DMT is a naturally occurring hallucinogen substance that has been used to simulate spiritual or transcendent experiences around the world.
However, people who take DMT are often unaware of the specific ways in which it affects the body and brain and the risks that can come from engaging in its use.
DMT Origin and History
Dimethyltriptamine – known in recreational drug use as DMT, Dimitri, or ayahuasca – is a substance derived from a number of different plants, many of which are common to the Amazon basin. The drug has been used for at least hundreds of years in religious and spiritual rituals and for recreational purposes. Some evidence even suggests that use by indigenous peoples of South America may go back more than four millennia.
Starting in about the 1930s, DMT began being synthesized in the lab. However, since then and even to today, there has been no approved medical use of the substance. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has listed DMT as a Schedule I controlled substance. It can be used for research but is otherwise illegal for personal use.
Nevertheless, it continues to be a mildly popular hallucinogen for spiritual use or as a “club” drug.
DMT as a Psychedelic Drug
DMT is most often used to induce visions and create psychedelic “trips” for either recreational or spiritual purposes. The drug has been nicknamed by many as being the “god” drug, because people who have used it describe a feeling of connectedness to the universe, as well as an experience that can resemble a near-death experience.
There are also those like the subject of an interview from Little Atoms who believe that DMT is the reason people believe in life after death or transcendent experiences; the drug has been found naturally in the human body, with little indication as to the reason. While there has been no direct scientific evidence for the reason DMT is found in the body, this perception helps to fuel some people’s desires to use it.
Whatever the belief about DMT, it is a potent psychedelic that seems to be in increased demand for use in spiritual and recreational pursuits.
How DMT Acts in the Brain
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that DMT works specifically in the serotonin pathway of the brain, which regulates a variety of functions in the body, including digestion and wound healing, as well as psychological functions, such as appetite, sleep, and mood. This pathway also affects perception and thought processing.
When DMT interferes in this pathway, it affects the way the user perceives things. This can result in a variety of physical and psychological responses, including:
- Distortion of perceptions of objects, time, and the physical and mental self.
- Intensified experiences of objects in the environment.
- Mixed up sensory perceptions, such as “hearing” colors.
Many people who experience these trips come away with positive experiences. However, bad trips can also occur, including hallucinations of terrifying situations or environments.
Prevalence of DMT Use
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2020 indicates that DMT and similar drugs have been used at least once by about 1.2% of the general population 12 and older.
While DMT is not nearly as popular as hallucinogens like LSD or PCP, it is still available and at least somewhat attractive because it can be derived from plants, and some people therefore consider it to be “natural.” On the other hand, DMT can also be synthesized, so its use is not only dependent on finding plants that contain the substance.
According to research from the Journal of Psychopharmacology, DMT has a larger proportion of new users compared with other hallucinogens, and its popularity may be growing because of a perception that it has few if any negative side effects.
Long-term Effects of DMT Use
While there is a perception from some people that DMT is relatively safe, it nevertheless has certain physical and mental health effects that are worrying. For example, a study from Pharmacopsychiatry indicates that while DMT acts differently from hallucinogens that disrupt the glutamate system, it is similar in that it can cause certain schizophrenia-like symptoms, such as incoherence or inappropriate emotional responses to stimuli.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse also indicates that long-term, frequent use of DMT or ayahuasca may result in either persistent psychosis or a condition called HPPD – hallucinogen persisting perception disorder – which can cause the person to experience flashbacks to hallucinated experiences, as well as visual disturbances. These can occur at any time, and can present a physical risk to the individual if it occurs while performing a dangerous task like driving a car or engaging in risky behaviors.
DMT Use and Addiction
Whenever the use of a drug disrupts a person’s life to the point that the pursuit of using the drug is more important to the individual than other aspects of daily life, and the person is unable to control that use, the person may be dealing with a substance use disorder (SUD), which is the clinical term for addiction. Some signs of addiction may include:
- Decreasing participation in activities that used to be enjoyed in favor of drug use.
- Spending large amounts of time seeking or using the drug or dealing with aftereffects of use.
- Struggling with relationships or responsibilities because of drug use.
- Craving the drug.
- Continuing to use the drug despite its negative effects and consequences.
If these and similar symptoms and disruptions are occurring, the individual may be dealing with a substance use disorder and require professional treatment to stop use.
Treating DMT Use
As with most substances, it is possible to recover from DMT addiction through professional treatment that involves research-based therapies. These therapies and treatments include:
- Behavioral therapy to help the person learn to recognize and control cravings and avoid the drug-seeking response
- Family or social therapies to provide interpersonal support of abstinence and activities that may discourage the person from returning to drug use
- Peer support or 12-Step group participation as a source of experience, resources, and accountability to avoid relapse
- Post-treatment motivational therapies and support to encourage continued abstinence into the future
With these and other science-based treatments, individuals who are struggling with their use of hallucinogens like DMT can learn to function without the drug, heading into a clearer future unhindered by the physical and psychological consequences of DMT use.
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