Drugs altering states of consciousness

Drugs altering states of consciousness

As long as humans have existed, they have tried to use or find drugs to create a bond or bridge between the physical life and the invisible spiritual world. In order to create these bonds, drugs alone were not enough. A person with specific gifts was usually chosen to create the interface between the living and the dead. This was the shaman or medicine man/woman. Today around 120 different hallucinogenic plants have been identified world wide. Some of these have very specific properties.

Throughout the human history healers and shamanism have played an important part of human medicine and culture. Through their sometimes ridiculed behaviour, we have managed to perceive a deeper understanding of the psychology beyond cure. We have discovered that healing can occur despite our disbelief and rejection. Shamans of Indian tribes in the Amazons, Dalai Lamas state oracle, the dream walker among the aborigines of Australia or the Swedish “Nåjd” ( in sami noadi – wizard ), generally share the same rites and values. They all claim to be in contact with a different reality. During their healing or practice, they are generally considered to be in an altered state of consciousness. Usually through an initial intense phase of excitation they suddenly faint or dissociate, and experience what Pavlov would have labelled reciprocal inhibition. They suddenly start to speak with a different voice or claim to be in contact with another dimension of spirits or healers.

The ancient Hebrews used meditation with chanting, breathing exercises and fixation on the Hebrew letters of the alphabet that spelled their name for God, to induce an ecstasy state called Kavanah. These ritualistic practices are very similar to auto-hypnosis. In the Talmud, Kavanah implies relaxation, concentration, and correct attention (motivation).

People such as fire-walkers, and priests who use the religious practices of laying on of hands to make people faint to the floor, are using auto-hypnosis to bring about an altered state of consciousness by the use of suggestion and expectation.

798px Guarani shaman Drugs altering states of consciousnessGuarani Shaman holding cross and rattle. The cross is a religious symbol that predates the arrival of Christianity. Paraguay

Eastern techniques survived for millennia, practiced through Qi Gong in China and Prana massage in India. In 2,000 BC the father of Chinese medicine, Wong Tai, wrote about the technique involving incantations and ‘the passing of hands’.

The laying on of hands has always been present, although with different contexts. When you are touched by the Queen, you might subconsciously strive for this “healing touch”. Today even doctors and nurses practise the Therapeutic Touch, Kahuna Healing, Reiki, Shiatsu, Prana Healing and Bioplasma Therapy.

The purpose of this paper is to outline some specific drugs that are or have been used in order to achieve altered states of consciousness. We will revisit shamanism in other papers.

Research in to hallucinogens during the 1950s and early 1960s produced around 1000 papers out of more than 40 000 patients. During the 1960s substances like psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD became criminalised in many countries. Despite the medical potential in these drugs, research was abandoned as a consequence of criminalisation2. There is now some evidence to suggest that hallucinogens can be used as psychiatric treatments.

In a study 2012 by Norwegian researchers3, 21 000 users of psychedelics was assessed. LSD, mescaline, peyote and psilocybin was associated with a lower risk of mental illness. This raises the question why these drugs are illegal. Further research is absolutely necessary.


This drug also called yagé  is used in South-America, particularly by indigenous Amazonian people. Leaves from shrubs containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT) are mixed with various plants and  Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The latter contains monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MOAI). In psychiatric pharmacologic practise MAO-inhibitors should never be mixed with SSRI (Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors). Ayahuasca should never be taken together with antidepressants. A wash out period of at least 2 weeks are required. When using the drug people report spiritual awakening and revelations, and access to other spiritual dimensions. Ayahuasca has been widely used by local shamans in South-America.

Ayahuasca and chacruna cocinando Drugs altering states of consciousnessAyahuasca cooking

Cohoba and Yopo

Cohoba, a potent hallucinogen made of ground tree seeds of  cojóba tree (Cojoba arborea) , was the mind-altering substance of choice for Taino “behiques” (shamans). The powder was placed on a special carved pedestal and inhaled through a twin-nasal inhaler such as the Y-shaped pipe (also called Cohoba) below. Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina) is similar to cohoba and comes from upper Orinoco, Venezuela and adjacent Brazil. The seeds of these trees are roasted gently and then ground into a fine powder which is mixed with the ashes of certain leaves (alkaline substrate).

497px Taino   Cohaba Inhaler in the Form of a Shaman   Walters 2006156 Drugs altering states of consciousness

 Owner: Warren Lampkin and Nancy Nicola, Huntington Harbor, CA . Collected in the 1970′s while sailing in the Caribbean. 


This drug is associated with intense dissociations and visual hallucinations. The drug (alkaloid) is found in a wide range of rain forest plants like Tabernanthe iboga has been used for centuries in spiritual and shamanistic rituals in Africa. In countries like Gabon, Cameron and Republic of Congo the alkaloid-containing root is used during Bwiti, a spiritual practice. In Western countries the drug is considered addictive and too potent. Ibogaine is considered safe when used against cocaine addictions4 and effective against opioid (heroin) detoxification5. The drug is legal in New Zealand.

tabernanthe iboga ms 4045 2198 b24ba0 300x199 Drugs altering states of consciousness

Tabernanthe iboga


This drug has been used by anaesthetists to induce sleep. The drug is also used as a painkiller and it has bronchodilating features. The drug has been proved efficient against alcohol addiction and act as an antidepressant6,7. Recent research has shown the drug effective against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)8. Ketamine causes mild hallucinations and dissociations (fragmentation of one’s personality).

387px Ketmine Injection 193x300 Drugs altering states of consciousness

Ketamine injection

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

250px LSD 2D skeletal formula and 3D models Drugs altering states of consciousness

LSD   is a semisynthetic psychedelic drug of the ergoline (alkaloids like ergotamine cause vasoconstrictions of blood arteries) family. The drug seems to cause experiences of altered time and spiritual experiences. LSD  is not addictive and it has an extremely low toxicity compared to its dose. It has shown to be efficient against alcohol misuse9. This drug was synthesised from ergotamine by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman 1938. New clinical LSD  experiments in humans started in 2009 for the first time in 35 years. LSD  cause a wide range of effects on the human body as is seen on this illustration.

604px Possible physical effects of lysergic acid diethylamide LSD 300x297 Drugs altering states of consciousness


Mescaline is a naturally occuring alkaloid found in the peyote cactus, (Lophophora williamsii)Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana) and other Cactaceae plant families. Peyote has ~ 30 active ingredients, most of them alkaloids. Like many poisonous plants Peyote is extremely bitter, but indigenous people like Huichol, Tarahumara and numerous others have found that if sundried and eaten whole, Peyote triggers spectacular phenomena within the central nervous system.  This drug has been used for almost 6 000 years by native Indians. In Peru the San Pedro cults have a tradition of preparing decoction as a tea given at night whilst the patient was diagnosed by the shaman. The following morning the patient was sent away high up into the mountain to find healing waters in different lakes11.

Mescaline has been used against depression and alcoholism.  Mescaline causes cross-tolerance with other serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin. The drug causes an altered sense of time, thinking, self-awareness, and with visual colourful experiences. It activate serotonergic serotonin  5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors. Mescaline is considered illegal in many countries, but mescaline-containing plants are legal and dried cactus can be bought and sold legally.

Metylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, USA, surprisingly concluded during a meeting with experts 1985, that the drug’s efficacy and safety was reported to be positive. MDMA or ecstasy was criminalised in most countries under a UN agreement 1985. The drug cause euphoria but also hallucinations by releasing neuro-transmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonine ( 5-HT2A receptors). MDMA also triggers release of hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin (antidiuretic hormone). All this cause hyperthermia (fever) and can cause dehydration. The drug has been used to retrieve traumatic childhood memories, and a recent study has shown benefits in subjects with Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD)1.

220px Ecstasy monogram Drugs altering states of consciousness

Metylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)


Mushroom was used by Vikings before battle and fungi and mushrooms have been used for thousands of years as a natural source of hallucinogens. Psilocybin seems effective against OCD, cancer related anxiety, and it improves general mood and anxiety. In a study at John Hopkins School of Medicine 200611, hallucinogen-naive participants reported spiritually significant states, a sustained positive attitude and a change of behaviour observed by community workers. Participants also reported that the psilocybin experience was spiritually one of the most significant events in their lives.

220px Psilocybe semilanceata 6514 Drugs altering states of consciousness

Psilocybe semilanceata


1.  Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R. The safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: The first randomized controlled pilot study. J Psychopharmacol. 2010;25: 439-452.

2.  Nutt DJ, King LA, Nichols DE. Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2013; 14:577-585.

3.  Krebs TS, Johansen PØ. Psychedelics and mental health: a population study. PLoS One. 2013;8:e63972

4.  Mash DC, Kovera CG, Buck BE, et al. Medication development of ibogaine as a pharmacotherapy for drug dependence. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1998;844:274-292.

5.  Alper KR, Lotsof HS, Frenken GM, Luciano DJ, Bastiaans J. Treatment of acute opioid withdrawal with ibogaine. Am J Addict. 1999;8:234-242.

6. Murrough JW, Iosifescu DV, Chang LC, et al. Antidepressant efficacy of ketamine in treatment-resistant major depression: a two-site randomized controlled trial. Am J Psychiatry. 2013;170:1134-1142

7. Rasmussen KG, Lineberry TW, Galardy CW, et al. Serial infusions of low-dose ketamine for major depression. J Psychopharmacol. 2013;27:444-450.

8. Rodriguez C. A randomized controlled crossover trial of ketamine in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Program and abstracts of the 2013 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting; May 18-22, 2013; San       Francisco, California. Abstract NR4-01

9.  Krebs TS, Johansen PO. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for alcoholism: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Psychopharmacol. 2012;26:994-1002.

10. Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin can occasion mystical experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology. 2006;187:268-283.

11. Hallucinogenic Plants and Their Use in Traditional Societies – An Overview vy  Wade Davis, CSQ Issue: 9.4 (Winter 1985) Drugs and Tribal People http://www.culturalsurvival.org

12. Bret S. Stetka, MD; David J. Nutt, MD, FRCP, FRCPsych, FMedSci. Psychedelic Medicine: Worth the Trip? Medscape December 13, 2013


All pictures by the courtesy of Wikimedia