There is no evidence supporting the claim that ayahuasca is physically addictive. However, there may be psychologically addictive properties associated with ayahuasca use, particularly when people report a strong, positive, emotional or spiritual effect during or after a session of ayahuasca use. Self-medication can be dangerous. Substances that have the potential to substantially alter psychological states of well-being can cause unpredictable results.
How is Ayahuasca Abused?
Ayahuasca tea was used for thousands of years in guided shamanic ceremonies among indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. The tea is made from a decoction of plant materials, allowing for the isolation of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) which, when taken together, provide the characteristic hallucinogenic “trip” associated with ayahuasca use. Like ayahuasca, evidence for DMT drug addiction is scarce.
Ayahuasca Side Effects
Physical ayahuasca effects typically involve intense nausea or vomiting and may cause diarrhea. Other physical symptoms frequently include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, and dizziness or light-headedness. The psychological side effects of ayahuasca are often the reason why people use the drug, and users frequently report substantially positive side- and after-effects of their experience. However, negative psychological side effects are common and may include potentially terrifying hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, and fear. When individuals who use ayahuasca without proper mental and environmental preparation experience fear, they may respond by fleeing from their hallucination into truly unsafe situations.
Side Effects of Polysubstance Abuse
Polysubstance abuse is common among those who struggle with substance use disorders. Although DMT and ayahuasca are not considered to be physically addictive, their use may potentiate addictive behaviors and increase the likelihood that an individual will use drugs that are truly addictive (e.g., cocaine, heroin and opioids). Ayahuasca and marijuana are commonly co-used.
What Causes Ayahuasca Addiction?
The psychoactive compound in ayahuasca, DMT, is an endogenous compound that mimics serotonin in the brain. DMT (and ayahuasca) has not been shown to lead to addictive behaviors in humans or in animal studies. In fact, many studies delivered promising results using ayahuasca as a treatment for substance use disorder and other mental health issues, including PTSD, depression and social anxiety disorders. The collected data is preliminary and studies are ongoing. Therefore, it is premature to say that ayahuasca could be used as a therapeutic option in the treatment of substance use or mental health disorders. However, these early studies suggest that ayahuasca may be a viable therapeutic option for some social and psychological disorders in the future.
DMT Withdrawal Symptoms
DMT itself has no known withdrawal symptoms. However, individuals who take prescription or over-the-counter drugs that modulate serotonin levels are at risk for serotonin syndrome when they also take DMT. Because DMT is a serotonin analog, co-administration of prescription or OTC serotonin modulators with DMT can effectively cause a serotonin overload, the results of which include muscle tremors or spasms, loss of locomotor control and, in extreme cases, seizures and death.
Ayahuasca Abuse Facts and Statistics
Ayahuasca use has increased dramatically in the United States in recent decades, due in large part to social media and celebrity endorsements. Although ayahuasca statistics are difficult to estimate, thousands of people make pilgrimages to the Peruvian Amazon every year to participate in guided ceremonies featuring one or more ayahuasca trips. DMT statistics are somewhat easier to come by; the 2016 Global Drug Survey found that 2.24% of people used DMT in the year prior to being surveyed. Over 100,000 people from more than 50 countries participated in the survey.
Although there have been a handful of reports of death due to ayahuasca use, ayahuasca itself was not identified as the primary cause of death. Studies conducted with rodents were unsuccessful in determining a lethal dose amount for ayahuasca. They found that a dose equivalent to 50X the ceremonial dose of ayahuasca did not cause permanent damage. Rather, ayahuasca death is attributed to asphyxiation, vehicle accidents or other accidents that may have been related to ayahuasca consumption.
It is imperative that anyone considering ayahuasca use discuss their plans with medical professionals and ensure that they are in a safe, closely supervised environment throughout their experience. Anyone taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs that affect serotonin levels are at heightened risk for experiencing adverse effects when taking ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca Abuse and Treatment Trends in South Florida
The Orlando-based Soul Quest ayahuasca church is among the most popular in the country and is currently seeking a religious exemption that would allow them to legally administer ayahuasca to their patrons. Soul Quest was recently found not responsible for an ayahuasca-related death during one of their ceremonies.
Ayahuasca statistics for Florida are not readily available. Data for DMT seizures in South Florida indicate that it made up less than 0.1% of all seizures in 2017. However, a lack of data does not mean that ayahuasca and DMT use are declining in South Florida.
Clinical standards for ayahuasca overdose remain to be established. It is possible to over-consume the drug, potentially leading to negative psychological states. Many ayahuasca users report that they confront inner fears. Although the majority of these people are able to work through and overcome many of these fears, some people report overwhelmingly negative experiences.
Ayahuasca Addiction Treatment Options
Mounting evidence supports that ayahuasca has a low potential for abuse or addiction. Many studies have provided evidence that ayahuasca may be a valuable treatment for substance use disorders in the near future, although a great deal of research remains to be conducted.
Because ayahuasca use can be indicative of other drug use, its use may be seen as a red flag for addiction. For those who are concerned that they or a loved one struggle with ayahuasca and drug addiction, treatment would likely follow established protocols for treating other types of substance use disorders and would begin with an assessment at a quality rehabilitation facility that has access to a multidisciplinary team of medical and health professionals.
- Detox. Detoxing from ayahuasca involves waiting for the effects of the administered dose to wear off. There is currently no evidence supporting that ayahuasca causes withdrawal or has significant potential for abuse or addiction. However, for individuals who are in the throes of an ayahuasca trip, this four- to six-hour period may be uncomfortable.
- Residential treatment. Because ayahuasca is unlikely to instill dependence among people, drug addiction treatment may coincide with treatment for other substance use disorders. Many facilities offer residential treatment options, which provide 24/7 supervision and support for clients struggling with substance dependence or addiction.
- Outpatient. Outpatient treatment is often undertaken after a period of residential care. Outpatient treatment can vary depending on the severity of the substance use disorder.
- Dual Diagnosis. A crucial, often overlooked component of substance use disorders is that there is frequently a co-occurring mental health issue. Substance use is often a way people attempt to manage underlying emotional trauma or mental health disorders. Finding a rehabilitation facility that evaluates clients for mental health disorders often provides the most reliable way to begin to overcome dependency or addiction.
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Key Points: Understanding Ayahuasca Abuse
Keep the following key points in mind when considering ayahuasca abuse:
- The active ingredients in ayahuasca tea, DMT and MAOIs, are analogs of endogenous compounds found in the human body
- Orally ingested DMT is not bioavailable and requires co-administration of MAOIs
- DMT may be smoked or injected, which can lead to substantially different outcomes than ayahuasca ingestion
- Although ayahuasca does not have a high potential for abuse or addiction, some people report that they enjoy using ayahuasca regularly
- Ayahuasca use in the United States has increased dramatically in recent decades
- Ayahuasca is currently being evaluated in several prominent research universities and medical schools in the United States and globally as a promising therapeutic agent for conditions including substance use disorder and mental health illnesses
If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder, help is available. Contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to speak with a representative about how addiction treatment can help people achieve a healthier future. Take the first step toward long-term sobriety, call today.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.