Ritualistic ayahuasca users tend to have positive health and psychosocial well-being

New research provides evidence that the ritualistic use of the psychedelic drug ayahuasca is not a significant public health concern — and could in fact have potential benefits. The study has been published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

“Ayahuasca is a decoction originally from the Amazon rainforest that has been spread throughout the world. At ICEERS, we are interested in researching the eventual risks and benefits of its use,” said study author Jose Carlos Bouso, the scientific director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Services in Spain.

“We studied in the past its neuropsychiatric effects on long-term ayahuasca users and did not find any disturbances. Now we are interested in studying the effects of ayahuasca from a public health perspective.”

The researchers surveyed 380 ritualistic ayahuasca users in Spain regarding their self-perceived health, body mass index, presence of chronic disease, sleep quality, and several other factors. Most of the participants had taken ayahuasca between one and 10 times in their lifetime. But a substantial percentage of participants (29.7%) reported taking ayahuasca more than 100 times.

The majority of the sample (96.6%) described their health as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” In addition, 43.7% reported being “quite happy,” 39.2% reported being “very happy,” and 7.5% reported being “immensely happy.”

Only 7.4% of participants had high cholesterol or blood pressure level, and 47% had visited a doctor between one and three times in the previous six months. Only 19% had visited a psychologist or psychiatrist in the previous six months.

The prevalence of chronic diseases was also lower among ritualistic ayahuasca users compared to the general Spanish population, while the prevalence of mental disturbance was similar between ayahuasca users and the general population.

“The key finding can be summarized using the following sentence of the Abstract section: ‘a respectful and controlled use of ayahuasca taken in community settings can be incorporated into modern society with benefits to public health.’ With the health indicators used, we noted that regular ayahuasca users have good general health, display healthy lifestyles and coping strategies, or show appropriate levels of social support and participation in cultural activities,” Bouso told PsyPost.

“This could serve as an example of how a traditional practice, even with its exoticism and cultural differences, can be effectively integrated in our society if it is used in controlled and respectful contexts.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. The use of a cross-sectional survey, for example, makes it difficult to assess the direction of cause and effect. It is possible that people with healthier lifestyles are drawn to ayahuasca, rather than ayahuasca use contributing to healthier lifestyles.

“The main limitation of this study is that the sample was self-selected. It is possible that only those who obtain some benefit from the regular use of ayahuasca are able to maintain this practice, so we may be underestimating potential risks and overestimating potential benefits. Further studies with larger samples are warranted,” Bouso said.

“This article will be part of a special 50th anniversary issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), the organization that is coordinating the issue, stated: ‘This carefully conducted study adds to the growing body of evidence that used carefully in specific settings, ayahuasca and other psychedelics may have real benefits for mental health and well-being. MAPS is delighted to be able to include these encouraging results in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs’ historic 50th anniversary theme issue highlighting the leading edge of psychedelic research.’ The complete special issue will be available in print by June 2019.”

“ICEERS is also organizing the World Ayahuasca Conference, the biggest gathering in the world about ayahuasca. We invite readers to see the web site of the conference: http://www.ayaconference.com.”

The study, “Ayahuasca and Public Health: Health Status, Psychosocial Well-Being, Lifestyle, and Coping Strategies in a Large Sample of Ritual Ayahuasca Users“, was authored by Genís Ona, Maja Kohek, Tomàs Massaguer, Alfred Gomariz, Daniel F. Jiménez, Rafael G. Dos Santos, Jaime E. C. Hallak, Miguel Ángel Alcázar- Córcoles, and José Carlos Bouso.