DMT and the pineal gland

an excerpt from DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Dr. Rick Strassman (published by Inner Traditions)

“Do you think,” I offered, “that the pineal might produce psychedelic compounds? It seems to have the right ingredients.  Maybe it somehow mediates spontaneous psychedelic types of states-psychosis for example.”  I was hesitant to get much deeper than this and avoided mentioning my more controversial ideas about the pineal-that it played a role in more exotic states, such as near-death or mystical experiences. Dr. K stopped in his tracks and turned on his heels.  His brow furrowed and he peered at me intently through his glasses.  A palpable menace glinted from his eyes.  “Oops,” I thought.

“Let me tell you this, Rick,” he said very slowly and firmly.  ”The pineal has nothing to do with psychedelic drugs.”

That was the last time that year I said the words pineal and psychedelic in the same breath to anyone.  Nevertheless, I continued examining the literature and began developing some of the theories that inform this book. Further study of other scientists’ work, and the results of my own later melatonin research, added to the body of evidence upon which I drew in formulating the following proposals. The hypotheses are not proven, but they derive from scientifically valid data combined with spiritual and religious observations and teachings.  Many of these ideas are testable using available tools and methods.  The implications of these theories are profound and disturbing but also create a context of hope and promise.

The most general hypothesis is that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives.  Pineal DMT production is the physical representation of non-material, or energetic, processes.  It provides us with the vehicle to consciously experience the movement of our life-force in its most extreme manifestations.  Specific examples of this phenomenon are the following:

When our individual life force enters our fetal body, the moment in which we become truly human, it passes through the pineal and triggers the first primordial flood of DMT. Later, at birth, the pineal releases more DMT. In some of us, pineal DMT mediates the pivotal experiences of deep meditation, psychosis, and near-death experiences.  As we die, the life-force leaves the body through the pineal gland, releasing another flood of this psychedelic spirit molecule.

The pineal gland contains the necessary building blocks to make DMT. For example, it possesses the highest levels of serotonin anywhere in the body, and serotonin is a crucial precursor for pineal melatonin.  The pineal also has the ability to convert serotonin to tryptamine, a critical step in DMT formation. The unique enzymes that convert serotonin, melatonin, or tryptamine into psychedelic compounds are also present in extraordinarily high concentrations in the pineal.  These enzymes, the methyltransferases, attach a methyl group-that is, one carbon and three hydrogens-onto other molecules, thus methylating them. Simply methylate tryptamine twice, and we have di-methyl-tryptamine, or DMT. Because it possesses the high levels of the necessary enzymes and precursors, the pineal gland is the most reasonable place for DMT formation to occur.  Surprisingly, no one has looked for DMT in the pineal.

The pineal gland also makes other potentially mind-altering substances, the beta-carbolines.  These compounds inhibit the breakdown of DMT by the body’s monoamine oxidases (MAO).  One of the most striking examples of how beta-carbolines work is ayahuasca. Certain plants that contain beta-carbolines are combined with other plants that contain DMT to make this psychedelic Amazonian brew, which allows the DMT to become orally active.  If it weren’t for the beta-carbolines, MAO in the gut would rapidly destroy this swallowed DMT, and it would have no effect on our minds.  It is uncertain whether beta-carbolines by themselves are psychedelic.  However, they do markedly enhance the effects of DMT. Thus, the pineal gland may produce both DMT and chemicals that magnify and prolong its effects.

Healing plants of the Amazon: psychotria viridis

Chacruna, dmt-containing plant

courtesy of Wikipedia commons by Awkipuma

There are thousands of plants with medicinal properties in the vast forests that surround the Amazon river system.  Many of these plants have been used for centuries or even millenia to treat various ailments in people.  One of the plants that has gained recent fame for its partner role with the ayahuasca vine is chacruna or Psychotria viridis.  Chacruna is a small, unassuming plant that contains high levels of DMT, or dimethyltriptamine, a potent hallucinogen.  It is precisely for its high DMT content that the plant is mixed with the ayahuasca vine.  The MAOI compounds in the ayahuasca vine allow the DMT in the chacruna plant to become orally active, otherwise they would be broken down by digestive enzymes and would not enter the bloodstream.  Chacruna is known as a helper plant for ayahuasca because it brings on strong effects such as visual hallucinations, which clarify and strengthen the visions of the ayahuasca vine.  The vine is often used by itself for healing and divination purposes but its solo effects are less stunning visually than in combination with chacruna.  The combination of chacruna and ayahuasca is often used by members of the Santo Daime religion during their services to inspire visions and heal illnesses.

Chacruna is classified as an entheogenic plant, meaning that it allows users to access the divine within themselves.  Such plants have been widely used by many cultures for thousands of years.  Tribes of the western Amazon such as the Napo Runa, Waorani, Ashaninka and many others have used such plants extensively to assist with shamanic work and provide healing for many diseases.  Shamans and others that take the chacruna plant in combination with the ayahuasca vine adhere to a strict diet for both medical and spiritual reasons.  The plants contain MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) and DMT, which can interact negatively with various foods and medications.  Many people believe that the diet is also important because it allows those that consume the mixture to be more sensitive to both the healing effects of the plant and the natural world, which contains other plants with healing properties.  Diets high in tyramine, sugar, fat, oils and spices can desensitize the body, mind and spirit to the subtle energies in plants.

One of the most fascinating things about the chacruna plant and the indigenous people that use it is how it was discovered.  The DMT in the plant is not active if it is eaten. This is compounded by the blisteringly large number of plant species that exist in the Amazon: around 80,000 have been cataloged and many more likely exist.  How could people that have been living in these forests for relatively short periods of time discover such an amazing psychoactive plant and figure out that it had to be combined with another plant that contains MAOI substances to make the DMT active?  Trial and error is a very unlikely explanation for such an amazing discovery.

The Effects of Ayahuasca

My shaman (or sheman as she preferred) told me numerous times how important it is to maintain focus during an ayahuasca ceremony and revisit your intention anytime that you feel your mind drifting off somewhere else.  To prepare the room for the ceremony, she closed all the curtains in the house and covered the wood-burning stove with a small piece of aluminum foil to prevent its light from grabbing our attention during the ceremony.  It is very important to maintain complete darkness during the ceremony so that participants can focus on their inner work.  The plant mixture her friend had prepared contained a high concentration of DMT, ensuring that the brew would be effective.  DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, is the hallucinogenic substance in the brew. The ayahuasca vine also contains harmaline, harmine and tetrahydroharmine, which are all MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors).  These compounds prevent the digestive system from breaking down the DMT. Without the these MAOIs, the DMT would be inactive and it would not enter the bloodstream.

I gulped down a little cup of the dark, syrup-like liquid.  It was sweeter than I expected and had a slightly bitter aftertaste.  I had imagined that it would be much worse.  My nervousness grew as the liquid swished down into my gut. Alia and I sat there in darkness for about half an hour and then the plants began to work their magic on me.  I began to feel very faint and dizzy.  I cannot recall how long this dizzy feeling lasted but it seemed like a long time.  Next, I went into a cold sweat.  My sheman said that this happened because I was nervous.  Then I started to feel something quite different.  The sensation was like a ball of energy working its way into my chest and gently opening up my heart.  This was a very strange feeling yet I did not feel afraid for I knew that the plants knew exactly what they were doing.  The initial nervousness was gone and in its place I began to feel a profound sense of awe that lasted for quite some time.  I detail each phase of my experience in Ayahuasca and Depression: The Clarity of Darkness.

Ayahuasca has been given many names.  Among the most popular are madre, mama or mother of the plants.   Ayahuasca is known as mother of the plants because it  acts a guide for shamans when they consume it and go into the forest in their visions.  There they can access many other plants that they may use to cure illnesses in their villagers.  It gives shamans or curanderos access to the immense pharmacy of the forest.  It may seem unreasonable that a hallucinogenic plant helps people find other plants in the jungle with healing properties, but so did many of the concepts in history that are now widely accepted and used such as electricity.  We cannot see electricity, but we see its effects. The inability of science to measure something does not negate its existence.  The psychoactive compound in the ayahuasca mixture, DMT, is also found in the brains of humans and many other animals.  The role of DMT in the human brain is not well understood by science but some suggest that it plays a part in dreaming and in near-death experiences.

What is Ayahuasca?

the ayahuasca vine in its habitat

Banisteriopsis caapi also known as ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is the name given to a brew that is usually a combination of two plants.  The first is a large vine, Banisteriopsis caapi.  This vine is also given the name of ayahuasca and it contains harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine, which are all monoamine oxidase inhibitors. The second is a small ground plant, usually a member of the Psychotria genus, which contains the hallucinogenic DMT molecule.  The vine must be combined with the ground plant for the DMT to be absorbed into the bloodstream.  Due to the fact that the vine contains MAOI compounds, there are important dietary regulations that must be followed to avoid negative food-drug interactions.  Any food with high amounts of tyramine should be avoided with ayahuasca.

This plant mixture has been used for thousands of years by the native people of the western Amazon for its divination and healing purposes.  One of the most common themes of the ayahuasca experience is sensing a greater purpose in one’s life and seeking to become a better, more balanced person.  There are many physical sensations brought on by ingesting ayahuasca including nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, cold flashes and feelings of emotional release. You can learn more about the effects of this plant in Ayahuasca and Depression: The Clarity of Darkness. Proper preparation for an ayahuasca ceremony is extremely important and should not be taken lightly by anyone considering this method of healing.  Traditionally, curanderos (healers) would take regular doses of the plant medicine to drift out into the forest and find other plants to cure ailments of people in their village.  With the explosion of tourism around this plant mixture, many retreat centers and “shamans” are operating that do not prepare visitors adequately for the ceremony.  It is very important to know the person well that is leading your ceremony.  As with many other aspects of culture, when something is taken out of its traditional context, its meaning can be distorted and/or perverted.

The Santo Daime religion focuses its ceremonies exclusively around the use of ayahuasca.  Santo Daime traces its origins back to the early 1900s from a Brazilian rubber tapper named Raimundo Irineu Serra.  Since that time in history, the doctrine has spread across most urban centers in Brazil and beyond into Europe and other continents.  Members of this religion sing many uplifting songs during their ceremonies.  Several scientific studies have been done on the positive behavioral effects that the brew has on members of the religion.  One of the most notable studies on the plant mixture was done by Lisa Palladino in her dissertation entitled, “Vine of the soul: a phenomenological study of ayahuasca and its effect on depression.”

Curing Depression with Ayahuasca

ayahuasca cures depression

finding clarity through the great ayahuasca medicine

Weaning off of antidepressant medications after taking them for many years is very challenging, both physically and emotionally.  I knew that if I wanted to benefit fully from an ayahuasca ceremony I had to clear all traces of SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitors) drugs from my body. However, this was difficult because I had become dependent on them to function in everyday existence. Those that have used these drugs can attest to their power and the surprising nature of their strong withdrawal symptoms and side effects.  It is important not to consume ayahuasca if you are taking any drug that affects your serotonin levels because combining the two can cause serotonin syndrome, a very serious and potentially fatal condition.  Ayahuasca also contains several compounds that are MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitor). MAOI drugs have very strong negative interactions with a wide variety of medications. It is important to understand the potential interactions before participating in a ceremony. It is also a good idea to stop taking serotonin medications before consuming ayahuasca because they may negate or lessen the effects of ayahuasca.  The serotonin medications and ayahuasca work on serotonin in different ways.  Serotonin medications inhibit serotonin reuptake, which results in more serotonin available to nourish its receptors.  This translates into you having a better mood, sleep and digestion among other things. In my experience with serotonin drugs, their effect decreases over time  because the body and mind become habitualized to the medication.  I noticed this after taking the drugs for several years. I also realized that they were not effective if I was stressed out, anxious, or depressed.  It was as if my body prevented them from working when I was feeling a lot of stress.  This reinforces the idea that many of our illnesses have important psychosomatic components.  We must allow medicines to work.

Some research suggests that ayahuasca may be more effective at repairing problems with serotonin.  SSRI medications increase the body’s supply of serotonin, but ayahuasca may actually create more serotonin receptor sites.  Various people at the University of Kuopio in Finland carried out a study on serotonin in ayahuasca drinkers in 1994.[i]  The researchers found that those who consumed ayahuasca had an increased number of uptake sites for serotonin compared to the control group. This means that the people who drank ayahuasca had more of the molecule binding to receptor sites.  Ayahuasca may be the only substance that can increase the number of uptake sites for serotonin.  This study may have very significant implications for those struggling with depression and other related mental illnesses.   To find out more about this relationship, check out Ayahuasca and Depression: The Clarity of Darkness.

I have created an analogy to highlight the difference between the two.  One person is happy and healthy.  He has many serotonin receptor sites equivalent to a jug that holds a gallon of liquid.  When this person’s serotonin cycle is functioning properly, liquid (serotonin) is poured into the jug without spilling over.  The result is that he feels good.  As time passes and his serotonin pathways become compromised due to the stresses of life, the jug becomes smaller.  Now it can only hold two quarts of liquid.  This person begins to take serotonin medications that fill the small jug with more liquid but the jug cannot hold all the liquid and it overflows.  Ayahuasca expands the jug into its original size of one gallon and every time liquid is poured into the jug it will not overflow and will be used efficiently.  After taking serotonin medications for many years, I can personally say they do not work as effectively as when I began taking them.  Other people may have different experiences and I encourage them to share so that we will better understand this growing dis-ease.

[i] Callaway, J.Airaksmen, M., McKenna, D., Grob, C., & Brito, G. (1994). “Plateletserotonin uptake sites increased in drinkers of Ayahuasca.” Psychopharmacology,116, 385-387.