Health & Wellness

Healing brain trauma with psychedelics

Ian McCall endured grueling head trauma as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. Plant medicine helped him heal.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

Ian McCall is a former professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter who suffered from symptoms of traumatic brain injuries. After retirement, McCall experienced confusion, anger issues, depression, addiction and suicidal ideation. He tried brain stimulation therapy, but that did not work. So, he turned to a less traditional form of therapy: psilocybin mushrooms.

“I am a very loving, happy person, and I wasn’t for a large portion of my life. Because I was just tortured. I was tortured, and then I was confused, and I was addicted, and I was just crazy for a long time,” McCall said.

Psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, are naturally occurring psychedelics that can affect all senses. They can alter a person’s way of thinking and can cause hallucinations.

“The most important thing to know is that if you take psilocybin or LSD, they’re incredibly safe from a physiological standpoint. You can’t really overdose on them,” Dr. Daniel F. Kelly, a practicing neurosurgeon in Santa Monica said. “They don’t create an addictive behavior like say opiates or alcohol do or nicotine. And in fact, as you probably know, they’re used to break addiction.”

Athletes in high-impact sports such as football, hockey and mixed martial arts are at high risk of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). At least 320 former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE and MMA fighters suffer from a TBI in about one third of UFC fights.

“It is estimated that between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related TBIs occur annually, and sport-related head injuries make up 20% of TBI cases in the United States each year,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. If one endures repeated TBIs they are at higher risk of CTE, a fatal brain disease. As of now, there is no cure, so many athletes who endure brain trauma suffer from symptoms similar to McCall’s for the rest of their lives.

McCall says a friend gave him psilocybin mushrooms because the friend knew McCall was thinking about suicide every day. Shortly after, McCall met with Shane Norte, a Native American spiritual healer, who he met through Instagram. Norte founded Church of the People for Creator and Mother Earth at the La Jolla Indian Reservation in San Diego County. It’s a place where he leads psychedelic ceremonies.

“I had my first shamanistic experience in his little Wamkish. It’s a teepee sort of thing with no top.” McCall said.

People gather in the Wamkish, and Norte helps them heal with psychedelics. He begins by giving everyone a Wamkish dose of mushrooms which is about 15 grams. A normal high dose is only about four grams, according to Dr. Kelly.

“As you go through the process, you start to talk about your intentions and you know, obviously why you’re there,” McCall said. “A lot of hardened men talking about their traumas, talking about their issues, veterans, athletes, but it’s an incredible place to heal.”

About nine hours later, everyone helps build a sweat lodge, and they sweat together for about 60 to 90 minutes.

“When you come into the Wamkish and you take earth-based sacraments, they can cause your mind to go to a lot of places. So, it’s good to have that mental fortitude and that mental toughness and that mental endurance that the sweat can help people build with. Because I always tell people that the things that we endure here, you know, life is a lot harder than just sitting here taking some heat,” Norte said.

According to Norte, psychedelic ceremonies help people reconnect.

“I think the reason why we’re in the mess as human beings is the lack of connectivity to the earth and to the creator or whatever people want to call it,” Norte said.

McCall says his psychedelic experience helped him heal, but microdosing or taking no more than half a gram of psilocybin mushrooms daily is what really turned his life around.

“Just the fact of waking up every morning and looking in the mirror, the first thing I did was I wasn’t going to sit in bed and think about killing myself anymore. I got up and I looked in the mirror and I laughed, and I smiled,” McCall said.

This form of healing is not accessible to all. Psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, are federally illegal under the controlled substance act of 1978. Critics fear that people will abuse the drugs for recreational use. Norte’s ceremonies are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

States like Oregon and Colorado have chosen to legalize psychedelics. In California, psilocybin is not a crime in Arcata, San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Cruz.

The American Medical Association said in a report that it does not support the use of psychedelics because, “to change the schedule of these drugs before medical use is established is pre-mature and dangerous.”

Dr. Kelly explained how psychedelics work in the brain.

“The effects of psilocybin and LSD turn down the gating and they let all of this sensory stuff flow up into your cortex and all these different parts of your brain that don’t normally communicate, communicate. And this is probably part of the therapeutic basis. By shutting down the default mode network or your ego, you are allowed to have these sorts of epiphanies. And this new interconnectedness helps people come up with a different shift in their perspective,” Dr. Kelly said. “That’s really the essence of the healing.”

That’s most likely what happened during McCall’s healing journey with psychedelics. Now, he uses his past struggles to help others. He is a psychedelic integration coach for high-level athletes and performers. He also coaches Muay Thai and jiu jitsu to both children and adults.

McCall also finds happiness in spending time with his 11-year-old daughter. Every morning, he practices meditation and breathwork. He works out daily and tries to make the most out of every day.

McCall’s message to people dealing with mental health issues is that they too can heal.

“If I can do it, anyone can do it.” McCall said. “It’s not rocket science. We can all get it done.”