DMT is said to be one of the most powerful psychedelic drugs in the world, and some users report having profound otherworldly experiences with it. The drug, which is scientifically known as N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, was first discovered in plants by Amazonian tribes that brewed them into psychedelic, ceremonial teas. But it’s also been found in the pineal glands of rat brains. Some theorize that it may be in a wide variety of living things like opioids, while others believe it could be in every living thing.
But is it safe as a recreational drug?
DMT has gotten media attention in the past few years, and it’s making its way into the mainstream. For instance, Joe Rogan, a comedian and popular podcast host, has talked about using the drug as a generally positive experience. Though even proponents of the substance also talk about its potential risks. Still, the increased awareness of this psychedelic has made it more popular as a recreational drug, increasing the frequency it’s used in the United States. But we are already in the middle of a drug crisis with the rise in opioid addiction and overdose. Does DMT stand to make it worse?
Technically, the answer is yes. High doses of DMT may cause negative symptoms to overpower positive ones. But a DMT overdose isn’t the same as overdose on heroin. In the documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Rick Strassman, M.D., a doctor and scientist who extensively researched DMT throughout his career, describes a DMT overdose. After giving study volunteers a “very high dose,” they couldn’t remember anything about the experience except that something frightening had happened to them. As a powerful psychedelic, high doses of DMT can cause what is referred to as a bad trip, which can be an unpleasant experience that ranges from uncomfortable to terrifying.
In terms of a physically dangerous overdose, it’s theoretically possible but unlikely. DMT can be smoked, insufflated, intravenously and taken orally (with other substances that make it active). In most cases, it would take an extremely high amount of DMT to cause a physically dangerous reaction, but a lethal dose hasn’t been definitively determined. Intravenous use is the most likely to be dangerous, but it would still take an extreme dose.
Other drugs cause you to build a tolerance that can encourage you to do more or binge the drug. DMT produces profound psychedelic experiences in regular doses and doesn’t cause you to build up a significant tolerance. If you decide to do DMT, there is no reason you wouldn’t just take the same dose. Other drugs like fentanyl, are deadly in very small doses that are difficult to measure out without medical training and the proper equipment. DMT’s theoretically lethal dose would be so high that it’s easy to avoid.
So, it’s unlikely that DMT would cause a physically dangerous overdose, but what about the psychological effects?
Like other psychedelic drugs, the way DMT causes its psychedelic effects is poorly understood. However, we do know a little about the way DMT affects the brain, and it’s naturally occurring chemicals. DMT binds to chemical receptors in the brain and activates them, specifically the 5-HT (serotonin), Sigma-1, and trace amine receptors. There is evidence to suggest that DMT occurs naturally in the human body. It may be synthesized from tryptophan, which is processed into N-methyltryptamine (NMT), and then to DMT. Like many other hallucinogenic drugs, researchers believe its effects on the serotonin receptor can explain a large portion of the drug’s psychoactive effects.
DMT is a powerful psychedelic that can cause a wide variety of dose-specific effects. In low doses, the drug can lift your mood and potentially ease your anxiety. In high doses, users report feeling an altered state of consciousness, traveling to other places, and encountering powerful beings. The psychedelic experience not only depends on the dose but it also depends on the person taking DMT and their surroundings. This is a principle known among psychedelics users called “set and setting.” A person’s mindset and surrounding can play a role in the drug’s subjective effects.
Some of these variables can produce a bad trip that can leave lasting psychological consequences. DMT users often report witnessing entities while on a trip, which includes elves, spirits, dwarfs, reptiles, or unseen presences.
During a bad trip, these entities can seem antagonistic or threatening. Other users have reported near-death-experiences or being attacked. Users that experience adverse psychological effects can feel anxiety, confusion, paranoia, and psychosis. And again, some of Strassman’s volunteers reported feeling like something terrifying had happened but weren’t able to recall what it was.
Here are some of the risk factors for experiencing a bad DMT trip:
The negative psychological side effects of using DMT are typically temporary and wear off as your body processes the DMT, and its effects dissipate. However, people who have pre-existing psychological disorders or may be prone to mental health issues like schizophrenia may be at risk for long-term consequences.
Mixing drugs without speaking to a medical professional is usually a bad idea, and DMT is no exception. While DMT isn’t likely to cause any physically dangerous or overdose symptoms, it can still be dangerous when mixed with other drugs. Certain substances can also increase its likelihood of leading to negative psychological symptoms. Drugs that interact with DMT in a potentially dangerous way include:
Clips, J. (2018, March 19). Joe Rogan's DMT Experiences. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEsCPOdPTM4
Sangiah, S., Gomez, M. V., & Domino, E. F. (1979, December). Accumulation of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in rat brain cortical slices. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/41604
Strassman, R. J. (1994, February 01). Dose-Response Study of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine in Humans. from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/496494