New Research Shows Psychoactive Brew Ayahuasca Improves Mood and Wellbeing

pot of ayuhuasca brewing over a stove

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Key Takeaways

  • Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drink that's been used for hundreds of years in South America for ritual purposes.
  • A new study suggests ayahuasca usage is linked to physical and mental health benefits, as well as overall better quality of life.
  • Advocates hope research like this will help lawmakers, health professionals, and the public view psychedelic medicine as a healing modality.

We've entered a renaissance in psychedelic research. Advocates of psychedelic medicines have reignited a public curiosity in these often ancient substances for the sake of science, and it's becoming clear that many hallucinogenic drugs can provide immense mental health benefits when used responsibly and in the right setting.

A new study on Ayahuasca, a psychoactive drink that's been part of Amazonian spiritual rituals for hundreds of years, explores its public health benefits. The findings show that ayahuasca users tend to eat healthier, engage in more physical activity, suffer from fewer chronic diseases, and experience better overall well-being.

The Research

One of the active ingredients in ayahuasca is DMT, a psychedelic compound found in certain plants and trace amounts in the human body. DMT is considered a Schedule I drug and is therefore illegal for anything outside research. But underground, indigenous, and religious use of ayahuasca has expanded globally, and research has linked it to beneficial effects on treatment-resistant depression and social anxiety.

For this particular study, researchers set out to analyze the ayahuasca experience outside of its original context.

Gathering data from the Netherlands, whose ayahuasca networks continue to grow, researchers studied a sample of 377 participants that identified as ayahuasca users. Within the sample, ages ranged from 22-80 years old; 58% of participants reported using ayahuasca for the past five years, 55% had attended an ayahuasca ceremony within the past six months, and 30% had attended more than 100 ceremonies.

Participants answered questionnaires regarding their physical and mental health, dietary habits, social support, values, and coping strategies. Nearly all participants (99.8%) reported being very positively or positively influenced by ayahuasca.

When it came to physical benefits, 64% reported higher energy levels, greater physical relaxation, better pain management, improved gastrointestinal health, reduced or halted substance use, and being more in tune with the body.

Caroline Dorsen, PhD

Rescheduling ayahuasca and other psychedelics would facilitate scientists’ ability to conduct methodologically rigorous research to assess their potential to improve health and well-being.

— Caroline Dorsen, PhD

Psychologically, 98.7% of participants reported greater happiness, optimism, self-acceptance, confidence, empathy, and feeling more peaceful and calm. Only 8.5% reported adverse effects, such as anxiety attacks, fainting, or difficulty on the journey.

In the study, researchers wrote that their findings suggest "a good safety and tolerability profile of ayahuasca, low risk for abuse, and potential benefits for the individual’s health, particularly if used in a controlled ceremonial setting." They encourage policy-makers to refer to scientific evidence when developing and implementing public health policies.

Change in Perception

"Although this study certainly doesn’t prove causation between ayahuasca use and improved mental and physical health, it adds to a growing body of encouraging research," says Caroline Dorsen, PhD, who is on the faculty of both the schools of nursing and public health at Rutgers University. "Rescheduling ayahuasca and other psychedelics would facilitate scientists’ ability to conduct methodologically rigorous research to assess their potential to improve health and well-being."

Dorsen's current project is examining health professionals' attitudes toward and knowledge of psychedelic drug use as a healing modality.

"Our concern is that old stereotypes and myths about psychedelics as drugs of abuse could prevent us from realizing their potential as healing modalities for historically hard-to-treat and potentially disabling issues, such as severe depression, PTSD, and addiction," Dorsen says.

Mike Dow, PsyD

I always find it interesting that two of the most harmful drugs, alcohol and nicotine, are legal in the US, whereas psychedelics like ayahuasca are illegal.

— Mike Dow, PsyD

Psychotherapist Mike Dow, PsyD, who administers ketamine-assisted therapy—another psychoactive drug that's been linked to mental health benefits,—at Field Trip Health, wants to see a change in American health care that prioritizes therapy plus the integration of medicine, rather than one or the other.

"This approach targets the biological but ignores the psycho-social-spiritual aspects of a person's wellness," Dow says. "SSRIs are the most frequently prescribed drug for PTSD but the benefits only last if the patient takes the pill every day. Wouldn't it be better to synergistically use medicine combined with psychotherapy to actually help the brain reprocess the traumatic event?"

Dow hopes research like this will lead to a public change of opinion about psychedelics and what we consider safe and acceptable.

"I always find it interesting that two of the most harmful drugs, alcohol and nicotine, are legal in the US, whereas psychedelics like ayahuasca are illegal," he says. "I hope this leads to a more root-cause oriented and/or functional approach to mental health care."

What This Means For You

If you're interested in exploring psychedelics like ayahuasca, psychotherapist Mike Dow, PsyD, urges individuals to seek out and prepare with a trained shaman/guide. It's also important to note that ayahuasca is not compatible with certain medications and conditions, so doing your research and speaking with a professional beforehand is crucial.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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