New findings published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs suggest that regular users of ayahuasca engage in certain positive health behaviors that result in physical and mental health benefits. Compared to normative data, ayahuasca users engaged in more physical exercise, had healthier diets, enjoyed better well-being, and had fewer chronic diseases.
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew originating from the Amazon that is traditionally used during religious ceremonies in South America. In recent years, the concoction has gained popularity worldwide, owing to its hallucinogenic effects and purported mental health benefits. However, the substance is banned in most Western countries since it contains the psychedelic compound N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
“Some countries are prosecuting ayahuasca use because it can pose a public health risk,” said study author Jose Carlos Bouso, the scientific director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS).
But Bouso and his research team caution that decisions to ban ayahuasca may have negative repercussions. For example, such policies may drive those who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies toward illegal activity. These bans also run contrary to preliminary studies suggesting that ayahuasca is relatively safe, has a low risk of dependency, and may be useful for treating mood and anxiety disorders.
Bouso and colleagues sought to investigate the health risks of regular ayahuasca use in a Western context. They focused their study on the Netherlands, a country with growing ayahuasca networks. The sample consisted of 377 ayahuasca users between the ages of 22 and 80 who had attended ceremonies in the Netherlands. Over half the subjects (55%) had participated in an ayahuasca ceremony within the past six months and most (58%) had been using ayahuasca for more than five years. Just under a third of participants (30%) had participated in over 100 ceremonies.
The participants completed a battery of health questionnaires that assessed numerous health-related indicators, including dietary habits, physical activity levels, substance use, use of prescription medication, visits to the hospital or doctors, presence of chronic pain or disease, and subjective perception of health. Other health measures were social support, mental health, coping strategies, and values and life fulfillment.
The researchers analyzed the questionnaire results and then compared the findings to Dutch normative data. This comparison revealed that the ayahuasca users were less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic disease than the general population. They were also less lonely than national averages and more physically active, with 74% of them meeting national exercise guidelines. The ayahuasca users also had healthier diets, consuming more fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and eating less meat and grains.
The ayahuasca users’ consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and heroin was similar to national averages, although they used more cannabis, MDMA, LSD, truffles, psilocybin mushrooms, cocaine, and amphetamines. Interestingly, the health data did not suggest differences in drug-related harms between the ayahuasca sample and the normative sample.
Ayahuasca users who participated in more ceremonies demonstrated some additional benefits. Those who had attended over 100 ceremonies were more likely to use active problem-solving coping strategies, while those who had attended between 3 and 10 ceremonies were more likely to use avoiding strategies. Those with more ayahuasca experience also scored higher on measures of valued living and engaged living and used less alcohol during the pandemic.
The findings are mostly in line with a previous study that examined long-term ayahuasca users in Spain.
“Political decisions about drug regulation lack evidence and are generally based on moral and prejudices,” Bouso told PsyPost, noting there is an incongruency between the scientific literature and drug policy. “Almost all of the scientific research already published regarding ayahuasca is showing positive aspects.”
But the study authors pointed out several limitations to the study. The sample consisted partly of volunteers, who likely had positive experiences with ayahuasca. People who stopped using the drug following negative experiences were likely underrepresented. Additionally, the findings are observational, and it is unknown whether ayahuasca use is causally linked to health.
“Health is a complex construct affected by a plethora of factors,” the authors wrote in their study. “The most appropriate interpretation of these findings is that people who usually attend ayahuasca ceremonies are also engaging in other practices and self-care strategies, or ways of dealing with stress that produce the ultimate outcome of a better health status.”
The study, “Ayahuasca and Public Health II: Health Status in a Large Sample of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands”, was authored by Maja Kohek, Genís Ona, Michiel van Elk, Rafael Guimarães Dos Santos, Jaime EC Hallak, Miguel Ángel Alcázar-Córcoles, and José Carlos Bouso.