A potent psychedelic drink called ayahuasca may be of use to those attempting to overcome drug or alcohol addiction, according to new research. Known to produce intense alterations of consciousness and mystical experiences, the Amazonian brew was found to bring about reductions in drinking and drug use across a wide range of people, with this trend being particularly noticeable among individuals with a history of substance abuse.
Produced by boiling a vine called Banisteriopsis caapi with other plants such as Psychotria viridis – otherwise known as chacruna – ayahuasca has been used for spiritual, emotional, and physical healing by Amazonian communities for many years. Its primary psychoactive ingredient is a compound called N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), sometimes referred to as the "spirit molecule".
The popularity of ayahuasca among Westerners has risen steadily in recent times, largely due to its purported mental health benefits. A number of small studies have suggested that it may facilitate recovery from addiction, with increasing attention being given to the Takiwasi drug treatment center in northern Peru, where ayahuasca and other traditional Amazonian healing modalities have helped people from around the world to overcome substance abuse.
Appearing in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, the new study presents the results of a survey of 8,629 ayahuasca users from 40 different countries, revealing that those who ingest the psychedelic brew most regularly are least likely to consume alcohol or drugs.
“The number of times ayahuasca had been consumed was strongly associated with increased odds of never or rarely drinking alcohol, never or rarely engaging in ‘risky drinking’ and having not consumed a range of drugs in the past month,” explain the study authors. Importantly, they note that “these effects [are] greater for those with a prior substance use disorder compared to those without.”
Participants also rated the strength of the “spiritual experiences” that had been triggered by their ayahuasca use, with those who had undergone the most intense experiences being the most likely to remain abstinent from intoxicants. According to the authors, these deep mystical insights may assist recovery from substance abuse as they “enable participants to identify negative thought patterns related to their addiction, provide understanding of the origins and dynamics of their addiction, and contribute to the healing of traumas that underlie many addictive disorders.”
During the 20th century, several “ayahuasca churches” emerged in Brazil and have since gained popularity around the world. The most famous of these are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, both of which fuse elements of Christianity with Indigenous Amazonian cosmology, and are centered around the communal use of ayahuasca. The survey results indicated that membership to one of these churches was also associated with reduced rates of alcohol and drug use.
While these findings are intriguing and exciting in equal measure, the authors point out that more work is needed in order to determine the true value of ayahuasca in the treatment of addiction, and concede that their study is hindered by several limitations. For instance, they note that individuals with positive ayahuasca experiences are more likely to voluntarily respond to surveys such as this, which may partially explain these results.