Is Ayahuasca Safe? Ask the Researcher
Recently, researchers from the University of Melbourne shared a study analyzed the adverse effects reported by users of the hallucinogenic tea, ayahuasca. The research, published in PLOS Global Public Health is potentially the largest data source on ayahuasca’s adverse effects to date. It found that ayahuasca has notable – but rarely severe – side effects on users’ mental and physical health; data that has important implications for global public health considering the uptick in ayahuasca users.
Dr. Daniel Perkins, director of the Global Ayahuasca Project, is one of the co-authors of the study. His research looks to enhance our understanding of why people drink ayahuasca, its reported effects on health and wellbeing and any associated risks. In this interview, Dr. Perkins spoke with Technology Networks to provide context on the latest research study and the next steps for the research group.
Molly Campbell (MC): What inspired you to conduct this study?
Daniel Perkins (DP): This is the fourth paper to be published from our Global Ayahuasca Dataset. The first three, listed below, identified significant benefits relating to reduced alcohol and drug use, improvements in diagnosed depression and anxiety disorders and enhanced wellbeing and mental health among people without diagnosed disorders. For this study, we wanted to examine in more detail the potential side effects that may also be associated with consumption.
Previous research on ayahuasca consumption
- Associations between ayahuasca consumption in naturalistic settings and current alcohol
and drug use: results of a large international cross-sectional survey
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, with these effects greater for those with a prior substance use disorder compared to those without.
- Ayahuasca use and reported effects on depression and anxiety symptoms: An international cross-sectional study
Of participants reporting depression (n=1,571) or anxiety (n=1,125) at the time of consuming ayahuasca, 78% reported that their depression was either “very much” improved (46%), or “completely resolved” (32%); while 70% of those with anxiety reported that their symptoms were “very much” improved (54%), or “completely resolved” (16%). There is no obvious evidence of negative mental health effects being associated with long-term consumption.
- Influence of context and setting on the mental health and wellbeing outcomes of ayahuasca drinkers: Results of a large international survey
This study found the consumption of ayahuasca to be strongly associated with reported improvements in psychological wellbeing, and better current mental health, but that the number of mental health side effects experienced in the weeks or months after consumption negatively impacted these gains.
MC: For readers that may be unfamiliar, why is ayahuasca being explored for mental health purposes and personal/ spiritual growth?
DP: Ayahuasca has seen rapid growth in popularity over the last 15 years as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of mental health conditions, as well as for personal growth and spiritual purposes. Large numbers of Western tourists are traveling to South America to take part in ceremonies and others are participating via underground facilitated ceremonies in alternative healing and spirituality settings in Western countries. At the same time, there has been an increasing number of research studies reporting encouraging findings relating to ayahuasca consumption and mental health and addiction outcomes.
MC: Why do you think few studies have analyzed the potential adverse effects of ayahuasca?
DP: Most studies have sought to understand overall effects on mental health and wellbeing, either positive or negative, and have found these to be overwhelmingly positive. However, this does not mean the therapeutic process is easy or without side effects. We collected unique data that enabled us to better understand this question and noted that, of the ~90% of respondents identifying mental health side effects, they felt that these were part of a positive process of growth.
MC: Can you talk about the factors that appear to predispose people to adverse physical events?
DP: Physical health adverse effects were more likely to occur in individuals that were of an older age at initial ayahuasca use, those with a physical health condition, people that have a higher lifetime use of ayahuasca or use of ayahuasca in the previous year, those with a previous substance use disorder and in non-supervised context (where expert support and safety is less likely to be present).
MC: Are there any limitations to the work that need to be considered?
DP: The strengths of our study are the very large sample of drinkers across multiple contexts of consumption. However, limitations to note include the self-report measures, of which many were analyzed retrospectively, and potential self-selection bias.
MC: Do you have any further plans to progress your work in this space?
DP: Further understanding of the potential medical applications of ayahuasca-inspired medications require well-controlled clinical studies. Our research group, including myself and key collaborator Professor Jerome Sarris have received $2 million in funding from the Australian government (NHMRC-MRFF program) for a Phase II randomized controlled trial investigating the use of an ayahuasca-inspired product for treatment-resistant depression and alcohol-use disorder. This will commence next year. We are also continuing research on mental health and wellbeing effects obtained by participants in traditional settings
Professor Sarris and I are also the co-directors of a non-profit research organization Psychae Institute, which aims to progress botanical psychedelics as registered medical treatments.
Dr. Daniel Perkins was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.