A study in the Netherlands reported that regular participants in ayahuasca ceremonies have better general well-being, fewer chronic or lifestyle-related diseases, more physical activity, and a more balanced diet compared to the general population of the Netherlands. Although they used more illegal drugs, they did not report associated harms. The study was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew traditionally used by indigenous Amazonian communities for spiritual and healing purposes. It is typically prepared by combining the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with various plant leaves, most commonly Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. The active ingredients, including the compound DMT (dimethyltryptamine), induce powerful hallucinogenic experiences when ingested.
Ayahuasca ceremonies have gained popularity in various parts of the world for their potential to induce profound introspection, spiritual insights, and therapeutic benefits. Its rising popularity in the West has led many to express concerns about its effects on health. However, scientific studies so far tend to indicate that consumers tolerate it well both immediately after consumption and after prolonged ritual use. Studies also report that the risk of ayahuasca abuse is low, while it seems to have beneficial effects on various mental health symptoms and to improve general well-being.
Study author Maja Kohek and her colleagues wanted to evaluate the health risks of regular participation in ayahuasca ceremonies. Additionally, they were also interested in coping strategies of regular ayahuasca users and to study the ways how they deal with stressful situations.
Participants were recruited through a network of several dozen facilitators of ayahuasca ceremonies from the Netherlands.The researchers had prior interactions with these facilitators, who comprised both spiritual leaders and local ayahuasca ritual practitioners. In total, 377 individuals, who regularly partook in ayahuasca ceremonies, participated in the study. Of these, half were female, with an average age of 49, and 85% identified as Dutch.
Participants undertook an online survey, which gauged aspects like general and mental health, physical activity, dietary habits, social support, values, and coping mechanisms. Additionally, they furnished demographic information and responded to a series of questions related to COVID-19 (primarily concerning alterations in substance usage). The inclusion of COVID-19 inquiries was due to data collection coinciding with pandemic-induced lockdowns, potentially affecting the participants’ regular behaviors.
The results revealed that 58% of the participants had commenced ayahuasca use over five years ago. 30% had engaged in over 100 ayahuasca ceremonies throughout their lives. 40% were affiliated with the Santo Daime church, a religious group known for its distinct fusion of Christian, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilian spiritual tenets, and which incorporates ayahuasca into its rituals. Meanwhile, 41% attended neoshamanic ayahuasca sessions led by local guides.
A staggering 99.8% felt that ayahuasca had positively impacted their personal lives. 64% identified specific advantages, such as enhanced health and well-being. 99% felt happier, more optimistic, attained greater self-awareness, experienced increased peace and calmness, grew in confidence and self-respect, became more sociable and empathetic, and displayed better emotional control. Only a minor 8.5% reported encountering or observing undesirable incidents during ceremonies.
95% of the participants rated their health as either good or excellent. The proportion of participants with a standard body mass index surpassed that of the general Dutch populace. Additionally, fewer of them suffered from chronic conditions, hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, or diabetes. A significant majority expressed feelings of happiness, tranquility, and vitality.
Compared to the general population, they relied less on prescribed medications but turned more to herbal solutions. Yet, their consumption of cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, ecstasy, and LSD was higher. Impressively, 74% adhered to the national exercise guidelines, committing to a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly. Their diet consisted of higher intakes of vegetables, legumes, and fruits, but reduced consumption of grains and meat.
Those with a more extended history of ayahuasca consumption exhibited proactive problem-solving coping strategies. Individuals involved in religious ceremonies were also more likely to adopt these strategies.
The researchers concluded, “The findings of this study suggest that long-term participants in ayahuasca ceremonies have better general well-being, fewer chronic and lifestyle diseases, and are more physically active compared to the normative Dutch data, as well as having a more balanced diet.”
The study sheds light on specific characteristics of Dutch ayahuasca users. However, it should be noted that the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn from the data. Additionally, participants were all volunteers with very positive attitudes towards ayahuasca. Negative answers might simply be absent because individuals with negative experiences with ayahuasca discontinued its use and were, consequently, not included in this study.
The study, “Ayahuasca and Public Health II: Health Status in a Large Sample of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands”, was authored by Maja Kohek, Genís Onaa, Michiel van Elk, Rafael Guimarães Dos Santos, Jaime E. C. Hallak, Miguel Ángel Alcázar-Córcoles, and José Carlos Bouso.