A psychedelic drug traditionally used in South America — and finding a foothold in some parts of the U.S. — improves people’s general sense of well-being and may offer a treatment for alcoholism and depression, according to a new study.
Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew often used in the Amazon region, contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an illegal drug in the U.K. and the U.S.
A blend of the Psychotria vridis bush and the stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, ayahuasca is used by indigenous tribes and religious groups in the Amazon region, as well as many visitors.
Some research has shown that psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and magic mushrooms, can help alcoholics tackle their addiction.
Using Global Drug Survey data from more than 96,000 people worldwide, researchers from the University of Exeter and University College London found that ayahuasca users reported lower problematic alcohol use than people who took LSD or magic mushrooms.
Ayahuasca users also reported higher general well-being over the previous 12 months than other respondents in the survey.
“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 Dr. Will Lawn of University College London. “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.”
However, he said, it is important to note that these data are purely observational and do not demonstrate causality.
“Moreover, ayahuasca users in this survey still had an average drinking level which would be considered hazardous,” he continued. “Therefore, randomized controlled trials must be carried out to fully examine ayahuasca’s ability to help treat mood and addiction disorders.”
He added the new study is notable because it is the largest survey of ayahuasca users completed to date.
The online survey, which was promoted via social media, measured wellbeing using the Personal Wellbeing Index — a tool used by researchers around the world that asks about things such as personal relationships, connection with the community, and a sense of achievement.
Of the respondents, 527 were ayahuasca users, 18,138 used LSD or magic mushrooms, and 78,236 did not take psychedelic drugs.
“If ayahuasca is to represent an important treatment, it is critical that its short and long-term effects are investigated, and safety established,” noted senior author Professor Celia Morgan of the University of Exeter.
“Several observational studies have examined the long-term effects of regular ayahuasca use in the religious context,” she continued. “In this work, long-term ayahuasca use has not been found to impact on cognitive ability, produce addiction, or worsen 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.”
However, the survey data did show a higher incidence of lifetime mental illness diagnoses within the ayahuasca users. Subsequent analyses found that these were confined to users from countries without a tradition of ayahuasca use.
The researchers said future studies should examine the relationships between ayahuasca use, mental health, well-being, and problematic alcohol and substance use among these people.
The survey also asked people about the experiences of ayahuasca, and most users said they took the drug with a healer or a shaman.
Ayahuasca was rated as less pleasant and with less of an urge to use more of it than LSD or magic mushrooms. Its acute effects usually lasted for six hours, and were most strongly felt one hour after consumption.
The study was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.
Source: University of Exeter