- Ayahuasca use has grown over the past 15 years mainly for spiritual and therapeutic purposes. Recreational usage remains rare. Its key substance is considered a Schedule 1 drug in the US, making it illegal.
- Most users report significant side effects such as nausea, vomiting, nightmares, and disturbing thoughts. Despite this, nearly 90% view these as necessary for their overall beneficial experience.
- The average Ayahuasca user is around 40 years old, well educated, and often in a marital relationship. Many users are from Brazil where access is easy and a considerable number struggle with chronic mental health conditions.
- Despite the negative physical and psychological side effects, many users consider these as part of the Ayahuasca experience and essential for growth and self-introspection.
- Concerns around Ayahuasca and addiction stand distinctively from other drugs due to the perception that some adverse effects are actually seen as integral to the healing experience.
How does the Ayahuasca experience truly unfold?
In an attempt to answer this, thousands of individuals worldwide who have used the substance for religious, therapeutic, or recreational purposes, were surveyed. The responses provide some insights.
The Reality of Ayahuasca Use
Most respondents reported significant side effects from using the drug. Such side effects included nausea, vomiting, nightmares, disturbing thoughts, and disconnection feelings. However, it is noteworthy that only a small fraction reported needing medical attention to manage their physical discomfort.
Interestingly, despite reporting assorted psychological disruptions, nearly 90% of these individuals viewed them as integral steps in their overall beneficial experience.
Growth in Popularity
The use of Ayahuasca has gained noticeable popularity over the past 15 years. Its usage spans from Western tourists visiting South America to being used in spiritually-focused, alternative healing ceremonies in Western countries. Yet, relatively, it remains a niche activity.
Ayahuasca typically presents as a brownish-red beverage with a potent taste and smell. It contains a key substance categorized as a Schedule 1 drug in the US, akin to heroin, thus making it illegal.
In most instances, its usage is regulated, taking place in controlled and observed settings as a spiritual and therapeutic tool. Recreational usage or consumption at parties remains extremely rare, according to our sources.
The survey engaged adults from 50 countries, conducted between 2017 and 2019. All participants had used Ayahuasca at least once, with many reporting multiple instances of consumption. The average participant age was 40, with women making up around 46% of respondents. A majority were well-educated and in marital unions, with nearly half of them residing in Brazil where access to Ayahuasca is quite easy.
Interestingly, a considerable number of participants reported struggling with chronic mental health conditions such as depression (19%), anxiety disorder (13%), or substance/alcohol abuse (each at about 10%).
Negative Side Effects
Whether a user had tried Ayahuasca once or on numerous occasions, negative side effects were common. The most frequently reported negative physical side effects comprised vomiting or nausea (62%), headaches (18%) and abdominal pain (13%). Only 2% required medical attention as a result.
On the psychological side, ‘challenging’ emotional or psychological effects were noted by 55% of the respondents which included auditory and visual hallucinations (29%), feelings of disconnection or loneliness (21%) and having nightmares or disturbing thoughts (19%).
Reported non-ordinary feelings included feeling ‘energetically attacked’ or experiencing unwanted connections with the ‘spirit world’ by around 15% of respondents; while 13% reported difficulty discerning reality.
Part of the Experience
Intriguingly, many of these seemingly adverse side effects were seen as expected occurrences. Users pointed out that the bare essence of Ayahuasca lies in its power to trigger deep self-introspection, confront previously avoided aspects of self, and revisit past traumas. This resonates with Professor Daniel Perkins’ comments, who noted, “Almost 90% considered these challenges as part of a positive process of growth”.
This raises a question: Do the benefits truly outstrip the potential downsides? This is subjective and highly dependent on personal perspective and biases, according to Erin Bonar, an associate professor of psychiatry from the University of Michigan Addiction Center.
Bonar argues that it’s only human to rationalize or distort pros and cons of decisions or behaviours, thus it’s plausible that some individuals, regardless of their historical relationship with substance misuse, may diminish the potential risks or after-effects of consuming Ayahuasca. Furthermore, part of the user population could be making a reasonable assessment that the long-term goals they seek surpass any temporary pain or discomfort related to Ayahuasca use.
The debate around Ayahuasca and concerns about addiction stands distinctively from that of other drugs. This is largely due to the perception of some events typically categorized in the medical field as adverse effects, are actually desired or seen as essential to realizing a healing experience.
Those with a history of drug abuse, however, should always consult a physician and keep their healthcare team informed about all substances they are using.
For More Information
Learn more about Ayahuasca at the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation.