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Home > Articles > Psychedelics > Content Piece

Is Ayahuasca Safe? We Ask a Researcher

By Molly Campbell

Published: Dec 02, 2022   
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Recently, researchers from the University of Melbourne shared a study that analysed the adverse effects reported by users of the hallucinogenic tea, ayahuasca. The research, published in PLOS Global Public Health, is potentially the largest data source on ayahuasca’s adverse effects to date. It found that ayahuasca has notable, but rarely severe, side effects on users’ mental and physical health; data that have important implications for global public health considering the uptick in ayahuasca consumers.

Dr. Daniel Perkins, director of the Global Ayahuasca Project, is one of the co-authors of the study. His research looks to enhance the understanding of why people drink ayahuasca, its reported effects on health and well-being, and any associated risks.

In this interview, Dr. Perkins spoke with Technology Networks – the sister publication of Analytical Cannabis – to provide context on the latest research study and the next steps for the research group.

Molly Campbell (MC): What inspired you to conduct this study?

Daniel Perkins (DP): This is the fourth paper to be published from our Global Ayahuasca Dataset. The first three, listed below, identified significant benefits relating to reduced alcohol and drug use, improvements in diagnosed depression and anxiety disorders, and enhanced well-being and mental health among people without diagnosed disorders. For this study, we wanted to examine in more detail the potential side effects that may also be associated with consumption.

Previous research on ayahuasca consumption

MC: For readers that may be unfamiliar, why is ayahuasca being explored for mental health purposes and personal/ spiritual growth?

DP: Ayahuasca has seen rapid growth in popularity over the last 15 years as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of mental health conditions, as well as for personal growth and spiritual purposes. Large numbers of Western tourists are traveling to South America to take part in ceremonies and others are participating via underground facilitated ceremonies in alternative healing and spirituality settings in Western countries. At the same time, there has been an increasing number of research studies reporting encouraging findings relating to ayahuasca consumption and mental health and addiction outcomes.

MC: Why do you think few studies have analysed the potential adverse effects of ayahuasca?

DP: Most studies have sought to understand overall effects on mental health and wellbeing, either positive or negative, and have found these to be overwhelmingly positive. However, this does not mean the therapeutic process is easy or without side effects. We collected unique data that enabled us to better understand this question and noted that, of the ~90% of respondents identifying mental health side effects, they felt that these were part of a positive process of growth.

MC: Can you talk about the factors that appear to predispose people to adverse physical events?

DP: Physical health adverse effects were more likely to occur in individuals that were of an older age at initial ayahuasca use, those with a physical health condition, people that have a higher lifetime use of ayahuasca or use of ayahuasca in the previous year, those with a previous substance use disorder and in non-supervised context (where expert support and safety is less likely to be present).

MC: Are there any limitations to the work that need to be considered?

DP: The strengths of our study are the very large sample of drinkers across multiple contexts of consumption. However, limitations to note include the self-report measures, of which many were analysed retrospectively, and potential self-selection bias.

MC: Do you have any further plans to progress your work in this space?

DP: Further understanding of the potential medical applications of ayahuasca-inspired medications require well-controlled clinical studies. Our research group, including myself and key collaborator Professor Jerome Sarris have received $2 million in funding from the Australian government (NHMRC-MRFF program) for a Phase II randomized controlled trial investigating the use of an ayahuasca-inspired product for treatment-resistant depression and alcohol-use disorder. This will commence next year. We are also continuing research on mental health and well-being effects obtained by participants in traditional settings

Professor Sarris and I are also the co-directors of a non-profit research organization Psychae Institute, which aims to progress botanical psychedelics as registered medical treatments. 

Dr. Daniel Perkins was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.

Molly Campbell

Senior Science Writer

In the Technology Networks editorial team, Molly reports on a broad range of scientific topics, covering the latest breaking news and writing long-form pieces for The Scientific Observer. She is a fervent believer that science – and science communications – should be accessible to everyone. In 2020, she created the Teach Me in 10 video series, where weekly guests discuss and teach a scientific concept in less than 10 minutes. Prior to joining Technology Networks in 2019, Molly worked as a clinical research associate in the NHS and as a freelance science writer. She has a first-class Bachelor's in Neuroscience from the University of Leeds and received a Partnership Award for her efforts in science communication.


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