- A teaspoon of a caffeine supplement can be as strong as 32 cups of coffee.
- Kevin Loria/Business Insider
- A young man in Australia died after drinking a protein shake with a caffeine supplement. At least two other caffeine overdose deaths have been traced to supplements.
- Many people enjoy a cup of coffee to start their days, but too much caffeine can cause anxiety, heart palpitations, and even death.
Concentrated caffeine, which is cheap and easy to buy online, can contain as much caffeine as 32 cups of coffee per teaspoon, making it easy to use a deadly amount.
- Avoid high doses of caffeine by sticking to natural sources like tea or coffee that dilute the drug. If you must use a supplement, know how much you’re consuming in each cup, can, or scoop.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
Most Americans can’t imagine getting through the day without the boost from (at least) one morning cup of joe, and plenty of evidence suggests drinking it can be good for your brain and body and may even lead to a longer life.
But too much caffeine can be deadly.
Lachlan Foote, a 21-year-old from Sydney, Australia, died 18 months ago after drinking a highly-caffeinated protein shake. He reportedly mixed the shake himself after coming home from a few drinks with his friends, and his last Facebook message mentioned an odd bitter taste in his shake.
“I think my protein powder has gone off … Anyway … night lads. Cya in the morning,” he wrote, according to News Corp Australia. In the morning, though, his parents found him dead on the bathroom floor.
Now, the coroner has determined that his death was a caffeine overdose, and Foote’s family is speaking out about the dangers of powdered caffeine supplements similar to those Foote had added to his shake, the Blue Mountain Gazette reported.
Read more: We bought a bag of caffeine equivalent to 15,625 cans of Coca-Cola for $30
“I want the truth to be out there … for Lachlan’s sake and so that it won’t happen again,” his dad told the Gazette. “Maybe his death will benefit someone else.”
Caffeine can be lethal because it stresses the cardiovascular system
Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, added to everything from soda to soap.
It’s found naturally in coffee, tea, and chocolate, and acts as a central nervous system stimulant to make you feel a rush of energy, elevated mood, and increased focus.
But not all of its effects are positive: Even in normal doses, like your morning latte, it increases your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, according to registered dietitian Leslie Bonci.
And, at higher doses, it can be dangerous. The Mayo Clinic recommends 400 mg of caffeine per day as a safe amount for most adults (kids and teens should avoid it). Any more than that, Bonci said, could make you feel anxious or jittery. It could even make you feel like your heart is racing or you can’t catch your breath, she added, sending some people to the ER.
The amount in a lethal dose varies based on body weight, but could be as little as 1,500 milligrams, Bonci said. That’s because in extreme cases, caffeine causes vomiting, cramps, and a fast, irregular heart beat, combined with low blood pressure that can lead to unconsciousness and eventually death.
Caffeine supplements are highly concentrated, making it dangerously easy to consume a lethal dose
Highly concentrated, readily-accessible online supplements are making it easy to cross the line between a quick boost and a lethal overdose. At least two deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to caffeine overdose.
The amount found in supplements is “just ridiculously high,” Bonci said. “You would never see that amount in a cup of Starbucks; it’s impossible.”
While most people would have to drink more than 20 cups of coffee at once to reach a fatal level of caffeine intoxication, caffeine in supplement form, whether tablets, powder or, liquid “energy shots,” are especially dangerous because they can hit your system all at once.
“The amount is so concentrated, and you don’t have anything to dilute it,” Bonci said. “There’s nothing to slow down the absorption, and the brain is going to feel that caffeine a lot faster.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on sales, but it’s still cheap and easy to buy caffeine supplements online.
Last year, the FDA issued warning letters to two American companies selling illegally high doses of concentrated caffeine. One of these contained 3,200 milligrams per teaspoon, as much as 20 to 30 cups of coffee or 80 cans of soda.
“Despite being informed of the dangers of highly concentrated and pure caffeine, we’re still finding companies that are disregarding consumer safety by illegally selling products with potentially dangerous and lethal amounts of caffeine,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb in a June 2018 press release.
Serving sizes of caffeine supplements are deceptive
The proper “serving size” of pure caffeine powder is 1/16 of a teaspoon, according to one product website. Most people don’t have a measuring spoon that small, and would need a precise digital scale to measure a safe dose, the FDA warned.
In other cases, users may not even have access to dose information. For Foote, there was no record of him purchasing the supplement himself, so he likely obtained it from a friend and may have been unaware of how concentrated it was, his father Nigel Foote, told the Blue Mountain Gazette.
“It’s just insane that something so dangerous is so readily available. Please warn your friends, talk to your children, and perhaps check your kitchen cupboards. Pure caffeine powder looks just like any other white powder, but a heaped teaspoon of it will kill you,” he said.
Despite the FDA crackdown, a search for “caffeine” on the website of one of the FDA-cited companies led to a page for “special customers only,” with an unspecified product available in orders of up to 5.5 pounds. The smallest size, 3.5 ounces, is advertised for $16.99. It contains 340 servings – roughly as much as 480 cups of coffee or 10 times a lethal dose.
The risk of caffeine can be be multiplied by other drugs, such as alcohol, that have a negative effect on your heart, lungs, and brain. Exercise also elevates your heart rate and breathing and can compound the side effects of caffeine, added Bonci, who specializes in sports nutrition.
Here’s how much caffeine you can safely consume in a week
Surprising ways that caffeine affects your body and brain
Here’s why caffeine is so addictive – and why it’s so hard to give it up
- You’ll find everything from cupcakes to lattes made with the cannabis compound CBD.
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
I knew I had arrived in California when a friend offered me an edible – for my dog.
The treat didn’t contain THC, the component of marijuana that’s responsible for getting you high. Instead, it was made with cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound in cannabis that is surging in popularity.
These days, you’ll find CBD being sold in everything from cupcakes to lattes. Sellers claim the compound has a variety of benefits, including anxiety relief and help with sleep and pain. But so far, there’s little solid evidence to back up those claims.
And on Friday, federal regulators said those trendy treats and drinks are all technically illegal.
“Under current law, CBD cannot lawfully be added to a food,” acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner Ned Sharpless said during a public hearing meant to gather feedback on how to police foods, drinks, and drugs made with CBD and other cannabis compounds.
Still, Wall Street thinks the CBD industry could be worth $16 billion by 2025. Despite Friday’s statements, CBD’s legal status remains somewhat hazy: It can vary based on everything from the state in which it’s sold to whether it comes from hemp or marijuana plants.
CBD does appear to have some limited clinical uses – at least in very high doses. Last summer, the FDA approved the CBD-based drug Epidiolex, which is used to treat seizures.
Epidiolex’s approval is bad news for the CBD treat industry, however. It is because CBD is now a federally-approved prescription drug, according to Sharpless, that food and beverage vendors can’t legally add CBD to anything edible.
It also remains unclear whether CBD has any broader benefits, including when consumed in low levels in things like cupcakes.
Scientists believe CBD could play a role in helping to produce many of marijuana’s therapeutic effects, from relieving pain to curbing inflammation. But overall, the research on cannabis itself is early, it’s too soon to say for sure whether CBD is useful for most people, or for our furry friends.
Here’s what you need to know.
These days, CBD is everywhere. But its legality may depend on several factors, including the type of plant it comes from.
- By Chloe/Leslie Kirchoff
CBD can either be manufactured from hemp, which President Donald Trump recently made legal for farmers to grow and harvest, or from marijuana, which remains illegal on the federal level.
“As these laws have changed, FDA’s authorities have become more relevant,” Sharpless said on Friday.
A handful of boutique companies are now making lotions, creams, cupcakes, and cookies infused with hemp-derived CBD. The products are being sold everywhere from traditional marijuana dispensaries (in states where the drug is legal) to traditional stores (sometimes even in states where marijuana remains off-limits).
The Los Angeles-based Humble Flower Co. sells its lotions, creams, and massage oils at select California marijuana dispensaries only, but several other companies, such as Blue Ridge Hemp, sell their goods online and in stores across the country. Last summer, the trendy vegan fast-food chain By Chloe added a line of CBD-infused products to its menus in New York and called the new offering “Feelz by Chloe.”
But starting in February, health-department officials in New York City began to crack down on some CBD vendors, warning of bans and fines.
Regulators are gearing up to decide how to handle CBD, and on Friday, regulators listed some of the questions they aim to answer in order to police it.
- Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, the acting commissioner of the FDA.
- Wikimedia Commons
Previous statements from former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggested that the agency would take a somewhat flexible approach to policing CBD products. Gottlieb created a working group to focus on cannabis regulation that is cochaired by Principal Deputy FDA Commissioner Amy Abernethy and Principal Associate Commissioner for Policy Lowell Schiller.
Under Sharpless, the agency will likely crack down on CBD when it comes to 3 main areas: 1) when products make health claims, 2) when CBD-infused food products are sold across state lines, and 3) when the products are marketed as dietary supplements.
“We will need to carefully evaluate how all these pieces fit together in terms of how consumers might access cannabis products,” Sharpless said Friday.
Scroll down to see the questions the agency aims to answer in order to officially police CBD.
CBD has some limited — and very specific — clinical uses. But it’s still unclear whether it could have health benefits for most people.
- Courtesy GW Pharmaceuticals
In June 2018, a prescription CBD-based epilepsy drug called Epidiolex became the first of its kind to be approved by the federal government.
Taken as a syrup and made by the British-based drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals, the drug is designed to treat seizures linked with two rare forms of childhood epilepsy. The drug is made with CBD harvested from marijuana plants.
Epidiolex contains very high levels of CBD – far higher than the amounts found in treats and drinks being sold today. For example, the average dose for an 8-year-old child taking Epidiolex is roughly 650 milligrams of CBD per day. By comparison, most CBD cookies, coffees, and creams contain about 5 to 20 milligrams of CBD.
Still, many scientists believe CBD could play a role in helping to produce many of the therapeutic effects tied to marijuana.
- Darrin Harris Frisby / Drug Policy Alliance
In marijuana plants, CBD exists alongside THC, the ingredient that’s believed to produce most of cannabis’ commonly known effects, including its characteristic high.
Researchers generally believe that when taken together in the plant, the two compounds produce their strongest effects. But they also believe that CBD alone could play a key role in everything from relieving pain to curbing inflammation.
These benefits have yet to be proven by solid scientific research. Scientists are now exploring the potential of CBD to treat things like pain and inflammation.
New drug companies have been sprouting up with the goal of capitalizing on CBD’s potential therapeutic effects.
In fall, a pair of high-profile Stanford researchers launched a medical company to develop CBD-based therapies for conditions such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Called Katexco Pharmaceuticals, the company is exploring whether CBD might help treat digestive conditions characterized by swelling and inflammation, such as Crohn’s and irritable bowel disease. Katexco is based in Canada but has a US subsidiary in Silicon Valley.
Katexco joins several other startups that hope to help turn CBD into federally approved pharmaceutical drugs. Part of its work could get easier when CBD can be made easily and cheaply in a lab, rather than from a plant.
Today, CBD comes from plants. But it can also be made in a lab — an advancement that could cut costs and save time.
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Instead of sourcing CBD from marijuana or hemp plants, researchers could make it in a lab.
In February, that happened for the first time. Using an increasingly popular approach known as synthetic biology, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley created the precursors to the cannabis compounds CBD and THC and then made the compounds themselves – no farm or field required.
If the technique can scale, it could pave the way for making marijuana’s therapeutic components more quickly and efficiently, for a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.
The Berkeley scientists licensed their lab-made cannabis technology to a startup they created called Demetrix. Several other startups are also pursuing the same goal, including Ginkgo Bioworks, a synthetic-biology startup in Boston; Intrexon, a biotech in Maryland; and Hyasynth Bio, a Canadian startup.
Wall Street believes the CBD industry could be worth $16 billion by 2025, depending on how federal regulators decide to police it.
- By Chloe/Leslie Kirchoff
In a February report, Wall Street analysts at the investment bank Cowen highlighted CBD as a massive opportunity for growth. The analysts estimated that the US market for CBD could skyrocket from roughly $1 billion to $2 billion now to $16 billion by 2025.
Survey results included in Cowen’s report found that 7% of respondents said they were using a CBD supplement. The report also estimated that Americans spent up to $2 billion on CBD products last year. Ostensibly, folks are using CBD for everything from pain to anxiety. But again, those benefits have yet to be proven by scientific research.
“This initial response piqued our interest considerably, as it was much higher than we would have expected,” the analysts wrote.
Wall Street’s CBD predictions could depend on how federal regulators decide to police the drug. For example, regulators could ban all CBD products, rule that cookies and creams can contain only a certain amount of the compound, or allow the products to exist legally so long as they’re derived from hemp.
The Food and Drug Administration is holding a hearing on Friday to discuss how cannabis products should be regulated to inform the agency’s work in the growing market.
Here are some of the questions the agency aims to answer before they decide how to police CBD:
- How much CBD is safe to consume in a day?
- What if someone applies a topical CBD lotion, consumes a CBD beverage or candy, and also consumes some CBD oil?
- How much is too much?
- How will it interact with other drugs the person might be taking?
- What happens when someone chronically uses CBD for prolonged periods?
- Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
- Federal regulators on Thursday proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes and a move to place flavored e-cigarettes like the Juul behind a stronger regulatory fence.
- The move is less severe than what some expected to see: an immediate ban on flavored e-cigs being sold at convenience stores and gas stations.
- Menthol and mint e-cigarettes aren’t affected by the government’s proposal.
- Earlier this week, the Silicon Valley e-cig startup Juul announced it would temporarily stop selling its flavored e-cigarettes in stores – a move it probably made in anticipation of the government’s latest statement.
Instead of announcing what was expected to be a sweeping and immediate ban on flavored e-cigarettes like the Juul, government regulators on Thursday proposed banning regular menthol cigarettes and revisiting a year-old policy designed to put new e-cig products behind a stronger regulatory fence.
Food and Drug Administration’s commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency would revisit its policy as it applied to all flavored e-cigs except for tobacco, mint, and menthol varieties. The FDA didn’t provide a timeline for the changes in its statement.
The changes Gottlieb aims to see, he said, would protect teens and minors by ensuring those products are sold only in locations that cater exclusively to adults. Online sales would also be allowed “under heightened practices for age verification,” he said.
The move may surprise Juul Labs, the Silicon Valley startup that has 80% of the e-cig market.
Earlier this week, the company announced its own immediate (albeit temporary) ban on flavored e-cigs at all retail stores.
“As of this morning, we stopped accepting retail orders for our Mango, Fruit, Creme, and Cucumber Juul pods to the over 90,000 retail stores that sell our product, including traditional tobacco retailers and specialty vape shops,” Juul CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement on Tuesday.
Read more: Juul will soon stop selling flavored e-cigarette packs in retail stores, but a workaround could make the ban pointless
Juul’s move was most likely made in anticipation of an expected similar action from the FDA, experts say. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the agency would ban “most flavored e-cigarettes in tens of thousands of convenience stores and gas stations across the country.”
But the FDA didn’t ban flavored e-cigs on Thursday.
A ban on menthol cigarettes and a plan to eventually put e-cigs behind a stronger regulatory fence
- Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Instead of banning flavored e-cigarettes, the FDA on Thursday proposed barring the sale of menthol cigarettes, which Gottlieb said he believed “represent one of the most common and pernicious routes by which kids initiate on combustible cigarettes.” FDA also plans to propose a ban on flavored cigars.
He also outlined plans to eventually regulate e-cigs more strictly using a policy he initially proposed last year and then waived.
Thanks to that policy, any e-cig introduced before August 2016 was essentially grandfathered in to the market, meaning its makers did not have to seek FDA approval to sell their products until at least 2022.
That waived policy has been the door through which e-cig companies like Juul were able to aggressively market and sell their products.
Read more: $15 billion startup Juul used ‘relaxation, freedom, and sex appeal’ to market its creme-brulee-flavored e-cigs on Twitter and Instagram – but its success has come at a big cost
Gottlieb said he hoped that revisiting that policy would place e-cigs back behind a regulatory fence and ensure that they are marketed and sold in a responsible manner that doesn’t target youth.
The government is also publishing new data that suggests a troubling increase in e-cig use among teens. From 2017 to 2018, Gottlieb said, there was a 78% rise in e-cig use among high-school students and a 48% increase among middle-school students.
“These data shock my conscience,” Gottlieb said in the statement.
“The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” he added.
‘Most scientists believe flavorings are used to target teenagers’
- California Department of Public Health
Flavors have been at the epicenter of much of the debate around young people and e-cigarettes.
Experts say e-cig varieties like Apple Pie, Watermelon, and even Hot Sauce are designed intentionally to hook teens on nicotine, a highly addictive substance that’s especially influential on a developing brain.
“Most scientists believe flavorings are used to target teenagers into becoming users,” Ana Rule, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University who was an author of a recent study on e-cigs and teens, told Business Insider this summer.
“There are of course many other factors such as marketing and peer-pressure, but when you look at the flavoring names, one has to wonder.”
In Juul’s statement announcing its own temporary halt on flavored e-cigs, the company acknowledged that its flavored varieties might appeal to youth.
Other regulators have taken action on flavors as well.
Over the summer, San Francisco residents voted to pass a sweeping tobacco-flavor ban that barred the sale of flavored e-cigs as well as menthol cigarettes. Several big names including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York came out in support of the ban, suggesting at the time that it could spur similar moves in other cities.
“This vote should embolden other cities and states to act, because it demonstrates the public will not allow tobacco companies to stand in the way of policies that are proven to reduce smoking and save lives,” he said in a statement.
Read more: San Francisco has passed a sweeping ban that should scare the $23 billion vaping industry
With these moves and the Washington Post story in mind, many experts believed the FDA would crack down immediately on both flavored e-cigs and menthol cigarettes today. But while the menthol cigarette ban is directly outlined in the new policy, no such ban is outlined with regard to flavored e-cigarettes.
Instead, flavored e-cigs will still be widely available – so long as the locations they are sold in follow age-restriction protocols.
“The changes I seek would protect kids by having all flavored [e-cig] products … sold in age-restricted, in-person locations and, if sold online, under heightened practices for age verification,” Gottlieb said in the statement.
- Kratom is often ground into a fine powder put into capsules.
- Government regulators are expected to soon rule on the legality of a controversial drug called kratom, a representative at the Drug Enforcement Administration told Business Insider on Tuesday.
- While federal agencies have called kratom a dangerous opioid, advocates say it’s saved their lives.
- One thing missing from the debate about kratom: hard science on how it works.
- For the first time this summer, a researcher isolated kratom’s two key ingredients to see how they affect behavior in rats. Although the results were preliminary, they suggested the drug could hold promise for people with addiction.
A final decision on the legality of a controversial drug is expected imminently from the US government.
The drug, called Kratom, has pitted government regulators against scientists and advocates. The Food and Drug Administration has called it a dangerous opioid and sought to ban it by making it a Schedule 1 drug like heroin or ecstasy. Some advocates say it’s helped them end their addiction to opioids, and scientists want to keep exploring its potential as a medical treatment.
Right now, researchers at the DEA are evaluating the two main components in kratom. They’ll either rule the same for both ingredients, effectively banning all forms of kratom nationwide, or they’ll ban one and make the other potentially available as a medicine at a later date. That’s according to Melvin Patterson, a spokesperson with the Drug Enforcement Administration who described the ruling as forthcoming.
“I think there’s just a few remaining in-house things the DEA was looking at” before issuing a ruling, Patterson told Business Insider on Tuesday.
Right now, kratom is legal in most states, where it is sold in whole plant form as a supplement.
The ruling is highly anticipated by both advocates who say the drug has saved their lives and by scientists who simply want to learn more about how it works.
“I wish there was some sort of holding box we could put drugs like this in until more studies could be done,” Scott Hemby, a professor of pharmaceutical science at North Carolina’s High Point University who authored a recent study isolating kratom’s two main ingredients, told Business Insider on Monday. Read more: A mysterious supplement has a viral following of people who take it for addiction – and researchers say it’s too compelling to ignore
Hemby’s research – the first of its kind – was a preliminary study looking at how kratom’s two main components affect behavior in rats. His findings suggested that the chief compound in the plant could potentially offer therapeutic benefits to people dealing with addiction, but it’s still early days for the work.
“We’re at the precipice of something promising here,” Hemby said when the paper came out.
But Hemby worries that the government’s ruling could make studying the plant and its key ingredients even harder than it already is, and he’s not alone.
Life-saving supplement or dangerous opioid?
- Kratom pills.
- Psychonaught/Wikimedia Commons
Frequently ground into a fine powder and taken as pills or tea, kratom is a psychoactive drug derived from the leaves of an Asian plant in the coffee family called Mitragyna speciosa. Kratom advocates swear by the stuff, saying it’s helped them kick devastating addictions to opioid painkillers.
But federal regulatory bodies like the FDA and the DEA have cracked down on kratom and previously tried to ban it.
“It’s like a cruel joke that I finally found something that works, and the FDA and DEA want it banned,” Bryce Avey, a 26-year-old California native told Business Insider this summer. Avey said he took kratom daily as a tea to help him stop using the opioids he became addicted to after wrist surgery.
The efforts to make kratom illegal culminated at two recent points: In 2016, the DEA attempted to ban kratom but stopped after facing backlash from advocates and members of Congress. Then in October 2017, the FDA broke out kratom’s two main components and studied them separately, ultimately recommending a ban on both of them, Stat News reported this month.
That 2017 FDA recommendation was then sent to the DEA, which began the lengthy process of reevaluating the drug’s two components to make a final decision on the legality of each of them, Patterson said.
Now, a decision on the drug’s two compounds is imminent, he said. While the FDA focuses on medicinal potential, the DEA looks at the compounds’ abuse potential.
Importantly, the agency could choose to rule differently on each compound, Patterson added. Those include mitragynine (MG) and 7‐hydroxymitragynine (7‐HMG) – two ingredients that Hemby calls “the yin and yang of kratom” because while HMG could be potentially harmful, MG seems like it has a lot of therapeutic potential.
That means that even if HMG gets banned or placed into Schedule 1, there’s a possibility that MG could be placed in a different schedule. (Popular ADHD drug Adderall, for example, is a Schedule 2 drug.)
‘The yin and yang of kratom’
In stark contrast to what regulators have said about kratom, a growing cluster of physicians and researchers are beginning to suggest that the drug could have therapeutic potential. Some have said they understand why people looking to get off opioids might find the drug helpful; others have said that new research suggests the plant’s compounds could have untapped potential.
“It makes sense that this product would mitigate the symptoms of opioid withdrawal or allow someone to transition from a higher dose to lower dose, or help get off them off of opioids altogether,” David Juurlink, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, told Business Insider this summer.
One big reason is that the kratom plant’s two main ingredients – which can be thought of as similar to how marijuana contains both THC and CBD – appear to have very different effects on the brain.
Of kratom’s two chief ingredients (MG and HMG), MG is thought to be the compound with the most therapeutic potential. There’s about 30 times more MG in Kratom than there is HMG.
Hemby’s study was the first to use rats to investigate how each of these two compounds affects the brain. After giving the animals the chance to self-administer each ingredient by pushing a dial, they found that the rats quickly took advantage of the opportunity to give themselves the HMG but were completely uninterested in MG.
“We stood on our heads to get them to self-administer,” Hemby said, adding that his team tried upping the doses of MG several times. “It just wasn’t working. It was almost like it was innocuous.”
In other words, while one of kratom’s main compounds appeared to be addictive, the other wasn’t at all – in fact, it appeared to have the opposite effect.
That could be promising for people who are turning to kratom for relief from opioid addiction. The drug is known to tap into some of the same brain receptors as opioids – which spurred the FDA to officially call it an opioid in February.
But some people believe those characteristics mean kratom could help treat opioid addiction by staunching cravings and reducing withdrawal and relapse.
Hemby’s findings also suggest there might be a way to process kratom to capitalize on this therapeutic potential by heightening the effects of one compound while minimizing the effects of the other. Strains of the plant, for example, can be bred to have differing concentrations of MG and HMG.
That’s something that he and other researchers like him want to keep studying, he said, so long as government regulators let them.
“It’s really a rush to judgement to say let’s put the kibosh on everything,” Hemby said.
Once portrayed as illegal ways to “drop out” or “tune in,” psychedelic and semi-psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and ecstasy are finally starting to turn into federally-regulated medicines.
The tide began to turn over the summer, when a little-known startup backed by Silicon Valley tech mogul Peter Thiel churned out enough of the active ingredient in magic mushrooms to send 20,000 people on a psychedelic trip. It was part of a larger research effort by the company, called Compass Pathways, to study how psychedelic drugs could be used to treat depression.
It was only the beginning. Earlier this month, a German entrepreneur launched a new company called Atai Life Sciences with $25 million to back more studies that explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs on psychiatric disease. And last week, federal regulators deemed psilocybin worthy of “breakthrough status,” a designation designed to speed the drug approval process for treatments that serve unmet needs.
MDMA, better known as ecstasy, nabbed that designation last year. Just this week, researchers published a new study that suggested MDMA could help people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Prior to the recent wave of research, the study of psychedelic substances – many of which remain officially recognized as Schedule 1 drugs with no legal medical use – was nearly impossible. But in recent years, the efforts have begun to make headway.
The obvious psychedelic suspects aren’t the only drugs in the realm that are turning into medicines. The first prescription drug made with marijuana, which many experts consider a psychedelic in high enough doses, was green-lit by U.S. federal regulators in June.
A type of ecstasy might accelerate PTSD therapy
- Reuters/ DEA
On Monday, researchers published the latest findings of a year-long study designed to assess if MDMA could play a role in treatment for PTSD. Their positive findings suggest that it could.
After the treatment, in which patients were given MDMA alongside traditional talk therapy and compared with a group that got the same treatment only using a placebo instead of the drug, some three-quarters of the participants no longer met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. In other words, their symptoms had resolved.
That’s a significant result. One of the chief problems with current talk therapy is that even when patients are able to afford and access the treatment, they grow tired of the painful process of rehashing traumatic events and sometimes disappear for months on end, according to psychiatrist Julie Holland, who currently serves as a medical observer for the MDMA study.
Still, the treatment was tied to some unpleasant side effects including insomnia, tiredness, and headaches. The drug, which amps up the activity of chemical messengers involved in mood regulation, can be dangerous when used without medical supervision because it raises body temperature and blood pressure.
MDMA also recently received a key federal designation designed to hasten the research and approval process. Some experts believe the drug will be approved as early as 2021.
A compound in magic mushrooms is showing promise for anxiety
Researchers studying psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, have likened its quick effects on cancer patients to a “surgical intervention” for depression.
Brain scan studies suggest that depression ramps up the activity in brain circuits linked with negative emotions, and weakens the activity in circuits linked with positive ones. Psilocybin appears to restore balance to that system.
Two for-profit companies are currently leading the research in the space. The first, called Compass Pathways, is backed by entrepreneur Peter Thiel and has plans to start its own clinical trials of magic mushrooms for depression later this year. The second, a biotech startup launched last month called Atai, is focused on financing more of the kind of research that Compass is doing. Atai has already raised $25 million from investors like ex-hedge fund manager Mike Novogratz and Icelandic entrepreneur Thor Bjorgolfsson.
Some researchers have high hopes that a psilocybin-inspired drug will get approved within a decade. David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, told Business Insider last year that he believed psilocybin would become an “accepted treatment” for depression before 2027.
The first prescription drug made from marijuana won federal approval this summer
The first prescription drug made from marijuana won federal approval this summer.
Called Epidiolex, the drug is designed to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy using a cannabis compound called cannabidiol (or CBD).
British-based GW Pharmaceuticals makes the drug. It does not contain THC, the well-known psychoactive component of marijuana responsible for the drug’s characteristic high.
The federal thumbs-up comes on the heels of several months of promising research results and a positive preliminary vote from the Food and Drug Administration this spring. Experts are hopeful that the approval will unleash a wave of new interest in the potential medical applications of CBD and other marijuana compounds to treat other psychiatric and neurological diseases.
Ketamine is inspiring a handful of novel drugs for depression
A widely used anesthetic that is also known as a party drug, ketamine was shown to have benefits as a rapid-fire antidepressant nearly a decade ago. Early studies suggested ketamine could help people who failed to respond to existing medications or were suicidal.
The authors of one paper called ketamine “the most important discovery in half a century.”
As opposed to existing antidepressants, ketamine acts on a brain mechanism that scientists have only recently begun to explore. Homing in on this channel appears to provide relief from depression that is better, arrives faster, and works in far more people than current drugs.
After a lack of new drugs for depression spurred scientists to go back to the drawing board, pharmaceutical companies like Allergan and Johnson & Johnson are now in hot pursuit of new blockbuster depression drugs that take after ketamine.
Allergan’s drug is in the last phase of clinical trials and has received a key FDA designation designed to speed it through the approval process. A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson told Business Insider that it expects to file for FDA approval of its drug – a nasal spray made with the chemical mirror image of ketamine – this year, despite what some experts have called disappointing results from a study done in its most recent phase of research.
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