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How Does LSD Work?

Learn about the ways in which LSD effects brain functioning.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, LSD is one of the more popular hallucinogens on the market. It is certainly one that most people have heard of at some point. It has a long history of use from its discovery in 1938, when scientists were looking into it as a circulatory stimulator. People did not use it for recreation until several years after that. Scientists also studied LSD for its therapeutic purposes until it was outlawed by the government.

After this ban on using LSD for research, the research into how exactly it worked fell by the wayside. In the 1990s it was again approved for research purposes and scientists hope to discover exactly how does LSD work.

What is LSD?

LSD is a drug manufactured from the ergot fungus that infests rye seed and rye bread. It is thought that forms of LSD were responsible for many of the cases of madness throughout history. The raw fungus is an extremely powerful hallucinogen with some irreversible effects. Most of these effects are seen in the more refined version called d-lysergic acid diethylamide.

Its discovery was an accident; a scientist named Hoffman managed to ingest it and began to hallucinate. The after effects were profound and a long history of use for recreation, research, and therapy was born.

The first true LSD trip was documented by a researcher in a popular paper he called “bicycle day.” After taking the drug, this researcher experienced a wide range of both good and bad effects. He explained the uncertainty and panic it created and how the experience changed when he was reassured by a doctor. This suggested that LSD puts people in a highly suggestible state of mind.

How does LSD Work?

lsd serotonin

This image shows the way that LSD interacts with Serotonin in the brain.

According to scientists and researchers, LSD appears to work on the serotonin receptors in the brain. No one knows exactly what it does when it binds to these receptors but they speculate that it either increases the serotonin output or decreases it. The serotonin receptors are the ones that control:

  • sensory perception,
  • sensory input,
  • mood,
  • appetite,
  • sexual response,
  • sexuality,
  • some muscle control, and
  • self regulation.

LSD interferes with most if not all of these functions causing the popular effects of LSD. One of the more interesting things about the way that LSD works is that it has hardly any true effect on the body although it does have physiological effects. The majority of what it does, binding to the receptors, influences the body directly through the brain. This hints at greater functions of the serotonin receptors than was previously thought.

Many scientists agree that there is the possibility of learning more about psychosis and the way that some mental illnesses work by studying the effects of LSD. Since research started again in 1990 some studies suggest that it is a valuable tool for the treatment of depression, anxiety, cluster headaches and other serotonin related disorders.

What are the Short Term Effects of LSD?

LSD uses the serotonin receptors in the brain to produce a wide variety of effects in the mind and body. A few of the effects experienced are:

  • hallucinations,
  • euphoria,
  • feelings of detachment,
  • delusions,
  • impaired sense of time,
  • distorted senses such as touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste,
  • panic,
  • anxiety,
  • depression,
  • fear of losing control of the situation or yourself,
  • loss of appetite,
  • insomnia,
  • issues with temperature regulation,
  • tremors,
  • dilated pupils, and
  • cardiac symptoms.

These short term effects range in severity depending on the amount and length of use. Although many researchers have mapped these symptoms, they still have no idea exactly what about LSD creates them.

What are the Long Term Effects of LSD?

The long term effects of LSD are mostly psychological and are fairly rare. Many people use LSD without any lasting issues. Those that do wind up with lasting damage usually end up with permanent symptoms. A few of these long term symptoms are:

  • permanent hallucinations,
  • psychosis,
  • mania,
  • depression,
  • lack of motivation,
  • lack of interest,
  • difficulty making yourself understood,
  • lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyable things,
  • irrational thinking and behavior,
  • panic attacks,
  • generalized anxiety disorder,
  • flashbacks,
  • tolerance to the drug, and
  • mood swings.

The most common of these side effects are flashbacks. Again, flashbacks are something researchers are uncertain about. Some believe that a flashback is created when LSD, stored in the cerebral spinal fluid in the spine, travels up to the brain causing similar feelings, hallucinations, and sensations as the original trip did. According to the National Library of Medicine, these flashbacks occur during times of stress or mental agitation.

Although scientists are unsure how it works, they are certain that the effects are dangerous. Among the dangers of LSD are:

  • permanent damage to the brain, causing issues with thought and communication,
  • risks to the body such as unplanned pregnancy, disease, and death due to risk taking while using the drug,
  • psychological addiction, and
  • legal difficulties when arrested for possession, dealing, or using LSD.

If you or someone you love is using LSD regularly, there is help. Many treatment centers are equipped to deal with the long and short term effects of LSD without being able to answer the question of how does LSD work.

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