Deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle lives a people who have found a way to create dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the most potent psychedelic drug in the world, in the form of a tea brewed from jungle plants. A DMT trip is said to have intense psychological effects, and, in recent decades, the drug has been the subject of close scientific scrutiny.
So what do you have in common with a tea used in Amazonian tribal rituals?
You and the brew called ayahuasca both may contain the powerful psychedelic drug. At least, according to some research, DMT may be found in the human body, whether it is produced in the body or comes from another source. This molecule occurs naturally in plants and animals and some hypothesize that it may potentially be found in every living organism.
However, the human body naturally suppresses this molecule when it’s ingested. Little is known about DMT in the human body or what function it serves if it naturally occurs within the body or where it comes from if it doesn’t.
Since our bodies suppress DMT when eaten, shamans in the Amazonian rainforest have found a way around our bodies’ reluctance to accept the psychedelic drug. Ayahuasca is a combination of a Banisteriopsis caapi vine and another plant called psychotria viridis.
The resulting brew contains both DMT and a chemical that inhibits an enzyme that would otherwise neutralize the drug if taken orally. This tea is prepared carefully by shamans and accompanied by prayers and rituals or can be used as medicine.
In the US, DMT can be smoked, insufflated, injected, or vaporized for more potent but brief psychological effects. DMT is also known as Dimitri or “the businessman’s trip” because of the short but powerful nature of a DMT trip.
The DMT Trip Effects
A DMT trip seems to vary in duration and intensity depending on the means of administration. Users that inject the drug intravenously experience short but immediately psychedelic effects while those who drink ayahuasca usually experience longer, less intense effects.
The physical DMT effects are generally mild but can lead to symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest tightness, agitation, dilated pupils, rapid rhythmic eye movements, and dizziness. It can also cause vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea when taken orally.
The psychedelic and hallucinogenic side effects are much more profound and the effects may vary depending on dosage.
- Low doses cause emotional and some sensory responses with no hallucinogenic responses.
- Higher doses produce hallucinations involving a feeling of movement, bright colors, and rapidly moving images. Artistic depictions of the DMT trip often have kaleidoscopic qualities.
- In many cases, high doses produce the feeling that the user is communicating with other life forms that are often referred to as small aliens, dwarves, or elves.
- Users feel a sense of euphoria, calm, fear, panic, or anxiety.
Strassman’s DMT Trip Effects Studies
Dr. Rick Strassman was the first person in the science community to conduct research on the effects of DMT on humans. In his experiments, he intravenously injected DMT into volunteers and monitored them medically and recorded their experiences. Strassman administered 400 doses of DMT to 60 volunteers over a period of five years between 1990 and 1995. What followed would lead to him writing several books, perform subsequent studies, and even help produce a movie dealing with the strange and powerful nature of DMT.
Half of the volunteers experienced other entities including aliens, other humans, spiders, reptiles, impish creatures, and dwarves.
Many experienced moving images similar to kaleidoscopes resembling Mayan, Islamic, or Aztec geometric patterns. Strassman reported many of these experiences in the book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which was later the inspiration for a documentary film of the same name.
Strassman hypothesized that DMT may have something to do with dreaming and may be released into the brain when we die. He also suggested that DMT may come from the pineal gland in the brain, which is responsible for producing melatonin, a serotonin that controls sleep patterns.
Terence McKenna on the DMT Trip
Though Strassman’s research marked the beginning of a resurgence of research assessing DMT and psychedelic drugs, no one has more vividly described what happens on a DMT trip as Terence McKenna.
McKenna was an ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author in the 20th century, and also what is called a psychonaut—a person who studies “altered states of consciousness” through meditation or mind-altering substances. During his lifetime he has worked with, studied, and taken a variety of psychedelics including ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms. Through McKenna’s extensive experience with the drug, he’s often offered detailed explanations of his typical DMT trip on multiple occasions including in his 1994 lecture titled “Rap Dancing Into the Third Millennium”.
The reports that have been given by DMT users often vary between an intensely emotional and colorful experience to visiting a completely new place with strange entities. According to McKenna, this is because of dosage and how many hits the user takes. After two, colors brighten and images in the room sharpen but the third, “separates the intrepid from the casual,” he said.
After this barrier, he claimed, users enter another world, which is inhabited by creatures described as “machine elves”. Similar impish entities have been described by several different DMT users, including the subjects in Strassman’s experiments.
After users come down from the high, McKenna believed they have a few minutes of reflection before some can’t remember the specifics of the experience at all. Because of the way McKenna has experienced the DMT trip fading from memory, he thought DMT might have a role in dreaming. The experience of the DMT trip erasing from memory is reminiscent of the way a dream is harder to remember after you wake up.
Overall, McKenna’s descriptions of his accounts and other’s experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. However, many users experience frightening settings, entities, and events. Like dreams, it seems that a DMT trip can range from being intriguing and unbelievable to becoming a nightmare. The risk of a “bad trip” involving a feeling of loss of control, painful or violent imagery, reliving of traumatic events, and the fear of going insane are significant.
Is DMT Made by the Pineal Gland?
Since Strassman’s hypothesis that DMT may be found or formed in the pineal gland, other studies have pursued this idea. In 2013, Strassman, the Cottonwood Research Foundation, and three other scientists studied DMT and its precursor elements in rat brains. They report finding DMT in rat pineal glands, confirming that Strassman’s hypothesis is correct, at least in some animals. Still, a lot is unknown about the presence of DMT in humans and its function.
Rise in Popularity of the DMT Trip
Despite DMT’s availability since the mid 20th century and its use for possibly thousands of years in Amazonian cultures, it has not been widely used or abused as a psychedelic drug. In his book, The Archaic Revival, which covers everything from psychedelic mushrooms to UFOs, McKenna offers a possible explanation for this: “…we find DMT to be too much. It is, as they say in Spanish, bastante, it’s enough–so much enough that it’s too much.”
However, since the publication of Dr. Strassman’s book and the subsequent documentary in 2010, DMT use has been on the rise. In 2006, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that around 688,000 have used DMT in some form. In 2012, that number had risen to 1,475,000.
DMT Addiction, Tolerance, and Potential Risks
Like other psychedelics, there is an extremely low risk of experiencing addiction to DMT. Psychological addiction is possible but still very unlikely, and it should be noted that psychological addiction is possible with anything that triggers your reward center, like anything from mushrooms to love.
According to Strassman, there is also very little risk that users may build a tolerance to the drug. In a study in 1996, he administered intravenous injections of DMT four times at 30-minute intervals, on two separate days and found no evidence of a developed tolerance to the psychedelic effects.
Though the risks of addiction and developing a tolerance are low, there is risk associated with psychedelic drug use of any kind. As with other mind-altering hallucinogens like LSD, or mushrooms, DMT may impair motor functions, reaction time, and coordination. Serious accidents or death may be a risk if users attempt to stand up, move around, operate machinery, or drive.
Negative DMT Symptoms
A study in 2006 by Dr. Robert S. Gable, psychologist and Claremont Graduate University researcher, aimed to assess the risks of ayahuasca as used in rituals. Gable found that the risks of DMT toxicity would require 20 times the average dose and that the risk of adverse psychological reactions was minimal. However, he noted that the potential risk of mixing serotonergic substances (used in antidepressants) with DMT are greater.
Finally, as with any psychedelic drug, there are risks of long-term psychological effects that can occur after prolonged heavy use of DMT. One such risk is persistent psychosis with symptoms that may include:
- Mood disorders
- Persistent paranoia
- Visual disturbances
- Persistent hallucinations
DMT has no known risk for dangerous overdose. However, users may have an unpleasant experience with the drug when too much is administered at once. According to Strassman, in the documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a very high dosage can lead to a foggy memory of the DMT trip experiences and vague recollections of unnerving events. “All they really remembered was that something frightening had happened to them and they couldn’t remember the specifics very well.”