In the first major global study of its kind, researchers surveyed more than 10,000 people from more than 50 countries about their experiences with ayahuasca, an ancient South American brew.
They found more than half said they had negative mental health effects while on ayahuasca such as hearing or seeing things that other couldn’t. One in five said they suffered disturbing thoughts or nightmares, hallucinations or felt disconnected.
More than five in 10 people said the mental health issues stuck with them for ‘weeks or months’. However, nearly nine in 10 considered them ‘completely or somewhat part of a positive growth process’.
The study also found that 70 per cent of users experienced at least one adverse physical effect during or shortly after consuming the drink, the most common being vomiting or nausea, headache and abdominal pain — all of which are common as part of the ‘purge’ process.
But a small number suffered severe physical harm. Two per cent suffered seizures, one per cent went into respiratory arrest and another one per cent went into cardiac arrest.
Many experienced users of ayahuasca will see these side effects as part of the healing experience, but researchers are concerned that many will not – as the brew becomes an increasingly popular alternative to traditional medication.
The authors write: ‘Many are turning to ayahuasca due to disenchantment with conventional Western mental health treatments, however the disruptive power of this traditional medicine should not be underestimated, commonly resulting in mental health or emotional challenges during assimilation.
‘While these are usually transitory and seen as part of a beneficial growth process, risks are greater for vulnerable individuals or when used in unsupportive contexts.’
Ayahuasca is a drink made by boiling together vine stems along with leaves from a chacruna shrub — both native to the Amazonia region.
Because the effects are quite extreme, westerners who take ayahuasca usually do so in ceremonies led by a shaman, which have been covered in Netflix shows such as (Un)well.
The drink has already been blamed for the struggles of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with his team having lost five games in a row this season. Mr Rodgers, a four-time MVP winner with two wins back-to-back, attributed his success on the field to transformative trips with ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a brown-reddish drink made by boiling stems from its namesake vine and leaves from the chacruna shrub together (pictured)
Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Miley Cyrus are among celebrities who have used Ayahuasca. It is popular among some for alleged healing benefits
Seven in ten people who took ayahuasca said they had a physical side-effect. The most common was vomiting, but this is considered normal with the drink and part of ‘cleansing’
Shown above are the mental side-effects that people said they faced. Hearing or seeing things or feeling disconnected were the most common ones
Miley Cyrus said she ‘loved’ the drug and that it left her seeing snakes immediately, in an interview with magazine Rolling Stone in 2020.
Joe Rogan is a big proponent of DMT — the active ingredient used in ayahuasca — and regularly shares his experiences on his podcast.
For at least a century, ayahuasca has been used for spiritual purposes by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, typically in religious rituals.
But the drink is now gaining popularity in the Western world as an alternative to other mental health treatments.
Research into psychedelics for therapeutic purposes is booming.
Drugs that have long been stigmatized such as ketamine and MDMA are now being investigated for their effectiveness in treating severe depression and PTSD.
Ayahuasca contains the compound N,N-Dymethyltriptamine (DMT) which is one of the world’s most powerful known hallucinogens.
Similar to drugs like LSD and psilocybin, DMT has demonstrated its ability to increase connectivity between different brain networks and boost synaptic plasticity.
When taken in conjunction with traditional therapy, many mental health experts and researchers believe patients can overcome emotional issues that have not been helped by other types of medicine such as SSRIs.
DMT is banned under federal law, as a schedule I substance — the most restrictive level that makes it illegal to manufacture, distribute, buy or possess.
Some religious and ethnic groups have gained an exemption to this ban, meaning it can be taken at ceremonies.
In the latest study, published in the journal PLOS Global Public Health, scientists analyzed the results of an online survey conducted from 2017 to 2019.
They were all over 18 years old, and claimed to have used the drink at least once.
Most said they believed it had helped them to grow spiritually and personally.
But a majority of participants also faced negative physical or mental effects.
Vomiting is a known side-effect of taking ayahuasca and is even sought after for its perceived cleansing or purging benefit.
The scientists found that the most common side-effect was vomiting, which affected 62 per cent of people involved.
Hearing or seeing things that others couldn’t was the second most common side effect with 28 per cent. And 21 per cent said they felt disconnected or alone.
Other side-effects reported included nightmares (19 per cent), visual distortions (15 per cent) and difficulty determining reality (13 per cent).
Nearly one in five participants also said they faced a headache after drinking Ayahuasca, while up to four per cent said they fainted or suffered seizures.
People who were older, had a health condition or used Ayahuasca regularly were more likely to experience the side-effects.
Seizures due to the drink are also known, and thought to reflect a spiritual phenomena.
But scientists warned they can pose very real health effects, and said users should remain alert to the risks.
Camps like the Kawsay Ayahuasca Retreats in Peru provides week-long getaways that are ‘dedicated to your healing and growth through Ayahuasca and San Pedro Cactus Ceremonies’
During the day inside the Ayahuasca ceremonial building in Peru, Don Romulo Trunco Ayahuascaro, does healing work for the guests
Ayahuasca risks were highest for those taking it in an unsupervised context, they said.
While Aaron Rodgers has praised the drug in touting his MVP honors, his recent performances on the field have led commentators and fans alike to call the habit into question, blaming it for the team losing five games in a row — including last week to the lowly Detroit Lions.
Commentator Robert Griffin said: ‘In order for the Green Bay Packers to dig themselves out of this hole, they need the best version of Aaron Rodgers.
‘And right now, that ayahuasca seems like it has him in a completely different world.’
Teammates also appeared to mock the habit in September this year, when they pretended to take the drug while celebrating a touchdown win over the Chicago Bears.
Joe Rogan has made many podcast episodes extolling the benefits of drinking ayahuasca, and spoken to many celebrities about it.
In August he said: ‘Isn’t it funny that that sounds like a crazy thing to say, but that would literally fix the world: if more people had psychedelic trips and more people had more experiences that dissolved their ego and more people had an understanding that community isn’t just a bunch of people that live together, it’s a bunch of people that care about each other — and that we could treat the world like a community.’
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drink that is illegal in the US and UK but widely used by tribal societies in the Amazon basin.
Shamans consider ayahuasca a ‘wisdom’ plant that allows an entry into the spiritual world, and it was recognized as such by the government of Peru in 2008.
It can cause hallucinations that are similar to the effects of LSD or magic mushrooms, according to Talk to Frank. They last for two hours and are ‘usually pleasurable’ but can cause panic and horrifying flashbacks, the website says.
The negative emotional effects from taking ayahuasca can last for days, and make it especially dangerous for people with mental health problems.
It can also raise blood pressure and heart rate and may harm those with a pre-existing heart condition.
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