For centuries, DMT was a little-known hallucinogen primarily used in religious and healing rituals in the Amazonian rainforests. In recent years, interest in the powerful drug has been soaring.
Lured by promises of spiritual awakening and healing, increasing numbers of Americans are participating in ayahuasca retreats. During the ritual, people consume a thick, brown tea brewed from vines that contain DMT and other chemicals that activate the drug.
After consuming the psychedelic brew, most people begin vomiting, and some have diarrhea. These violent physical reactions — commonly viewed among ayahuasca proponents as a purge that cleanses the body — are usually followed by intense hallucinations that can last for several hours.
DMT’s psychedelic effects are similar to those of LSD. Whether it’s swallowed as a tea, smoked or injected, dimethyltryptamine causes intense visual hallucinations, euphoria and altered perceptions of reality, including time.
Some people who take DMT experience depersonalization, an uncomfortable feeling of detachment from their mind and body. Intense emotions and mood swings are common.
Other short-term side effects of DMT include:
It can be dangerous to combine ayahuasca with certain types of medications, including common antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Mixing the hallucinogenic tea with these drugs may cause a dangerous spike in serotonin levels, according to a widely cited 1998 article in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
This sometimes life-threatening complication is called serotonin syndrome. Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include euphoria, tremors, nausea, confusion and vomiting. In severe cases, a person may experience seizures, lose consciousness or die.
Long-term effects of DMT abuse are unknown, but there is little evidence the drug can cause long-lasting problems or addiction.
While proponents of ayahuasca say the substance can trigger a transcendental experience, using the drug is not always enjoyable. For some, it can cause frightening hallucinations.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Rick Strassman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, supervised a study on the effects of DMT in humans.
Nearly half of the 60 volunteers who were injected with DMT experienced adverse effects, including startling interactions with realistic beings commonly known as DMT entities or aliens. They resembled clowns, reptiles, bugs and other creatures.
Despite Strassman’s efforts to dissuade them otherwise, some volunteers insisted the entities they saw were real.
Strassman, who wrote about this phenomenon in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, has theorized that naturally occurring DMT in the brain’s pineal gland might explain the physiological science behind personal accounts of alien abductions and near-death experiences.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, meanwhile, are studying this strange effect of DMT. In 2018, the university conducted a voluntary online survey that asked people to describe their “encounters with seemingly autonomous beings or entities after taking DMT.”
While information about the risk of a DMT overdose is limited, people have experienced life-threatening reactions to the drug. Some have even died, according to media reports.
Among the drug’s victims was Kyle Nolan, an 18-year-old California man who traveled to the jungles of Peru in 2012 to participate in an ayahuasca retreat. He never returned home.
A shaman at the retreat later admitted to giving Nolan too large a dose of the drug. He panicked after Nolan died, according to a CNN article, and buried his body.
Nolan’s death is one of at least six known deaths at Peruvian ayahuasca retreats in recent years.
But people no longer have to spend thousands of dollars traveling to Peru or Ecuador to experiment with DMT. After a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that the Schedule I drug can be used legally for religious ceremonies, ayahuasca retreats have been offered across the United States.
U.S. poison control centers, meanwhile, received more than 500 calls about bad reactions to ayahuasca between 2005 and 2015, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.
Of those cases, 28 people required the insertion of a breathing tube and artificial ventilation. Four went into cardiac arrest, seven stopped breathing and 12 had a seizure. The authors of the report concluded that while ayahuasca is generally reported to be safe and well tolerated, serious and life threatening effects are possible.
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