Addictions can seem to transport people to another place, in which the sights, sounds, and sensations are so much different than those seen in the everyday world. Some people suggest that people with addictions can heal via the very same process. Specifically, they propose that people with addictions can get better if they ingest a hallucinogenic substance (ibogaine) and go through an extended period of reality distortion.
What Is It?
Ibogaine is a natural substance that’s native to West Africa. News reports about the drug suggest that it’s been used in native rituals for centuries. In the 1950s, these reports say, researchers became interested in using the substance to help people who had an addiction.
The idea of using a drug to help with an addiction has developed into a tourist boom, reporters say, as people from all around the globe flock to places like Costa Rica to drop $10,000 on a treatment that has yet to be approved by Western governments.
Typically, in an ibogaine treatment, people with addictions are given a dose of the drug and surrounded by people who perform some kind of ritual. Some websites have created videos that demonstrate how the rituals work, and they can be a little discomfiting to watch. People with addictions are asked to chant, to shake rattles, and to take on new names. They’re using hallucinogens, but they’re also participating in something that seems a little otherworldly.
Also, the experiences aren’t always considered pleasant. One woman profiled for a website about her ibogaine experience spent hours screaming at visions no one else could see, and when she awoke, she described the experience as far from pleasant. There may be rituals involved, but there may also be pain and fear involved.
How Does It Work?
Research suggests that ibogaine works on many brain receptors simultaneously, meaning that the drug has the ability to completely overwhelm the brain’s normal functions within minutes of ingestion. However, researchers don’t have a clear picture of how the drug works. They haven’t been able to nail down how long the drug lasts, what chemical reactions it triggers, and what specific chemical changes it can cause.
Similarly, people who advocate the use of ibogaine can’t quite determine how much of the drug people need to take. On an industry website, writers suggest that some people need more than one dose in order to beat back an addiction. There just hasn’t been enough research on how the drug works, so those who administer it are (in essence) doing experiments with each person they give the drug to.
It’s also hard to know how dangerous ibogaine really is. For example, some experts suggest that about 1 in 300 people who are given the drug will die from the exposure. That’s not a number that’s easy to verify, as many people who use the drug die overseas, and their deaths might be attributed to heroin or cocaine, or drug withdrawal, not ibogaine. Until research can nail down what the drug does in the body, and what doses are safe, there will always be a hint of danger associated with this drug.
It’s possible that the drug’s real power doesn’t have anything to do with a medical response. In other words, while researchers might not know how the drug impacts the body, other researchers might have answers about how the ibogaine ritual impacts the mind. That research might indicate why ibogaine works.
For example, back in 1966, a researcher suggested that rituals can be magical, like the arts, and that artistic component is what makes them effective. If that’s true, ibogaine might work by plunging people into a deeply felt ritual that’s hard to understand via scientific data. It might be something a person must feel in order to really explain.
Even though it might be difficult to explain the ritualistic part of ibogaine treatment, researchers are looking into ways to determine how the drug works on brain cells. The results have been rather encouraging.In one study of the issue, researchers gave cocaine-addicted rats ibogaine. One injection resulted in a dip in cocaine intake, and that lower level stayed in place for 48 hours. But the researchers said the results were best when the rats were given the drug once per week for three weeks. They didn’t say, however, what sort of health effects that could have on people.
Human studies provide slightly more detail, but they have been small. In one such study, only seven people were included. At the end of the study:
- One person continued drug use after two days
- Two relapsed weeks later
- One relapsed to intermittent use
- Three remained drug-free for 14 or more days
Clearly, this is far from a success story. The entire study is quite short, and many people relapsed to drugs within that short time-frame. For the three who did get better, it might have been the start of something wonderful. It’s just too early to know.
A fully functional study would have a much longer period of observation, so researchers could really look for clues about changes. Unfortunately, much of the research done on this drug follows people for short periods of time. Those studies seem to suggest that people react to this therapy in remarkably variable ways.
These results are all over the place. Some people felt better. Some didn’t. Some felt better in different ways. It’s hard to make reasonable treatment decisions with this kind of variable data.
In one such study:
- 25 people moved through drug withdrawal without seeking more drugs
- Four engaged in drug-seeking behavior, even though they had no signs of withdrawal
- Two stayed clean, but they had signs of attenuated withdrawal
- One engaged in drug-seeking behavior with continued signs of withdrawal
- One died, possibly due to heroin use
Some human studies are just poorly designed. In one such study, a participant admitted that there were no brain scans done of the people involved, and the participant describes his healing using words like “euphoric state” and “sense of awe,” which are far from quantifiable. It’s hard to know what to do with the data from a study like this.
In a perfect world, beating an addiction would be as easy as getting a shot or taking one pill. In reality, overcoming an addiction often means undergoing a much longer process, but the results of that process can include spiritual transformation, physical health, emotional healing, and professional success. In short, it might take longer to heal via conventional methods, but it might be more effective to use those routes, too. At the very least, it’s safer.
Hallucinating Away a Heroin Addiction.” The Daily Beast. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Addict Credits Hallucinogen Ibogaine for Saving His Life.” (July 17, 2014). CBC News. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Kicking Heroin with an Ibogaine Ceremony.” (n.d.). Vice. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Hallucinating Away a Heroin Addiction.” The Daily Beast. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Ibogaine, an Anti-Addictive Drug: Pharma[…]. A Narrative Review.” Human & Experimental Toxicology. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Ibogaine Therapy for Drug Addiction.” (n.d.). MAPS: Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Ritual and Social Change.” Man. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Inhibitory Effects of Ibogaine on Cocain[…]ministration in Rats.” European Journal of Pharmacology. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
A Preliminary Investigation of Ibogaine:[…]ns for Further Study.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Treatment of Acute Opioid Withdrawal with Ibogaine.” American Journal on Addictions. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
Mind-Altering Drug Could Offer Life Free of Heroin.” (Aug. 22, 2013). New Scientist. Accessed Feb. 25, 2015.
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