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Ayahuasca is a brew made from a combination of Amazonian plants, including the Psychotria viridis bush and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, said study author Will Lawn. "It is thought to have been used for several hundred years by indigenous people in the Amazon," he said.
Lawn is a research associate with the clinical psychopharmacology unit at University College London.
Ayahuasca is also becoming more widely used recreationally in the United States by people seeking a cathartic "trip."
But after researchers questioned ayahuasca users, what was the bottom line on its effects?
"People who had used ayahuasca in the last year reported better well-being than comparison survey respondents," Lawn said. "Ayahuasca users also had lower problematic drinking than comparison drug users who had used LSD or magic mushrooms in the last year."
That said, psychiatrists and Lawn stressed the results did not come from a controlled trial, so the results should be viewed with caution.
"Our survey does not demonstrate a causal link between ayahuasca use and better well-being or more controlled alcohol consumption," Lawn noted. So "this data should not be used as evidence that ayahuasca can treat depression and problematic alcohol consumption."
Of the nearly 97,000 people polled in the study, only about 18,000 said they had experimented with either LSD or so-called "magic mushrooms," and a little more than 500 said they had tried ayahuasca.
"Bad trips" while on ayahuasca were relatively common, the study found. Among those who had tried both ayahuasca and LSD or magic mushrooms, more said that ayahuasca prompted these less pleasurable experiences. They also said they were less inclined to repeat the ayahuasca experience going forward.
But on the upside, in the year leading up to the survey, feelings of well-being were higher among ayahuasca users than among nonusers.
Compared with those who had tried either LSD or magic mushrooms, ayahuasca users were less likely to struggle with alcohol-related addiction problems, the study found.
The findings were published Nov. 9 in the journal Scientific Reports.
But Lawn added that while ayahuasca appeared to have a better side effect "profile" than classic Western psychedelics such as LSD or magic mushrooms, taking the drug is not without risk.
There are bad trips, "in which the subjective effects are very strong and anxiety-provoking. However, this is a risk with any psychedelic drug, and it is mitigated by a positive 'set and setting,' " Lawn explained.
Andrew Littlefield, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said the notion that hallucinogens might have medicinal benefits is "an old idea." He was not involved with the study.
But, "I would personally be cautious regarding the strength of evidence that the current study lends to concluding ayahuasca has clinically significant benefits on psychological well-being and problematic drinking," he said.
Littlefield noted, for example, that the differences observed in terms of both well-being and drinking abuse were statistically very small and "do not represent causality."
Dr. John Krystal, chair of Yale University's department of psychiatry, said the study authors "are very sophisticated in their understanding of psychedelic drugs." But "this type of study is somewhat difficult to interpret," he added.
"For example, we do not know whether the results reflect the attributes of people who seek the various substances evaluated in the study, the expectations that they have regarding how the drug affects [them], or the impact of the use of these substances on the lives of the individuals," said Krystal, who also had no role in the study.
Krystal called for more rigorous research before drawing any conclusions. And "because the safety and effectiveness of ayahuasca has yet to be determined, it should only be used in the context of careful research studies, designed to protect the safety of patients, while generating data that could inform the overall balance of risks and benefits associated with this drug," he said
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