Is ayahuasca safe? 7 in 10 experience side-effects — but many say it’s part of their ‘spiritual growth’

MELBOURNE, Australia — Despite its controversial reputation, ayahuasca may be a “challenging but mostly safe” substance when taken in an “appropriate” context, according to new research.

An international team found that of the more than 10,000 people from over 50 countries who reported using the notorious South American psychedelic drug, 70 percent experienced adverse physical effects. Of those, 2.3 percent required medical attention. Just over half reported adverse mental effects — such as hallucinations or disturbing thoughts — but the majority of those believed it was part of a “positive growth process.”

What exactly is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brewed drink used in traditional medicine and ceremonies in South America. More people around the world are now using it to their treat mental health and for spiritual and personal growth. Even Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers claims he’s taken the psychedelic — although he argues it’s not a real drug.

“Ayahuasca is not a drug,” Rodgers said in an interview on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “It has properties in it that have hallucinogenic abilities. But it’s not a drug. We’re talking about plants here.”

Although there have been clinical trials and observational studies examining the potential benefits of the drug, few have analyzed its adverse effects. That is why a team led by Dr. Daniel Perkins of the University of Melbourne analyzed data from an online Global Ayahuasca survey and published their results in the journal PLOS Global Public Health.

Researchers carried out the survey between 2017 and 2019, gathering 10,836 adults over 18 from more than 50 countries who reported using ayahuasca at least once. Dr. Perkins and colleagues collected data on participants’ age, physical health, mental health, and the history and context of their ayahuasca use.

Acute physical health adverse effects were reported by 69.9 percent of the sample, with the most common effects being vomiting and nausea (68.2%), headache (17.8%), and abdominal pain (12.8%). Only 2.3 percent of participants reported that these effects required medical attention.

Among all participants, 55 percent also reported adverse mental health effects, including hearing or seeing things (28.5%), feeling disconnected or alone (21%), and having nightmares or disturbing thoughts (19.2%). However, of all respondents identifying these mental health effects, 87.6 percent believed they were completely or somewhat part of a positive growth process.

Some users are more prone to side-effects

The researchers also identified several factors that predispose people to the adverse physical events, including older age, having a physical health condition or substance use disorder, lifetime ayahuasca use, and taking ayahuasca in a non-supervised context.

The team also says that ayahuasca practices cannot be assessed with the same parameters used for prescription medicines given the myriad and challenging effects that are intrinsic to the experience, some of which are considered necessary for the healing process.

“Many are turning to ayahuasca due to disenchantment with conventional Western mental health treatments, however the disruptive power of this traditional medicine should not be underestimated, commonly resulting in mental health or emotional challenges during assimilation. While these are usually transitory and seen as part of a beneficial growth process, risks are greater for vulnerable individuals or when used in unsupportive contexts,” the study authors write in a media release.

South West News Service writer Danny Halpin contributed to this report.

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