to determine if ED may be caused by underlying depression that has not been treated, or if antidepressants are causing ED or preventing the recovery from ED. Many people lose patience with the treatment and stop taking it altogether. 

Tommaso Barba, first author of the study and PhD student based at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, said: “We believe this is the first scientific study to explore the effects of psychedelics on sexual functioning.”

“Our findings suggest potential implications for conditions that negatively affect sexual health, including clinical depression and anxiety. This is particularly significant given that sexual dysfunction, often induced by antidepressants, frequently results in people stopping these medications and subsequently relapsing.”

“On the surface, this type of research may seem ‘quirky’, but the psychological aspects of sexual function – including how we think about our own bodies, our attraction to our partners, and our ability to connect to people intimately – are all important to psychological wellbeing in sexually active adults.

“Sexuality is a fundamental human drive. For example, we know that sexual dysfunction is linked to lower well-being in healthy adults, can impact relationship satisfaction, and is even linked to subjective happiness and ‘meaning in life’.”

It should be noted that psychoactive substances are subject to legal regulations in the UK and that they can have adverse side effects, including seizures, paranoia, anxiety, elevated heartbeat, the worsening of present mental health problems, addiction, and fatality.  

Dr David Erritzoe, Clinical Director of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, said: “This study shines yet more light on the far-reaching effects of psychedelics on an array of psychological functioning.”

“While the findings are indeed interesting, we are still far from a clear clinical application, because psychedelics are yet to be integrated into the medical system. In future, we may be able to see a clinical application, but more research is needed.”

Anyone who is experiencing ED is not advised to try and cure the problem with unproven treatments, but to visit a doctor or pharmacist for professional advice.

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