Ayahuasca, the psychedelic brew that originated in the Amazon, has become popular among Brooklyn hipsters and Silicon Valley biohackers alike as a recreational drug and ticket to a living room spiritual experience. But this powerful medicine, which contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine — better known as the “God molecule,” DMT — has caught the eye of scientists in recent years by showing its significant healing potential for people living with mental health issues.
In a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at University of Exeter and University College London continue to push further in this largely unexplored field, reporting that people who use ayahuasca in the past year report lower levels of problematic alcohol use than those who had taken LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. The ayahuasca users in their study also reported higher levels of well-being than both their psychedelic-using peers and those who don’t use psychedelics.
“These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol use disorders,” said lead author Will Lawn, Ph.D., of University College London, in a statement.
This paper doesn’t involve any new experimental results, but it compiles survey results in a way that provides further evidence that ayahuasca could be a promising therapeutic compound for people who live with mental health issues that have not responded to other therapies. The researchers used data on 96,000 people from the Global Drug Survey 2016, a self-selecting online survey on drug habits and related information such as demographics and mental health, to draw these conclusions.
In addition to the findings that suggest ayahuasca could help curb problem drinking and depression, the researchers also write that long-term ayahuasca use does not seem to negatively impact cognitive ability, and it isn’t associated with addictive use or worsening mental health problems. “In fact, some of these observational studies suggest that ayahuasca use is associated with less problematic alcohol and drug use, and better mental health and cognitive functioning,” they write. The researchers do note that ayahuasca users, as well as their mushroom- and LSD-using peers, report higher rates of lifetime mental illness. But there’s not enough evidence to say whether psychedelics worsened these issues or whether people sought psychedelics for relief from mental health issues.
Shamans in South American have known of ayahuasca’s healing properties for hundreds of years, but scientists are only now beginning to understand its mechanisms. They know it’s a tea made from at least two plants, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, and though different shamans’ brews will differ in their exact recipes, they almost always include the stems of the B. caapi vine and the leaves of the bushy P. viridis.
P. viridis contains DMT, a compound that’s usually credited with the powerful visions associated with the ayahuasca experience, but it can’t work on its own. While the extracted, crystallized form of DMT is usually smoked, ayahuasca is ingested orally. But human bodies contain enzymes known as monoamine oxidases, which break down orally ingested DMT, rendering it inactive. This is where B. caapi, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor comes in. It allows the body to absorb DMT in the tea.
The ayahuasca experience usually lasts from four to eight hours, and it can be physically and emotionally challenging — people often vomit or have diarrhea while they’re experiencing overwhelming visions. But the psychology and psychiatry communities have paid close enough attention to anecdotal reports of improved mental health outcomes, that the substance is getting a much closer look.
DMT — and by extension, ayahuasca — is classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States, which means it is not approved for any medical use and is considered to have a high addiction potential. This outdated classification is being challenged in the U.S. and around the world, as mental health professionals in Australia push for DMT legalization and U.S. researchers become increasingly emboldened to pursue psychedelic research.
Of course, this is not to say that DMT or ayahuasca are cure-alls for mental illness or substance abuse issues. More research is needed to make sense of what we do know about the substances. A case study from July outlined a psychiatrist’s mental health crisis that stemmed from excessive DMT use, reinforcing the point that psychedelics should be used with great care and under therapeutic conditions. Under the right circumstances, ayahuasca could help people who haven’t found relief from other therapies.
“Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca’s potential as a psychiatric medicine, and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment,” says Lawn.
Correction 11/10/17: In the original version of this article, the picture of flowers was captioned as Psychotria viridis, when in fact, the photo depicts Banisteriopsis caapi. The article has been edited to reflect that fact.
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