DMT is a hallucinogenic tryptamine drug with a chemical name of N, N-Dimethyltryptamine. DMT occurs naturally in some plants and animals. DMT has been used for several hundred years for its powerful hallucinogenic effects, which many call spiritual in nature. Traditionally, it’s brewed with a variety of plants into a tea called ayahuasca, which is used in spiritual rituals and ceremonies in South America and a handful of other locations.
DMT is illegal in most countries. Under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, DMT is listed as a Schedule I drug, which means it’s illegal to manufacture, buy, sell, distribute, or use. Schedule I drugs are those known to have a high potential for abuse, a lack of safety parameters around its use, and no recognized medical use.
However, in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government must allow the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazil-based church, to import and consume ayahuasca for religious ceremonies as per the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993. In 2009, a federal judge barred the government from prohibiting or penalizing the use of DMT by members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, again citing the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act.
DMT comes in the form of a crystalline, white powder. It can be smoked, vaporized, snorted, injected, or brewed with other plants into a tea. Most commonly, it’s either smoked or consumed as a tea. When it’s smoked, the hallucinogenic effects are felt almost immediately, and the experience peaks after around five minutes, gradually decreasing and ending over the course of 30 to 45 minutes. When it’s consumed as a brew, the effects begin after 30 to 45 minutes and peak around two to three hours, gradually decreasing and ending over four to six hours. The average dose of DMT when it’s smoked is 30 to 150 milligrams. The average dose when it’s consumed as a brew is 35 to 75 milligrams.
When taken orally, DMT won’t have any psychoactive effect unless it’s consumed along with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor or MAOI. Without the MAOI, the body metabolizes DMT before it can produce hallucinations. Ayahuasca is brewed with plants that naturally inhibit MAO.
Researchers believe that DMT begins with tryptophan, which becomes tryptamine. A particular enzyme, known as the INMT enzyme, transforms tryptamine into N-methyltryptamine and then catalyzes the formation of DMT. DMT typically becomes undetectable in the blood around an hour after it’s taken, destroyed by MAO-A. However, it can stay in the brain for up to seven days after taking it.
DMT is allowed to be used by researchers under a Controlled Substances Act research registration. American research involving DMT requires approval from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
DMT causes an intense psychological “trip,” featuring vivid closed-eye and open-eye hallucinations, a strong sense of euphoria, and a skewed sense of body, time, and space. Negative effects reported by users include fear, anxiety, paranoia, and increases in heart rate and blood pressure.
It’s the nature of the trip that differentiates DMT from other hallucinogens. Pioneering DMT researcher Dr. Benny Shanon, Emeriti Professor of Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has extensively studied DMT. In an article published in the Journal of Mind and Behavior, he identifies a number of common experiences people have while under its influence:1
Some of the common visual experiences include:
Entities frequently appear during the DMT experience, including:
Dr. Shanon points out that the unusual mental phenomena generated by ayahuasca open new areas for the study of the mind and human consciousness. Studying ayahuasca sheds light not just on cognitive-psychological processes, but also on scientific disciplines like philosophy and anthropology.
Another researcher, Dr. Rick Strassman, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. He is the founder and director of the Cottonwood Research Foundation, which is dedicated to consciousness research. Dr. Strassman’s book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which was also made into a documentary in 2010, makes the case that DMT is naturally released by the pineal gland in the human body and facilitates the soul’s movement in and out of the body, including during birth and death.
Strassman’s book and the movie popularized DMT, leading to more Western ayahuasca ceremonies, more Americans are traveling to South America to participate in ayahuasca, and more people using the drug recreationally.
Preliminary research shows that DMT may help treat substance use disorders. A 2013 study published in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews found that participants with substance use disorders in a “Working with Addiction and Stress” retreat involving clinically supervised ayahuasca experiences enjoyed a number of life improvements that helped reduce the substance abuse or end addiction.2 The study found statistically significant improvements in participants’ mindfulness, empowerment, hopefulness, life outlook, and meaning, which reduced substance abuse and improved their psychological wellbeing. Participants reported:
Dr. Jacques Mabit, physician and founder of Peru’s Takiwasi Center for Drug Addict Rehabilitation and Research on Traditional Medicines also studies the use of ayahuasca rituals as an integral part of addiction treatment. The overarching idea is that the altered state of consciousness produced by ayahuasca in a ritualistic setting re-connects us to our spiritual memory and emphasizes the integration of our internal, human selves with the grand, universal self. This, according to Dr. Mabit, is a “profoundly curative and healing act” that re-humanizes and re-aligns a broken spirit.3
During the ayahuasca ritual, the subject accesses realities of the invisible world, which become visible and perceptible and found to be active elements in the client’s subconscious. Clients move beyond verbal expression and limitations and access their interior world, increasing self-awareness to help them address the unique, underlying issues behind addiction.
Leaving users with improved self-esteem and a powerful sense of self-confidence that enables them to regain control of their inner being
Facilitating emotional healing
Stimulating dream life
Increasing intellectual capacity
Improving frustration tolerance
Helping individuals recognize the uniqueness of their being and their location in the world
Ayahuasca use in addiction treatment isn’t permitted in the United States. In locations where it is permitted, it’s used in the context of a spiritual ritual, led by experienced healers.
Long-term use can lead to experiencing the following effects:
Possible side effects of DMT include dizziness, an increase in heart rate or blood pressure, chest pain or tightness, dilated pupils, and rapid movements of the eyes. When it’s consumed as a tea, DMT can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Structurally, DMT is related to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin plays a role in feelings of happiness and wellbeing, but too much of this chemical can result in a condition called serotonin syndrome, which is potentially fatal. DMT increases the risk of serotonin syndrome, which produces symptoms, including:
For people who have pre-existing psychological problems or a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, DMT can have severe negative psychological consequences resulting from disturbing hallucinations and an overall terrifying experience.
Limited research shows that chronic, heavy use of DMT can lead to cardiovascular problems. In a study of rats who consumed ayahuasca for 14 days, researchers found thickening in the walls of the aorta, among other changes in aortic structure. Another study of 15 long-term adult users in Brazil showed that ayahuasca wasn’t correlated with any negative psychological effects. However, these adults used ayahuasca in ritualistic ceremonies, which differs considerably from a recreational environment.
Unlike other hallucinogens, DMT doesn’t appear to induce tolerance, and it’s not known to cause chemical dependency, which is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that occur when use stops. Unlike other hallucinogens, DMT doesn’t appear to cause long-term damage to the brain. However, further studies should be conducted on the long-term effect of DMT use.
In 2013, the past-year prevalence of DMT use worldwide was five percent, compared to a worldwide prevalence of just 2.24 percent in 2016, according to the Global Drug Survey.4 This makes DMT one of the least-used drugs in the world. In 2013, fewer than one percent of Americans aged 12 and older reported lifetime use of DMT. However, 24 percent of American DMT users were new users, a proportion that’s higher than other hallucinogenic drugs. This may be an indication that DMT use is on the rise.
Once someone develops an addiction, professional help is almost always necessary for a successful recovery. Substance use disorders are widely regarded as a disease of the brain. While DMT itself doesn’t appear to cause changes in the brain, an addiction is characterized by changes in the brain’s functions and structures that lead to compulsive use despite negative consequences.
Trauma, which changes the brain and leads to substance abuse as an escape from negative emotions and experiences.
Chronic stress, which reduces the ability to manage emotions and leads to substance abuse as a way to relax and unwind.
Treating an addiction to DMT requires identifying and delving into its underlying causes as well as addressing the multiple needs of the individual. A high-quality addiction treatment program helps individuals end their need for drugs by helping them restore function, meaning, and joy to their lives.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) points out that there are multiple pathways to recovery, and a holistic approach offers the best treatment outcome. A holistic treatment program helps individuals solve a range of physical, mental, and spiritual problems for whole-person healing.
Both traditional and complementary treatment therapies are used to help individuals recover from addiction in the long-term. Traditional therapies are evidence-based treatments that research shows to be effective for treating addiction. Complementary therapies are evidence-based treatments shown to be effective when used alongside traditional therapies.
One of the most commonly used complementary therapies used to treat addiction is art therapy. Through making, viewing, and talking about art, individuals can express difficult emotions and come to terms with troubling experiences. Art therapy has been shown to reduce feelings of guilt and shame, improve self-awareness and emotional management, and promote emotional healing.
Other complementary therapies used to treat addiction include music therapy, which has benefits similar to art therapy; mindfulness meditation, which helps improve emotional management and reduce stress; and yoga, which promotes mental and physical strength and flexibility.
DMT is one of the least-abused drugs in the U.S. but abusing it can have a significant negative impact on your life. Addiction can cause problems with your relationships, finances, legal status, and physical and mental health. Treatment for addiction helps restore all corners of your life, including repairing damaged relationships and finances, as well as finding joy and meaning in a life of sobriety.