Concerns Raised Over Side Effects

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The plant-based Ayahuasca drink is used in sacred rituals in some parts of South America. Mark Fox/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that participants in a study reported physical and mental health side effects from drinking the plant-based psychedelic drink Ayahuasca.
  • However, the researchers said the effects did not appear to be severe or long-lasting.
  • Proponents of Ayahuasca say the drink can ease some mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

For centuries, people in South America have consumed Ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic drink that many say provides physical and emotional benefits.

The drink has traditionally been used as a ceremonial or shamanic spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. More recently it has captured the interest of the Western world.

Ayahuasca, which proponents say takes you on an intense but healing emotional journey, is a psychedelic, which is a class of psychoactive substances that can alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes.

Other psychedelics include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), methylene dioxin methamphetamine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms), and ketamine.

A study published today from the University of Melbourne in Australia concludes that while there is a substantial rate of adverse physical and psychological effects from using the plant-based psychoactive, they are generally not severe.

The study was co-authored by Daniel Perkins, PhD, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who used data from an online Global Ayahuasca Survey carried out between 2017 and 2019 of 10,836 people from more than 50 countries who were at least 18 years old and had used Ayahuasca at least once.

Overall, adverse health effects were reported by nearly 70% of participants with the most common effects being vomiting and nausea, headache, and abdominal pain. About 2% of participants who reported adverse physical events required medical attention.

About 55% of participants reported adverse mental health effects ranging from hearing and seeing things to feeling disconnected to nightmares.

Of the respondents reporting mental health effects, 87% believed they were completely or somewhat part of a positive growth process.

Perkins noted that his group is now part of a $2 million phase 2 clinical trial of Ayahuasca for alcohol use disorder and treatment-resistance depression.

“People have been using Ayahuasca for many years in a medicinal context as a spiritual ceremony,” said Perkins, who’s also the executive director of the Melbourne-based Psychae Institute and an adjunct associate professor in the Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University in Australia.

“Recently we’ve seen a booming underground retreat culture in the Western hemisphere in which people pay hundreds of dollars to go to these retreats.,” he told Healthline.

In some cases, these ceremonies combine indigenous Brazilian beliefs and contemporary Christian teachings.

“It is a spiritual experience, but it is not something you get up and dance to. There is no real recreational use other than for alternative healing. Overall, it is not widely consumed,” Perkins said.

In fact, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that a church serving Ayahuasca is a religious practice and cannot be disturbed.

Jan Ramaekers, PhD, a professor and domain chair of psychology and neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has also been studying Ayahuasca but was not part of this study.

“Ayahuasca is mostly harmless. It can last a couple hours, with nausea, vomiting, and you can get colds, but it is very benign. And there are no addictive properties,” Ramaekers said.

It is different than psychedelics such as LSD, he added.

LSD, experts told Healthline, can be used in a recreational setting. You can take LSD at a party. However, Ayahuasca is more about personal contemplation and personal psychotherapy.

Jesse Gould, an Army Ranger who did three combat deployments in Afghanistan, was dealing with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But he was disillusioned by the care he was getting from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues were dragging me down. But I didn’t want to take a drug for this,” he told Healthline.

So, he got on a plane and headed for the jungles of Peru, where the drink is available. He said it worked so well that he created the Heroic Hearts Project, which helps veterans connect with Ayahuasca facilities in Peru and elsewhere.

“There is now a waiting list of more than 1,500 veterans,” Gould said.