DMT: The Truth About a DMT Trip (and 2 Alternatives)

Unlike other entheogens, DMT is a chemical compound that humans produce in our body, which is considered psychedelic or mind altering. Not only is it common in our body, but also in nature as there are many varieties of plants that produce the substance (for both human and animal consumption).

The DMT drug is one of the least discussed psychedelic substances mainly because the trip is of extremely short duration (15 – 45 minutes) and because this compound is traditionally used in the form of a brew from south America called ayahuasca.

As with any psychedelic, having a DMT experience by yourself can be profound, but may be less insightful or long-lasting than ceremonial or ritual settings.

Either way one chooses to use it, there is a reason Dr. Rick Strassman dubbed DMT “the spirit molecule” and Terence McKenna called DMT “the most powerful hallucinogen known to man and science” [1]!

What is DMT?

DMT is short-form for N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, which is the chemical structure of the substance classified as a tryptamine. Unlike psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or mescaline (peyote and san pedro), the DMT molecule is found in nearly 60 plant species across the globe.

In one 2013 Biomedical Chromatography study, scientists concluded that DMT was found in the pineal gland in the rat brain [2]. There is also evidence to suggest DMT is produced and found in the human brain, but the current scientific literature on the topic is not robust [3].

According to a 2018 Journal of Psychopharmacology (one of the most prestigious journals in this space), scientists elaborated that the principal function of the pineal gland is to produce melatonin and that only small concentrations of DMT have been found in humans [4].

The case for endogenous (self created) production of DMT has still not been made, but what we do know is that DMT creates incredibly intense psychedelic experiences for a short duration before enzymes (called monoamine oxidase) break it down and make it inactive.

DMT Experience: But What is DMT Really?

Explaining a DMT experience, similar to any other psychedelic, is virtually impossible to do. In fact, Terence McKenna (a famous psychedelic explorer and researcher) said in a lecture “And language cannot describe it – accurately. Therefore I will inaccurately describe it. The rest is now lies” [5]

He continues to describe how DMT impacts the language forming capacity of our brain and how limited the English language (or any human language) is at explaining such experiences.

With a DMT experience, the same may be true but to a greater extent because of the intensity and short duration. Many of the subjective experiences with DMT were tested by Dr. Rick Strassman, M.D. in the 1990s during a 5-year DMT study at the University of New Mexico [6].

In his research, Strassman found that certain doses of DMT had mood elevating and calming properties. The higher doses elicited “intensely colored, rapidly moving display of visual images, formed, abstract, or both”[7]. Many higher doses of DMT include visual hallucinations where existing reality is gone and another “realm” is entered.


History of DMT

The earliest known use of DMT dates back to the 8th century when it was extracted or even used as a whole plant for the purpose of psychoactive snuffs (nasal ingestion) such as the case with A. peregrina (part of the cohoba snuff) [8].

The first synthesis of DMT was in 1931, but it wasn’t until Dr. Stephen Szara visited south America in 1956 where he decided to study the compound (in addition to the fact that LSD was not sold to Communist countries) [9].

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Rick Strassman conducted his 5-year study that research really took off. After numerous studies behind the veil (due to legality in the United States), some research was finally being released on DMT.

Ayahuasca vs DMT

In traditional south American cultures, a brew called ayahuasca is used to create entheogenic experiences. This has been done for thousands of years (archaeological evidence suggests at least 4000 years ago) [10].

The main bioactive hallucinogen in ayahuasca is DMT. The ayahuasca vine acts as a MAO inhibitor so the DMT stays in the system longer and creates a range of psychedelic effects. There are many studies on ayahuasca (whereby there are fewer on DMT) suggesting the combination in a traditional brew can do everything from treat depression (by 64%) [11], reduce anxiety [12], and even improve executive function [13]

Perhaps most important (and unique to ayahuasca) is the added benefit of processing emotions. A study of fMRI brain scans in Frontiers in Neuroscience showed that regions of the brain associated with emotional processing are far different using this substance [14].

Ayahuasca is not the same as DMT, but from a pharmacological perspective, the former is psychoactive primarily because of the latter.


5-MeO-DMT vs N,N-DMT

There is another common form of DMT, which should not be confused with the standard N,N-DMT that is in ayahuasca and many plants.

5-MeO-DMT (also referred to as bufotenine) is used as an entheogen by many south American cultures and is used most recently by a tribe called the Seris, which is indigenous to Sonora, Mexico. In a mass spectrometry study, 6,728 identified human proteins were tested using N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT and 934 were found expressed differently in 5-MeO [15].

In short, these two substances are very different with varied effects.

What Are the Benefits of DMT?

According to the research by Dr. Strassman, the main benefits of DMT are mystical experiences at higher doses that alter our relationship to waking life. In his book The Spirit Molecule, Strassman discusses the benefits of these mystical experiences and how they alter the trajectory of certain individuals.

For individuals who struggle with addiction, anxiety, or depression, DMT can have a host of benefits as well, but may require more care and guidance to achieve positive results.

What Are the Risks of Using DMT?

Because of the intensity of a DMT experience, the risks can be greater than some of the other entheogens and psychedelics. A DMT trip went “bad” in 51% of participants of one survey [16], which is at a higher rate than other psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin.

Setting makes a big difference when it comes to DMT (and other psychedelics). One way to avoid a “bad trip” is to ensure a safe setting preferentially with a shaman or some type of guide.

Many of the greatest risks of using DMT are associated with the interactions. Be conscious not to use DMT with the following substances.

  • SSRI’s
  • Appetite suppressants
  • CNS depressants (xanax)
  • Vasodilators
  • Antipsychotics
  • Barbiturates
  • Alcohol
  • Blood pressure meds

DMT in Popular Culture

Like many psychedelics, DMT has garnered interest in recent years for the potential benefits of usage. Joe Rogan has become an unlikely ally admitting that he has used DMT, had tremendous experiences, and hosted the 2010 documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule. This documentary was based on the book by the same name from Rick Strassman.

The most common association of DMT is through ayahuasca, which has grown in popularity tremendously over the past decade though they are not the same substance.

References (Click to Expand)
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  4. Ibid.
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  7. Ibid.
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  9. Strassman, Rick. DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001). Chapter Summaries.
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