By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.
Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally occurring hallucinogenic compound of the tryptamine family. DMT is found not only in several plants, but also in trace amounts in humans and other mammals, where it is originally derived from the essential amino acid tryptophan, and ultimately produced by the enzyme INMT during normal metabolism. The natural function of its widespread presence remains undetermined. Structurally, DMT is analogous to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT), the hormone melatonin, and other psychedelic tryptamines, such as 5-MeO-DMT, bufotenin, and psilocin.
Many cultures, indigenous and modern, ingest DMT as a psychedelic drug, in either extracted or synthesized forms. When DMT is inhaled, depending on the dose, its subjective effects can range from short-lived milder psychedelic states to powerful immersive experiences, which include a total loss of connection to conventional reality, which may be so extreme that it becomes ineffable. DMT is also the primary psychoactive in ayahuasca, an Amazonian Amerindian brew employed for divinatory and healing purposes. Pharmacologically, ayahuasca combines DMT with an MAOI, an enzyme inhibitor that allows DMT to be orally active.
Similar to other psychedelic drugs, there are relatively few physical side effects associated with DMT acute exposure. When inhaled, its vapor has been described as "very harsh".According to a "Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans" by Rick Strassman, "Dimethyltryptamine dose slightly elevated blood pressure, heart rate, pupil diameter, and rectal temperature, in addition to elevating blood concentrations of beta-endorphin, corticotropin, cortisol, and prolactin. Growth hormone blood levels rose equally in response to all doses of DMT, and melatonin levels were unaffected." Psychologically, the DMT experience can be overly-intense, potentially causing overwhelming fear and difficulty integrating experiences, if one is not mentally prepared. Furthermore, due to the intense nature of the experience, DMT is generally considered to have no addiction potential.
In South America there are a number of indigenous traditions and more recent religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca, usually in an animistic context that may be mixed with Christian imagery. There are four main branches using DMT-MAOI based sacraments in South America:
- Amazonian Peoples. There are many indigenous cultures in South America, mostly in the Upper Amazon Basin whose traditional religious practices include the use of ayahuasca. These are the oldest cultures in the whole of South America that continue to use ayahuasca or analogue brews, such as the ones made from Jurema in the Pernambuco, near Recife or Iquitos in Peru.
- Santo Daime ("Saint Give Unto Me") and Barquinha ("Little Boat"). A syncretic religion from Brazil. The former was founded by Raimundo Irineu Serra in the early 1930s, as an esoteric Christian religion with shamanic tendencies. The Barquinha was derived from this one.
- União do Vegetal ("Union of the Plants" or UDV). Another Christian ayahuasca religion from Brazil, is a single unified organization with a democratic structure.
- Neo-shamans. There are some self-styled shamanic facilitators in Brazil and other South American countries that use ayahuasca or analogous brews in their rituals and séances.
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