Why Athletes Are Turning To Psychedelics

The body of research on how psychedelics can affect athletes is expanding - and so is usage of the substances.

Professional athletes often are willing to try anything for better opioid-free wellness and sports performance, and more of them are willing to admit it publicly.

For example, world boxing heavyweight champion Iron Mike Tyson admitted to smoking 5-MeO-DMT, an intense psychedelic collected from the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, and a stronger version of a similar hallucinogen, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

Mike Tyson headshot
Mike Tyson © Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com, CC BY-SA 4.0

It was Tyson’s desperate attempt to get right with himself. His life had spiraled into a bad self-esteem abyss, he said on a panel at the Wonderland 2021 Conference in Miami.

He lost 100 pounds and started boxing again, telling the conference crowd that his mind wasn’t sophisticated enough to fathom what happened. But his life instantly improved.

If a raging drug-addicted boxer personality like Tyson can find something that helps calm him down, focuses him and makes him better at his sport, without the burden of addictive drugs, then the sports world at large pays attention.

More recently, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shared his experience with a two-night ayahuasca ceremony in Peru after a visit to Machu Pichu in early March 2020: “I really feel like that set me on my course to be able to go back into my job and have a different perspective on things, and to be way more free at work as a leader, as a teammate, as a friend, as a lover. And I really feel like that experience paved the way for me to have the best season of my career.”

There are other athletes who have come forward with their stories of using psychedelics over the last two years: hockey players, NBA stars, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighters and other NFL players.

There’s a general belief among professional athletes that it’s safe to use psychedelic substances because of an understanding that no league will test for them (at least to this point), according a feature article about the future of psychedelics in sports by Sports Illustrated.

What Can Psychedelics Do For Athletes?

Research on psychedelics and athletes is gaining ground. One study assessed the premise that psychedelic treatment may reduce the incidence and experience of mental health issues in athletes, “particularly when related to a range of issues commonly seen in elite sport, including therapeutic resistance, challenges to identity and meaning through career transitions and injury, and managing interpersonal stress and conflict.”

Athletes have psychological issues that contribute to mental stress, according to the study, including pressure to perform, overtraining, poor performance, interpersonal conflict and injury. Another issue, retirement at a young age, often results in major loss of identify and meaning for the athlete.

But athletes may have already gone further with psychedelics than just medicating before or after a game. Some may be looking to psychedelics (such as microdosing psilocybin) for enhanced performance, an action which is likely to attract the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency that already prohibits “all natural and synthetic cannabinoids” in sports.

The study concluded that, although evidence for relevant performance enhancement is scant and restricted to the dosing day, “future studies should directly test a number of possible ways in which athletic performance might be enhanced beyond improved mental health and beyond the acute effects of the psychedelic.”

A paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that medicine practitioners should become aware of psychedelic agents and the developing field of research, examining their role in the management of mental health and wellbeing.

“In the future, psychedelics may be an additional avenue to explore to manage not only mental health conditions in the athletic population, but also sport-specific stressors including burnout, retirement and life transitions, and sporting failure,” the researchers note.

How Sports Boosts the Business of Psychedelics

The new focus on athletes and psychedelics is driving new business development today. Daniel Carcillo, the CEO and co-founder of Wesana Health, a data-driven life sciences company focused on developing the novel psychedelic therapies, founded the company to help athletes like himself – a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Chicago Blackhawks – deal with mental health issues using psilocybin. After retirement, Carcillo was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

The UFC is reportedly in discussions with Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research about funding a study there.

What about beyond professional sports?

One extreme sports journalist wrote that psychedelics and extreme sports are made for each other.

“The attraction of these types of sports for the newly arrived psychedelic-era refugees is obvious, and most of the leading figures of surfing, rock-climbing, back-country skiing, hang-gliding, etc., of this era were clearly cultural rebels living well outside of the norms of society,” James Oroc wrote.

“For this particular branch of the psychedelic tree, the oceans, deserts and great mountains of the world were now being recognized as the ultimate ‘set and setting.’ Psychedelics and sports, incredibly, can go together like cheese and bread.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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