Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Muscarine and Mushrooms

Upon reading the post about poisonous mushrooms, a reader offered, "Viking fighters called Berserkers ate mushrooms containing muscarine to prepare for battle. They went so wild that we get the word "berzerk" from them."

Many authors refer to the fact that the Vikings would consume Amanita muscaria mushrooms prior to going into battle. These mushrooms cause hallucinations, which undoubtedly accounted for the strength and odd behaviors of the bearskin-clad warriers. Although muscarine was first isolated from A. muscaria over 150 years ago, the hallucinations caused by these mushrooms are not attributed to muscarine, but to other chemical components.

For the sake of contrast, a classic muscarinic reaction includes excessive salivation (drooling), lacrimation (eyes tearing), urination, sweating, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It may also include skin flushing (redness) and shortness of breath caused by excessive secretions from the lining of the bronchial tubes. Rapid or slow heartbeat may be noticed, as might headache, difficulty with balance when walking, and blurred vision. Many Inocybe and Clitocybe mushrooms contain larger concentrations of muscarine than does A. muscaria.

Amanita muscaria has a cap 5 to 30 cm in diameter that is scarlet red with white "warts." One doesn't need to be a Viking to obtain these mushrooms, as they grow in eastern North America and throughout much of the western United States, often under hardwoods and conifers from spring to autumn.

Ibotenic acid is found in the bright red cap of A. muscaria and undergoes a chemical reaction during drying to form muscimol, an even more toxic compound. The potency of the cap remains high despite drying. Eating as little as 10 milligrams of A. muscaria produces intoxication, dizziness, and difficulty walking. Ingestion of 15 milligrams can cause severe balance and vision problems. Symptoms begin within 30 minutes of ingestion and generally last for approximately 2 hours, although it is possible to be affected for up to 2 days, particularly with regard to a lingering headache. Death is possible, but rarely reported. The victim of this mushroom poisoning may become delirious and hyperactive, suffer hallucinations or even seizures, and demonstrate muscle twitching.

As I mentioned in my prior post about wild mushrooms, they can pack a potent punch. No person should knowingly eat A. muscaria. Persons who eat them to obtain a "natural high" often regret the experience.

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photo of Amanita muscaria from the textbook Wilderness Medicine
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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.