Is ayahuasca safe? A new study analyzes traditional South American medicine

ayahuasca drink

Ayahuasca is a plant-based anesthetic traditionally used in indigenous Amazonian shamanic practices. It is usually brewed into tea and consumed during a ceremonial session led by an experienced facilitator or shaman.

According to the Global Ayahuasca Survey, 70% of respondents reported experiencing physical adverse effects and 55% reported experiencing adverse mental health effects. However, only 2.3% of respondents who experienced physical adverse events required medical attention.

According to a new study published in PLOS Global Public HealthUse of the psychoactive plant substance ayahuasca is associated with a high rate of adverse physical effects and challenging psychological effects. However, these effects are not generally severe.

The study was conducted by Daniel Perkins of Melbourne University and colleagues, he is one of the few to analyze the adverse effects of ayahuasca, a traditional south american medicine and ceremonial drink that is gaining popularity for its potential mental health benefits and properties for spiritual and personal growth. Despite clinical trials and observational studies demonstrating the potential benefits of ayahuasca, there is a lack of research on the negative effects of ayahuasca.

In the new study, researchers used data from a global online Ayahuasca survey conducted between 2017 and 2019, including 10,836 people from more than 50 countries who were at least 18 years old and had used ayahuasca at least once. Information was collected on the participants’ age, physical and mental health, and the history and context of ayahuasca use.

Prepare ayahuasca

Preparation of ayahuasca (from B. Cappy And the P. viridis). Credit: Daniel Perkins, CC-BY 4.0

Overall, 69.9% of the sample reported severe physical health adverse effects, with the most common adverse effects being vomiting, nausea (68.2% of participants), headache (17.8%), and abdominal pain (12.8%). Only 2.3% of participants reported physical adverse events that required medical attention for this problem. Of all the participants, 55% also reported negative mental health effects, including hearing or seeing things (28.5%), feeling disconnected or isolated (21.0%), and nightmares or disturbing thoughts (19.2%). However, of all the respondents who identified these mental health effects, 87.6% believed they were wholly or somewhat part of a positive developmental process.

Researchers have also identified several factors that predispose people to adverse physical events, including advanced age, having a physical health condition or substance use disorder, lifelong ayahuasca use, and taking ayahuasca in an unsupervised context.

The authors note that ayahuasca has notable adverse effects, although rarely severe, according to the criteria used to evaluate prescription medications. In this sense, they state that ayahuasca practices cannot be evaluated with the same standards as prescribed medications because many of its effects involve challenging experiences inherent in the experience, some of which are considered part of the healing process.

The authors add: “Many turn to ayahuasca out of disillusionment with traditional Western mental health treatments, however, the disruptive power of this traditional medicine should not be underestimated, typically resulting in mental health or emotional challenges during the intake. While these are usually temporary They are seen as part of a beneficial growth process, however the risks are greater for vulnerable individuals or when used in non-supportive contexts.”

Reference: “Adverse Effects of Ayahuasca: Findings from the Global Ayahuasca Survey” By Jose Carlos Boso, Oscar Andion, Jerome J. Sarris, Milan Scheidegger, Luis Fernando Tovoli, Emerita Satiro Upali, Violeta Schubert and Daniel Perkins, November 16, 2022, Available Here. PLOS Global Public Health.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgph.0000438

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