A new treatment for mental illness and alcohol abuse could be on the cards, a new study reveals, in the form of a psychedelic plant brew called ayahuasca.
From an analysis of more than 96,000 people across the globe, researchers found that individuals who used ayahuasca experienced greater well-being than those who did not, and they were less likely to have experienced problematic alcohol use in the past 12 months than users of other psychedelic drugs.
Study leader Dr. Will Lawn, of University College London in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic plant mixture that is believed to originate from Amazonian tribes, who have been using the concoction for hundreds of years and continue to do so to this day.
"The psychedelic state induced by ayahuasca often makes users reflect on personal concerns and memories and produces intense emotions," note Dr. Lawn and colleagues. "These effects are highly valued by ayahuasca users who characterize the drug experience as similar to a psychotherapeutic intervention."
Ayahuasca's main ingredient is a vine called Banisteriopsis caapi, which is believed to produce psychedelic effects.
The concoction also contains dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogenic compound that is classified as a schedule I drug in the United States, meaning that it is deemed as having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
The new study, however, suggests that ayahuasca has the potential to be of medical use, after finding that it could benefit mental health.
Greater psychological well-being
Dr. Lawn and his team came to their results by analyzing data from the 2016 Global Drug Survey, which is an annual online survey that gathers information on past-year drug use from more than 100,000 people worldwide aged 16 years and older.
The study included the data of 96,901 subjects. Of these, 527 reported using ayahuasca within the past year, 18,138 reported using the psychedelic drugs LSD or magic mushrooms, and 78,236 had not used psychedelic drugs.
As part of the survey, the participants were also asked about their psychological well-being, their history of mental illness, and any problematic alcohol use that they had experienced in the past year.
Compared with respondents who had not used psychedelic drugs or who had used LSD or magic mushrooms over the past year, those who used ayahuasca reported greater psychological well-being.
What is more, the researchers found that ayahuasca users were less likely to have experienced an alcohol use problem in the past year compared with users of other psychedelic drugs, and ayahuasca users reported a lesser urge for the drug than those who used LSD or magic mushrooms.
Dr. Lawn comments on the possible implications of these results.
"These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol use disorders."
Dr. Will Lawn
"Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca's potential as a psychiatric medicine," he adds, "and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment."
Further research warranted
However, the researchers stress that their results should be interpreted with caution. They note that their study is observational, so it cannot prove cause and effect.
What is more, they point out that ayahuasca users still consumed alcohol at levels that could be harmful to health, and the lifetime incidence of mental illness was still greater among ayahuasca users than non-users of the drug.
"Therefore," says Dr. Lawn, "randomized controlled trials must be carried out to fully examine ayahuasca's ability to help treat mood and addiction disorders."
"However," he adds, "this study is notable because it is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest survey of ayahuasca users completed to date."