I found it challenging to describe dimethyltryptamine, commonly referred to as DMT to my Mother. Although a native to Colombia, South America, she has never heard of Ayahuasca, a brew mixture of plants containing DMT. Indigenous communities within Colombia have been incorporating DMT into their medicinal and cultural practices for centuries, as far back as pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.
DMT is a tryptamine-derivative found in many types of plants across the Amazon and the stories of its benefits have passed down for generations amongst local healers. In the late 1950s, as the tales of plant medicine’s effects began reaching Western audiences, chemists and researchers rushed to analyze Amazonian natives’ perspectives and the mystical implications of DMT.
Even though my Mother is from the heart of such a compound, it still didn’t seem to sound convincingly prevalent. However, DMT can be found in both the animal kingdom, and in humans. In 2013 researchers were shocked to discover this substance in the brains of rats, encouraging scientists to test for DMT prevalence in human brains.
In 2019 researcher Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D. continued the research to find that DMT isn’t just in our brains, but is found in multiple parts of the human body, “primarily in peripheral tissue such as the lungs, thyroid and adrenal gland.” Since discovering the chemical compound in humans, scientists are pivoting to understand the role and impact DMT is having on humanity on a molecular level.
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DMT versus 5-MeO-DMT, N-N-DMT
I briefly described the graphic extraction of 5-Meo-DMT from the Sonoran Desert Toad to my Mother. Her face scrunched tightly, while she swayed back and forth with dismay. “Natalie, why in the world would someone smoke that”? I quickly stated that there are conservation measures to keep this from continuing and explained that DMT is not the same substance; it may or may not give a user a new-life meaning but It definitely comes with intense visuals, whereas 5-MeO-DMT is such a profound experience the user rarely reports any visuals. The DMT experience more resembles an intense, high-dose psilocybin-mushroom experience, where users report seeing similar visuals.
Mental Health Effects
I took a personal interest in user reports of delineation from depression. I have been resistant to SSRIs for over a decade of trial and error. One of the more prominent advocates of DMT use is Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician from Canada who focuses on the “biopsychosocial aspects of pathology, and the role of psychological trauma and stress”.
Maté has authored many informational pieces depicting his analysis of ill-fitting coping mechanisms and treats patients suffering from trauma using Ayahuasca and shamanic rituals. Ayahuasca is prepared as tea; the experience is often purge-inducing and lasts up to 12 hours. Dr. Maté has successfully used it alongside shamanic healers trained in the Amazon, and many patients report prolonged addiction and trauma recovery.
The first known government-sanctioned human psychedelic research with DMT was conducted by Dr. Rick Strassman, who wrote the book, The Spirit Molecule. Following up his publication, he produced a documentary about molecular makeup connecting self-spirituality. The thesis of his work entertains the idea that this substance can give users a profound symbiotic psychological-spiritual experience.
Using The Spirit Molecule as a guide, I could explain the effects of the DMT to my Mother, a devout Roman Catholic. I explained that there could be a chance that with DMT, you could feel God in whatever sense you believe God to be. Dr. Strassman’s pineal-gland analysis estimated that DMT could be found in human brains, and in 2019 his hunch turned out to be correct. Most importantly, there could be a future-natural remedy to familial mental-health concerns.
My Mother quickly interrupted and said she was raised in Bogota, Colombia, and only used herbs like mint, chamomile, and ginger root for healing. I replied, “DMT is probably in those too!” The silent look she gave me in return, which can only be described as ‘witheringly doubtful,’ said more than she likely intended.
Why DMT Became Popular Among Researchers
The route of administration for DMT can be either vaporized or injected, intravenously. When vaporized, its onset is within 10 seconds, with a peak average of 10 minutes, and duration up to 30 minutes long. Despite extensive scientific and non-scientific testing, this substance also has continued to have little-to-no negative after-effects. Such a short and safe duration makes the molecule an attractive target for clinical researchers, and ultimately, implementation of new clinical practices.
DMT was first discovered as a hallucinogenic in 1956 by Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara. Researchers were enamored with the new concoction, as it has one of the shortest durations unlike its related compounds, psilocybin and LSD. Known as the “business trip” during the 1960s in the United States, as a user could access the full depth of a psychedelic experience in considerably less time. DMT does get confused with other psychedelics, and further definition is helpful in understanding these powerful medicines.
Subjective user experiences of DMT report sensations similar to that of a psilocybin-mushroom journey. However, as someone who uses psilocybin to open my mind and understand more about our world, there are notable differences. The intensity and duration of DMT makes the trip feel both euphoric and grounding, similar to that of anesthesia.
Upon reading through anecdotal experiences of DMT and psychedelic mushrooms, I finally envisaged a metaphor my Mother could grasp. “Compare a roller coaster ride versus a slow-moving, theme-driven, animatronic ride.” Similar to a roller coaster, the user often emerges frazzled with wild hair, hands on their head, joyously laughing at the completion of their adventure.
On the other hand, psilocybin experiences begin slowly, allowing the user to understand they are stepping-into an alternate reality. With time to look around and assess the situation, the journeyer can mentally and emotionally prepare for the ride. The onset can usually come anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. It is reminiscent of people’s favorite slow-moving water ride.
This year, scientific reports put out a study observed for 10 years, assessing Reddit-user survey answers. The main prevalence at 70% of the 3,300 submissions was a “sense of amazement”, whether seeing visuals or not. Psychedelic Spotlight states that nearly half the users reported entity visuals, depicted as a “presence of a feminine entity, with descriptions ranging from a Goddess, to Gaia, to Mother Ayahuasca.”
I exclaimed to my Mother that she could possibly see the Virgin Mary. Of all the visuals reported, entities as deities, aliens, creature-based including reptilian and insectoid, mythological beings, including machine elves, and jesters appeared nearly 50% of the time. The high prevalence in similar visuals raises questions to scientists, including anthropologist Michael Winkelmann who writes that “there may be a significant overlap between these DMT entity encounters and spirit encounters found in theological traditions.” My Mother reminded me she already sees the Virgin Mary, when she prays at her altar.
DMT is currently being explored in clinical settings due to its quick and efficient delivery and ease of production and preparation. Since 2021 Algernon Pharmaceuticals, a repurposing pharmaceutical company, has been running a clinical trial on stroke patients, focusing on a microdose proportion of DMT via continuous-IV administrations.
Their recent preclinical study revealed that “rats treated with DMT recovered motor function more quickly and also exhibited lower lesion volumes when compared to the control group of those that did not receive DMT.” What researchers are discovering is that DMT can be used in the fight against multiple neurological conditions.
Recent trials have established it as a potent compound capable of promoting structural and functional neuroplasticity that may have prolific therapeutic benefits like inflammatory recovery. DMT’s efficient properties could provide room for clinicians to create programs and processes more efficiently than we have seen in traditional psychiatric settings.
To my Mother’s surprise, she seems more open-minded to such a compound, especially with the experience only lasting a short amount of time. As clinical researchers and therapists continue promoting psilocybin-based therapy, the public is rapidly growing optimistic about psychedelic treatments for depression, PTSD, anxiety, and more.
We’re in the middle of a mental health pandemic, and people are more willing than ever to try new alternatives to achieve wellness. With DMT paving the way for breakthrough therapy models, I’m looking forward to one day picking my mom up from her DMT-assisted therapy session and hearing her new outlook on life. Try getting that from chamomile, Mom!