At No Fallen Heroes we are excited about the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelic medicines. Medicines like MDMA and psilocybin have been shown in research studies to effectively treat depression and PTSD. These medicines and others show promise in treating substance abuse disorders as well. Because all of these conditions are risk factors for veteran suicide we are waiting to see when they get approval by the FDA for standard treatment. It has become clear that psychedelics are safe in controlled research settings. Researchers have also looked at the effects of recreational use of psychedelics. This kind of use of psychedelics can be broken down into taking psychedelics for fun and using them for religious, spiritual, or ritualistic purposes. This is called entheogenic use. Because this sort of use of psychedelics can be repetitive, we wonder about the safety of entheogenic psychedelic use and its effects over time.
What Is Entheogenic Psychedelic Use?
Entheogenic means “god within” and refers to the use of psychedelics in rituals, religious ceremonies, and for culturally sanctioned visionary experiences. In most ways, this type of use of psychedelics is closer to research studies than to purely recreation use of these medicines. For example, ayahuasca ceremonies follow prescribed steps starting with the preparation of the medicines. There are no “street” drugs involved and the amounts or doses used are standardized. Those who partake of the medicine during these ceremonies are guided through, much like with MDMA and psilocybin use for depression and PTSD with a coach or psychotherapist at hand at all times.
Long Term Effects of Ayahuasca
When ayahuasca is used in a ceremonial setting the effects typically last up to six hours and include euphoria, introspection, a sense of unity or connection, auditory and/or visual hallucinations as well as fear, anxiety, and panic. Research studies have demonstrated no long term ill effects on mental health or cognitive functioning. With repeated use there is no evidence of dependence or tolerance (not additive). Because ayahuasca is not addicting, people use it again because of the religious, ceremonial experience and not because they have come to “need” it.
There are definite risks if ayahuasca is mixed with other medicines such as MAO inhibitors.
Long Term Benefits of Entheogenic Psychedelic Use
People who have used ayahuasca commonly report life-changing positive effects. Likewise, studies of recreational psychedelic users show that many who have used LSD or other psychedelics just once report changes in their attitudes, sense of interconnectedness, empathy that last for a lifetime. We now know that psychedelic effects last beyond when the medicine is in a person’s system because they trigger the growth of neural connections that last long past the presence of the drug. While it may be the psychedelic medicine that triggers such neuronal growth, use of these new pathways within the brain will tend to preserve and strengthen such connections. This is the other side of how PTSD becomes entrenched as people re-experience traumatic events. Rehearsing positive aspects of life is more likely to lead to health experiences and to reinforce neural connections that were initially created by the use of a psychedelic medicine.
Negative Effects of Psychedelics No Matter Why Someone Takes Them
There are virtually no long term adverse effects of taking psychedelics reported in research studies. This is because individuals are screened and anyone with schizophrenia, severe psychiatric thought process disorders is not given the psychedelic medicine. While this is the case in carefully controlled research studies it is not the case with recreational use. It also may not be the case in ceremonial or religious use. It may be the case that those in charge of such ceremonies will believe that use of a medicine like ayahuasca will help someone who has confused thinking or recurrent hallucinations. Unfortunately, such is typically not the case. It would appear not to make a difference why someone is going to use a psychedelic medicine if they are predisposed to long term side effects like flashbacks of exacerbation of pre-existing hallucinations.
Ceremonial or Religious Use of Psychedelics Is Generally Safe
The bottom line to all this is that psychedelics are generally safe. They are very safe when people are screened before use. Long term follow-up surveys indicate that positive effects can last for a lifetime.