• Health
  • Drugs

The Latest Promising Long COVID Treatment? Psychedelic Drugs

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

After more than a year of being short of breath, tired, and riddled with heart, motor, cognitive, gastrointestinal, and menstrual issues, Ruth was willing to try anything to make her Long COVID go away. So she turned to psychedelic drugs.

Ruth, 31, who asked to be identified by only her first name, had tried psychedelics a few times in the past and was familiar with the research on their therapeutic use. Feeling like she had nothing to lose, she took five grams of psilocybin mushrooms in December 2021.

That single trip changed her life. She woke up the next morning with a normal heart rate, breathing more freely than she had in a long time. After that, her period stabilized and her brain fog and motor dysfunction cleared. She got her energy back. She still has a few lingering symptoms, and though it’s impossible to say for sure what happened, Ruth credits psilocybin for her renewed health. “That’s probably difficult for a lot of people to process or believe,” she says. “But it really worked.”

One person’s dramatic recovery does not prove anything, scientifically. But there’s a growing movement to study whether psychedelic drugs could treat Long COVID, an often-debilitating chronic condition for which there is currently no proven cure.

Psychedelics and Long COVID are a somewhat unlikely match. While there’s been a boom in psychedelic research in recent years, much of it has focused on mental-health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance-use disorder. The research on psychedelics and Long COVID, by comparison, is negligible—and there’s a lot standing in its way. Psychedelic drugs are federally illegal, categorized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as substances with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

But research is growing.

Dr. Joel Castellanos, associate medical director at the University of California, San Diego’s Psychedelics and Health Research Initiative, says he hears from plenty of Long COVID patients who have either tried, or are interested in trying, psychedelics. One patient saw such dramatic improvement in their fatigue, headaches, depression, and brain fog after using a combination of psilocybin and MDMA that Castellanos is currently working to publish a case study about their experience. Though case studies do not prove cause and effect, Castellanos says he’s “excited about psychedelics. It’s a brand-new way of looking at a lot of different symptoms that people experience.”

Dr. Sue Sisley, who researches psilocybin at Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix and also works in a community Long COVID clinic, became interested in using psychedelics as Long COVID remedies after patients told her they were trying them on their own and seeing improvements in their energy, cognitive function, and memory. “I was initially skeptical,” Sisley says. But “none of the medications I was [prescribing] for them were helping substantially,” so she thought it was worth exploring something that apparently was.

Sisley recently advised lawmakers on a bill working its way through the Arizona state legislature, which would provide up to $30 million to research the therapeutic potential of psilocybin for 13 different conditions, including Long COVID. Her hunch is that psilocybin may help Long COVID patients by stimulating new neuronal connections and tissue growth in the brain and reducing inflammation throughout the body. The research funding earmarked in the bill could help suss out whether those hypotheses are right.

There’s already some research—albeit not in humans—to suggest that inflammation may indeed be a target for psychedelic therapies. Charles Nichols, a professor of pharmacology at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, has found that some psychedelic drugs have anti-inflammatory effects in rodents. If the same turns out to be true in humans, Nichols says it’s logical to think psychedelics could bring some relief to people with Long COVID.

That’s been the case for Renée, 53, who also asked to be identified by only her first name. After a suspected case of COVID-19 in 2020 left her with smell loss, a rapid heart rate, dizziness, ringing in her ears, brain fog, psychosis, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts, she decided to try microdosing: taking just enough of a psychedelic to spark a physiological effect, but not enough to get high. She started by taking small amounts of LSD every few days for a month.

“I started to feel connected to humanity again. I had emotions again. I had some joy again. I felt normal,” Renée says. Her cognitive functioning improved dramatically and she felt her creativity come back—a boon for her quality of life, since she’s an artist. She still microdoses periodically, now with psilocybin, and says she views it as medicine.

While some people, like Renée, regularly use small doses of psychedelics, Dr. Saleena Subaiya, a physician and researcher at Columbia University Irving Medical Center who also has Long COVID, is launching a small pilot trial to explore whether single-dose hallucinogenic treatments can relieve Long COVID symptoms. After study participants receive a psychoactive medication, Subaiya and colleagues will track them for two months to see whether symptoms including depression, brain fog, and fatigue improve.

Psychoactive drugs have been shown to regulate neurotransmitters, stimulate the growth of cells in the brain, and reduce inflammation in the central nervous system, so it’s possible those properties could translate to improvements in brain-related symptoms of Long COVID. Still, Subaiya is wary of overpromising, particularly given the hype around psychedelics and the fact that there is no proven cure for Long COVID.

Despite the positive rumblings about Long COVID and psychedelics, they have not yet proven effective, Subaiya says. “The safest way to engage with these substances right now would be in a trial,” Subaiya says. “We’re dealing with very powerful psychoactive medications. People need to proceed with immense amounts of caution.”

Correction, April 18

The original version of this story misstated the amount of psilocybin Ruth took. She took five grams of psilocybin mushrooms, not five grams of pure psilocybin.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com