DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a naturally occurring chemical. DMT is present in both plants and animals, and is thought to be found in tiny quantities in the pineal gland of the human brain.
There are many labels that refer to DMT and other substances of its ilk (like LSD, mushrooms, and the San Pedro and Peyote cacti): ‘Hallucinogen’, ‘psychedelic’ and ‘entheogen’ are a few. Many users of DMT argue that the latter term is a more appropriate reference. ‘Entheogen’ is a term derived from Greek word 'entheos' and it translates to “having God (theos) within". When describing DMT as an entheogen, a person is suggesting that the chemical generates ‘God’ or ‘the divine’ within themselves, or is said to be in direct communion with this energy.
The terms 'psychedelic' and 'hallucinogenic' tend to have deprecating connotations, for various cultural and historical reasons. ‘Entheogen’ is used by those who consider substances like DMT to be divine sacraments that bring about transcendent experiences. Mainstream media channels tend to refer to DMT as a drug, but this doesn’t sit well in the counterculture due to the quality of experience the substance consistently seems to provide.
Consumption of DMT
Users usually smoke DMT or drink it as part of the Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca. Sometimes it is prepared in other brews that have similar effects to ayahuasca, and these are known as ‘analogue’ brews. Analogues are plants or chemicals that are used instead of the traditional Banisteriopsis Caapi vine in an ayahuasca brew. Read more about Ayahuasca here.
For example, DMT might be mixed with visionary plant peganum harmala (Syrian Rue), Mimosa Hostilis for similar effects to ayahuasca. This has been dubbed ‘anahuasca’. Another possibility for consumption of DMT is through smoking the secretions of the Bufo Alvarius toad (5-MeO-Dimethyltryptamine), although this is said to result in a different experience to the previous methods.
It is possible to find DMT in certain psychoactive snuffs (as per its original use), including Peruvian Vilca, which contains bufotenin, DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. DMT has also been administered intravenously during studies such as Dr. Rick Strassman’s back in 1990.
In Chavín, Peru, a place rich in entheogenic history, carved heads depict mucus pouring from their nostrils, indicating the use of psychedelic snuff. Here there were also material finds including bone sniffing tubes and snuff trays; this is considerable evidence of an ancient snuff culture, and the likelihood of the snuff containing DMT is high. Today there are still many forms of rapé (Amazonian snuff made from various plants) that contain DMT.
The Amazonian Yanomami tribe have long embraced the tradition of blowing powdered Virola tree bark resin up each others’ nostrils. Where many use small pipes to administer rapé, this tribe prefer to use blowpipes that are six feet long. Another commonly used DMT-containing snuff is that produced from the Anadenanthera colubrina tree that grows on the eastern Andean mountains and in the highlands around Kotosh. This snuff is favoured by Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian tribes, and relatively recently (in many Amazonian areas) this snuff has replaced ayahuasca as the most popular method of ingesting DMT.
When extracted from plants, DMT forms crystals that can be smoked (in pipes or bongs), or more recently, vaped. Another smokable form of DMT is ‘changa’, made from extracts of DMT-containing plants that have been combined with different herbs. It is also different in that it contains an MAOI plant, often the ayahuasca vine (or leaf) itself. Some refer to it as ‘smokable ayahuasca’ because of this, and it generally contains between 20 and 50% DMT. The Global Drug Survey of 2012 (consisting of 22,000 respondents) found that 92% smoked DMT as an herbal mixture rather than consuming it in an ayahuasca brew. However, this may be down to the ease of acquisition and/or cost; today the popularity of ayahuasca ceremonies is increasing at a considerable rate, all around the world.
Plants that contain DMT
Acacia Confusa/Acacia longifolia
Acacia maidenii: DMT in bark at 0.36%; 5-MeO-DMT in trace amounts
Acacia obtusifolia (= A. intertexta): DMT in bark at 0.1–0.7%; 5-MeO-DMT possibly present in trace amounts
Acacia phlebophylla: DMT leaf at 0.3%
Acacia simplicifolia: DMT in bark at 0.81%
Anadenanthera peregrina: DMT in immature seeds at 0.16%; 5-MeO-DMT in roots 0.678%
Desmanthus illinoensis: DMT in root-bark at 0.34%
Diplopterys cabrerana (chaliponga): DMT in leaf at 1.46%; 5-MeO-DMT in leaf and dried stem in trace amounts
Meliocope leptococca (= Evodia leptococca): 5-MeO-DMT in aerial parts 0.21%
Mimosa tenuiflora (= M. hostilis): DMT in root-bark at 0.31–11%
Phalaris aquatica: 5-MeO-DMT in leaf at 0.01–0.28%
Phalaris aquatica cv. AQ-1: DMT at 1+%; 5-MeO-DMT in trace amounts
Phalaris arundinacea P.I. 172442 Turkey (cv. Turkey Red): 5-MeO-DMT in leaf is the predominant alkaloid from a total wetweight alkaloid range of 0.0025–0.045%
Pilocarpus organensis: 5-MeO-DMT in leaf at 0.41% (Caution: Shulgin & Shulgin 1997 and Ott 1994 both pointed out that other species of Pilocarpus are known to contain the poisonous cholinergic chemical pilocarpine.)
Psychotria carthaginensis: DMT in leaf 0.0–0.65%
Psychotria viridis (chacruna): DMT in leaf 0.1–0.34%
Virola calophylla: DMT in leaf at 0.15%; 5-MeO-DMT in bark at trace amounts
Virola rufula: DMT in bark at 0.19%; 5-MeO-DMT in bark at trace amounts
Virola theiodora: DMT in bark at 0.003–0.25%; DMT in flowering shoots at 0.44%; 5-MeO-DMT in bark at 0.11%
These are used as admixture plants in an ayahuasca or ‘anahuasca’ brew.
Psilocybin mushroom users sometimes report having similar experiences to DMT users, and this is because DMT can retain its psychoactive properties in other forms: 4-PO-DMT is found in psilocybin mushrooms.
History of DMT
DMT first appeared in psychoactive snuffs back in the 8th century, as it is naturally occurring in the seeds of A. peregrina. It was first synthesised in 1931 by Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske, but it was not until 1956 that Dr. Stephen Szara first highlighted that the substance had ‘hallucinogenic’ properties.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, clinical research was undertaken, and in 1965 Franzen and Gross discovered DMT in the blood and urine of regular human test subjects. Once the Controlled Substances Act was introduced in 1970, hallucinogenic research more or less stopped.
In the early 1990s Dr. Rick Strassman, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, was the first to resurrect studies into hallucinogens including DMT. He was granted the right to perform clinical research, during which he attempted to prove the powerful effects DMT could have on human consciousness. From 1990 to 1995, Strassman conducted this U.S. Government-approved and funded research at the University of New Mexico. He injected subjects with DMT and recorded their experiences. This is documented in his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, published in 2000.
In the 1960s, underground chemist Nick Sand was the first to synthesise DMT rather than extracting it from natural sources, and the first person to discover that the DMT freebase could be smoked. Sand began synthesising DMT in his bathtub, and is credited as the first person to discover that DMT was active when volatised (smoked).
In 1997, Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin published their sequel to book ‘PIHKAL’. This latest publication, TIHKAL, is an acronym of ‘Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved’. The book documented their personal studies into the psychopharmacological properties of tryptamines, including DMT. It described the subjective effects of both oral and smoked preparations.
This article from PNAS.org highlights evidence of ritualistic use of psychoactive plants and substances (including DMT) 1000 years ago. Here is an excerpt:
“Over several millennia, various native plant species in South America have been used for their healing and psychoactive properties. Chemical analysis of archaeological artefacts provides an opportunity to study the use of psychoactive plants in the past and to better understand ancient botanical knowledge systems. Liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) was used to analyze organic residues from a ritual bundle, radiocarbon dated to approximately 1,000 C.E., recovered from archaeological excavations in a rock shelter located in the Lípez Altiplano of southwestern Bolivia. The site is located at an elevation of ∼3,900 m above sea level and contains evidence of intermittent human occupations during the last 4,000 years. Chemical traces of bufotenine, dimethyltryptamine, harmine, and cocaine, including its degradation product benzoylecgonine, were identified, suggesting that at least three plants containing these compounds were part of the shamanic paraphernalia dating back 1,000 years ago, the largest number of compounds recovered from a single artifact from this area of the world, to date. This is also a documented case of a ritual bundle containing both harmine and dimethyltryptamine, the two primary ingredients of ayahuasca. The presence of multiple plants that come from disparate and distant ecological areas in South America suggests that hallucinogenic plants moved across significant distances and that an intricate botanical knowledge was intrinsic to pre-Columbian ritual practices.”
Misconceptions about DMT
A lot of people believe that DMT is produced in the pineal gland of the human brain, and that it is naturally released during birth, death or a near-death experience. Although it has been found in various animals and plants, there is still debate over whether it can be considered a ‘naturally occurring’ substance. Despite Franzen and Gross isolating it in the urine and blood of their study subjects, there has been criticism of their findings. However, since then, other studies detected it in human blood, feces, urine, kidney tissue, lung tissue and spinal fluid.
In a 2013 study, scientists were able to isolate DMT in the pineal gland of rats, which demonstrates that mammalian brains should be capable of generating it. However it has not been conclusively proven that the human brain does (or even can) produce DMT. (reference footnote 11)? Although Dr. Rick Strassman covers this theory in his book The Spirit Molecule, drawing convincing parallels between the DMT experience and the near-death experience, he has since stated that this is merely conjecture.
Regardless of whether the human pineal gland actually produces DMT, it is interesting that when consumed, DMT is one of the few substances actively transported across the blood brain barrier. Although serotonin and DMT have similar chemical structures, serotonin is not transported across the blood brain barrier. It as if the brain welcomes DMT.
In the words of Dr. Rick Strassman, "Twenty-five years ago, Japanese scientists discovered that the brain actively transports DMT across the blood-brain barrier into its tissues. I know of no other psychedelic drug that the brain treats with such eagerness.
This is a startling fact that we should keep in mind when we recall how readily biological psychiatrists dismissed a vital role for DMT in our lives. If DMT were only an insignificant, irrelevant by-product of our metabolism, why does the brain go out of its way to draw it into its confines?" Convincing an argument as this may be, simply put, the jury is still out on this one.