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Magic mushrooms can cure depression? Maybe, says The Goop Lab

Netflix's The Goop Lab dives into the healing world of psychedelics with Gwyneth Paltrow.

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The Goop Lab is a new Netflix series by the controversial brand Goop founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

The most accurate way I can describe Netflix's most buzzed-about show of the moment (at least in wellness), The Goop Lab, is part alternative wellness documentary, part talk show starring Goop's reigning queen, Gwyneth Paltrow.

A controversial and often criticized brand, Goop released a six-part Netflix series on alternative health topics (energy healing, sexual health/pleasure, psychedelics, cold therapy, psychics and antiaging) on Jan. 24. The CNET wellness team got an early viewing of the show, and we're recapping the highlights and breaking down the science behind the health topics explored in each episode.

The Goop Lab Episode 1: The Healing Trip

The Goop Lab's first episode is The Healing Trip, also known as the psychedelics episode. Goop notably covers its bases with a medical disclaimer at the beginning of each episode. Early on, Paltrow shares that her mission with Goop is the "optimization of self," and says she sees the Goop Lab show as an opportunity for Goop staffers to go out and dive deeper into topics their readers are curious about. 

Even though the use of the word "lab" in the title may suggest a scientific setting, this particular episode is not giving you an inside look at what a clinical trial is like for psychedelics (although you do see brief video clips of a few subjects in a clinical environment).

Representatives from psychedelics research support and fundraising organization Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are brought on early in the episode to explain why there's been an increased interest in psychedelics in the health realm. They explain that despite the ban on psychedelics in 1970, the FDA recently cleared the way for clinical research, resulting in an influx of research on psychedelics to treat trauma and mental health disorders, among other issues.

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The Goop staffers went to Jamaica to try "magic mushrooms" with special mushroom therapists.  

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

The MAPS team and another psychiatrist on the show talk about how the renewed interest in psychedelics is due to patients' general dissatisfaction with psychiatric medicine since a wave of drugs came on the market in the 1990s. 

Goop staffers (including Goop Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen) then embark on a journey to Jamaica, where the use of psilocybin mushrooms is not currently banned. Loehnen explains that Goop opted to explore psychedelics in a "more ceremonial setting instead of a clinical one" and that the ceremonial setting resembled a prayer circle or spiritual gathering, in a nod to the spiritual and ancient traditions associated with mushrooms. 

The magic mushroom experience leaders in Jamaica are affiliated with MAPS and are described as "experienced mushroom therapists," but you don't get much other information on them. It's stressed that doing mushrooms in a therapeutic setting is completely different from doing them at a party -- and since the mushrooms amplify emotions and trauma, it's important to have a therapist that can help you deal with that. 

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One Goop staffer wanted to try psychedelic therapy to help her work through the trauma from her dad's death;.

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

Throughout the episode, you see Goop staffers (many of whom want to work through personal trauma) go through the mushroom trip with the therapists. They are often seen hysterically crying, laughing or beside themselves with emotion and pain. You also see clips of other individuals who participated in formal clinical studies on psychedelics, like one man who found success with treating his PTSD with MDMA therapy, and another woman who found relief from her cancer anxiety with a treatment study.

At the end of the episode, Goop staffers explain that their experience in Jamaica has helped them feel more open or different, and one said she felt like she "did five years of therapy in 5 hours." 

What are psychedelics?

Psychedelics are psychoactive substances (like MDMA and psilocybin) that change your brain processes and alter your mood and perception of reality. Psychedelics have ancient roots in spiritual practices, but in the US they were very popular in recreational use in the 1960s. They were banned in 1970 under Nixon's Controlled Substances Act.

The FDA approved the use of psychedelics in clinical trials in 2018, opening the doors to a flood of research and exploration regarding whether they can effectively treat mental illnesses.

In the episode, psychiatrist Dr. Will Siu explains that psychedelics amplify painful emotions and experiences, and when you place that surfaced experience in a psychotherapy setting, patients can then deal with the trauma or emotions in a way they normally cannot.

What does the science say?

Trials have shown promising potential for psilocybin to treat disorders like depression, OCD, addiction, and even cluster headaches or migraines. The FDA gave British company Compass essentially a fast-track to study psilocybin for depression treatment in 2018.

Since the FDA only recently approved these clinical trials, there's not a lot of new information out there, but it's still promising. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from research participants (like from those "case studies" in the episode that claimed the trials helped them). 

Should you try this at home?

This episode falls short in offering wellness advice that people can actually use now to improve or help "optimize" their lives. If that is the goal for Goop and this show, this episode is lacking at best, and at worst, is indirectly condoning recreational drug use until psychedelics are legal. The MAPS experts do say in the show that they don't condone trying psychedelics recreationally or outside of a professional environment (although Paltrow does admit to doing MDMA once). 

Seeing that as of right now you can only legally try psychedelics in certain parts of the world, this is not something you can easily access. Wellness advice should be accessible and actionable, and the experience in Jamaica is yet another example of how Goop can make wellness feel really out of reach for most people. 

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If you're someone who suffers from PTSD, depression or another illness that has failed to respond to treatments, I could see how this would be tempting to try. But it's too risky to do on your own, given that it's not legal and not recognized medically (yet). Like the episode mentions, you want to try these things in a supervised, therapeutic setting since the experience can be overwhelming, and you need support to work through it.

The psychedelic landscape could likely change in the near future given the huge interest in the research developments in mainstream conversation, as well as more general interest in solutions to what's being deemed a mental health crisis. If anything, the science is definitely offering hope for more treatment options.

If you come to The Goop Lab for interesting, entertaining information and insight into why people are researching psychedelics, then this episode will meet your expectations. But if you're looking for actionable wellness advice to make your life better today, you won't find it here.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.