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Mind-altering South American brew causes adverse side effects, study says

Ayahuasca seems generally safe to use, but the psychoactive decoction can cause an array of physical and mental adverse effects, a new study says. This preparation includes B. caapi and P. viridis, the most traditional combination of plants used to make the brew. Photo courtesy of Daniel Perkins, University of Melbourne, Australia
Ayahuasca seems generally safe to use, but the psychoactive decoction can cause an array of physical and mental adverse effects, a new study says. This preparation includes B. caapi and P. viridis, the most traditional combination of plants used to make the brew. Photo courtesy of Daniel Perkins, University of Melbourne, Australia

Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Seven in 10 people experience adverse physical side effects from sipping a mind-altering South American brew called ayahuasca, and most people have mental health effects from drinking it, a new study says.

But such effects are typically not severe enough to require medical attention, according to an analysis of a global survey published Wednesday in the journal PLOS Global Public Health.

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Ayahuasca is a psychoactive, or hallucinogenic, plant-based tea native to the Amazon, where it has a centuries-long history of healing use in traditional medicine, according to the article.

But contemporary ritual use of ayahuasca has been expanding worldwide for mental health purposes and spiritual and personal growth.

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While previous clinical trials and observational studies have explored its medical and psychological benefits, research is lacking on ayahuasca's immediate or long-term adverse effects.

So, an international team of researchers from Australia, Brazil, Spain and Switzerland, led by Daniel Perkins, senior research fellow in the University of Melbourne's School of Population and Global Health in Australia, set out to explore the balance of risks and benefits from ayahuasca's use.

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The scientists used data from an online Global Ayahuasca Survey collected between 2017 and 2019 that involved nearly 11,000 participants from 50-plus countries.

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The participants were at least 18 years old and had used ayahuasca at least once. Information on their age, physical and mental health, and history and context of ayahuasca use was collected.

Acute physical health adverse effects were reported by 69.9% of the survey sample, with 2.3% reporting the need for subsequent medical attention, the researchers said.

The most common physical effects were vomiting and nausea, which affected 68.2% of participants, headache, at 17.8%, and abdominal pain, at 12.8%.

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According to the study, physical adverse effects were related to a person's older age at initial use of ayahuasca, having a physical health condition, higher lifetime ayahuasca use, having a previous substance use disorder diagnosis, and taking ayahuasca in a non-supervised context.

In addition, adverse mental health effects "in the weeks or months following consumption" were reported by 55.9% of the survey's participants, the article said.

Such mental health effects included hearing or seeing things, experienced by 28.5% of ayahuasca users in the survey, feeling disconnected or alone, 21%, and having nightmares or disturbing thoughts, 19.2%.

However, roughly 88% of people drinking the brew "considered such mental health effects as part of a positive process of growth or integration," the researchers said, while about 12% sought professional support for these effects.

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Mental health adverse effects were "positively associated" with anxiety disorders, physical health conditions, and the strength of the acute spiritual experience, the researchers said, and "negatively associated" with ayahuasca's use in religious settings.

"While there is a high rate of adverse physical effects and challenging psychological effects from using ayahuasca, they are not generally severe, and most ayahuasca ceremony attendees continue to attend ceremonies, suggesting they perceive the benefits as outweighing any adverse effects," the article concludes.

However, a better understanding of the psychoactive decoction's potential adverse effects may help screen and support vulnerable people, and help policy makers decide on potential regulation and public health responses, the investigators added.

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