TL;DR: Psychedelic substances, when combined with psychotherapy, show promise in the treatment of substance use disorders. These substances, such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine, ibogaine, and MDMA, have been shown to reduce withdrawal symptoms, decrease cravings, and provide relief from underlying trauma that often contributes to addiction. While further research is needed, early results are encouraging and suggest that psychedelic-assisted therapy may provide a valuable tool in the treatment of addiction.
In the 1950s, researchers including English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, the man who coined the term “psychedelic,” began studying the potential efficacy of d-lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, for alcohol addiction at Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada.
At that time, most people believed that alcoholism was caused by people having a weak or immoral character. But the experiments conducted by Osmond and his team, in which they gave people with alcohol problems high doses of LSD, found that LSD helped many people to stop drinking and recover from alcohol addiction.
As a result, Osmond and his colleagues showed that alcohol addiction might be caused by changes happening in people's bodies, rather than a lack of willpower. This was a significant change in thinking.
Research into LSD as a treatment for alcohol addiction gained popularity during a time when the outlook for treating alcohol addiction was bleak. This success led to a public campaign to promote LSD treatments for addiction, which was supported by the government, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Bureau of Alcoholism.
However, the organization in charge of addiction research — the Addictions Research Foundation — was skeptical about the scientific quality of the studies done on LSD and addiction, and challenged the researchers to conduct more rigorous studies that followed proper scientific procedures.
Despite attempts to prove that the effectiveness of LSD-assisted therapy depended not just on medical factors, but on contextual factors also, such as the patient’s mindset, expectations, and the environment in which LSD sessions take place, studies were ultimately deemed to fall short of the requirements of current medical methodology, which emphasizes the importance of controlled trials.
In the 1960s, LSD leaked from the scientific research laboratory, and it soon became a popular recreational drug. The use of LSD in recreational contexts became associated with the counter-cultural movement, a social movement that included anti-establishment and anti-war movements, rejected traditional norms and values, and sought new ways of living and thinking.
This contributed to the negative perception of the drug and led to public concern and negative media attention, increased regulatory restrictions, and limitations on research. This made fewer people support the use of LSD for medical purposes.
Interestingly, A 2012 meta-analysis of six clinical trials conducted in the 60s and 70s involving over 500 participants found that LSD had beneficial effects on alcohol misuse. The authors of this meta-analysis found that taking a single dose of LSD as part of alcoholism treatment programs helped reduce alcohol misuse.
These findings suggest that further research is needed to explore the potential benefits of LSD for treating alcohol addiction, using modern scientific methods and standards.
According to current projections, tobacco addiction is expected to continue being a significant health concern into the next decade, with an estimated 8 million deaths per year anticipated by 2030, while the World Health Organization reports that 3 million deaths every year result from the harmful use of alcohol.
In recent years, psilocybin, which is a classic psychedelic compound and the psychoactive component found in magic mushrooms, has shown potential to effectively treat tobacco and alcohol addiction when given alongside supportive therapy.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology investigated whether two to three doses of psilocybin administered in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) within a structured 15-week treatment protocol could treat tobacco addiction. The researchers measured biomarkers to assess smoking status and participants' self-reported smoking behavior.
After six months, 12 out of 15 participants (80%) reported not smoking for the past seven days. This observed smoking cessation rate is significantly higher than rates commonly reported for other types of therapies or medications, which typically have a success rate of less than 35%.
At the 12-month follow-up, 10 out of 15 participants (67%) were confirmed to be abstinent from smoking, while at long-term follow-up (16 months or more), nine participants (60%) remained abstinent.
Additionally, at the 12-month follow-up, 13 participants (86.7%) rated their psilocybin experiences as among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. This finding is consistent with previous survey data in which 78% of tobacco-dependent participants reported that spiritual resources could be beneficial when attempting to refrain from smoking and raises interesting questions regarding the relationship between spirituality and addiction recovery.
Psilocybin, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy, has also recently been shown to produce "robust decreases" in the consumption of alcohol.
In this study, participants were randomly assigned to receive either psilocybin or the antihistamine drug diphenhydramine during two treatment sessions. Both groups also received 12 weeks of manualized psychotherapy.
The study found that during the 32-week double-blind period, which is the stage in a clinical trial where neither the participants nor the researchers are aware of which treatment the participant is receiving, the group that received psilocybin had a lower percentage of heavy drinking days (9.7%) compared to the diphenhydramine group (23.6%). Additionally, the psilocybin group had a lower mean daily alcohol consumption in terms of the number of standard drinks consumed per day.
These findings suggest that psilocybin could be a promising treatment option for substance use disorders, although further research is necessary.
The traditional Amazonian tea ayahuasca has also been seen to have potential efficacy in treating substance addiction. Ayahuasca is made by brewing the bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis bush, which contains the classic psychedelic compound DMT. MAOIs inhibit the breakdown of DMT, allowing it to remain active and produce its psychedelic effects in ayahuasca.
A 2019 study examined the use of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction among members of an Indigenous community in Canada. The study used a qualitative analysis approach to investigate the experiences of individuals who participated in ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction.
These preliminary findings suggested that ayahuasca-assisted therapy was a positive experience for participants, who reported decreased cravings for substances, improved relationships with themselves and others, and increased self-awareness and emotional healing.
A recent online study investigated the relationship between ayahuasca consumption in various settings and alcohol and drug use. Results indicated that increased ayahuasca consumption is strongly associated with decreased alcohol and drug use. These effects were more pronounced in individuals with a prior history of substance use disorders.
However, the authors of these studies note that further research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits and risks of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction and to develop appropriate protocols for its use. Future studies should be improved to get more clear and more definitive results.
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5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is a short acting, serotonergic psychedelic, found naturally in the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo Alvarius). 5-MeO-DMT is gaining popularity as an effective tool for spiritual exploration and healing due to its extremely powerful psychoactive effects.
What is unique about ayahuasca is that it is a concoction of two plants, the combination of which is essential for the ayahuasca experience. Combining two plants to use as medicine may not seem groundbreaking in and of itself, but the fact that if one is taken without the other, the experience is entirely different, and arguably non-existent, is what makes the discovery of ayahuasca so surprising.
For millennia indigenous-American tribes have consumed N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as a key ingredient in sacred botanical brews, such as ayahuasca, and snuffs, such as yopo, as part of religious ceremonies in Central and South America.
Ibogaine is a naturally occurring indole alkaloid derived from the roots of an threatened species of perennial rainforest shrub called Tabernanthe iboga. Ibogaine, which is believed to have potent anti-addictive properties, has been used by the indigenous peoples of central west Africa for centuries.
Though ketamine gained a reputation for being dangerous and easily misused and abused, it wasn’t until 1999 that the US classified it as a Schedule III controlled substance. While it is often associated with the party scene, ketamine therapy is helping change the lives of many with severe depression, PTSD, OCD and even chronic migraines.
In 1938, a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann, working out of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, became the first man to synthesize Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Active at the microgram level (one-thousandth of a gram), LSD is the most potent psychoactive drug known to humankind.
The MDMA molecule bears structural resemblance to stimulants and some psychedelics, invoking feelings of euphoria, empathy, and boundless energy. MDMA also intensifies sensory perception, enhancing one’s appreciation of music and color which makes it one of the most popular drugs among festival-goers and electronic dance music fans alike.
In the 16th century, Spanish chroniclers attempted to eradicate ritual use of peyote cactus among indigenous American cultures, which led to the plant’s eventual prohibition in 1720. In the face of adversity, several indigenous communities righteously persevered, continuing and preserving their sacred practice in clandestine secrecy, and even managing to spread it widely over the last 150 years.
Peyote is a green spineless cactus that contains the classic psychedelic compound mescaline. Numerous Mesoamerican cultures, including the Huichol (Wixárika), the Cora (náayeri), the Tepehuanes, the Tonkawa, the Mescalero, and the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) have long regarded the plant as sacred, using it in spiritual and healing ceremonies for millennia.
While shrooms were initially used for ceremonial purposes and spiritual awakenings, they have gained popularity for recreational use and current research on shrooms effects in a therapeutic setting is promising.
Since prehistory, San Pedro has been instrumental to Peruvian cultural traditions. in northern Peru in particular, it has been a tool to facilitate the shaman’s ‘‘journey’’ for healing purposes. Throughout this period, the visionary cactus has been known by many names, including huachuma or achuma.