The Risks of Hallucinogens in Addiction Treatment

How Hallucinogens are used in addiction treatment

Treating substance addiction with hallucinogenics is a current hot topic within the evolving field of addiction treatment modalities. Hallucinogenics are drugs that cause audio, visual, tactile or olfactory hallucinations by disrupting neurotransmitter systems existing within the spinal cord and brain. Neurotransmitters involved with regulating sensory perception and mood include dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and norepinephrine.

Unlike heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, hallucinogenics do not target “reward” centers or opioid receptors in the brain. Instead, they stimulate chemicals and brain areas primarily involved in how we perceive things. This is why hallucinogenics are not considered as addictive physically or psychologically as heroin, meth, cocaine, alcohol and opioid pain pills.

The Psychiatric Use of Hallucinogenics for Treating Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Advances in neuroscience and associated imaging technology allow researchers today to study detailed data regarding the efficacy of hallucinogenics for treating substance addiction. In particular, MRI and PET scans have made it easier to examine sites of action in the brain while someone is high on a hallucinogenic.

Additionally, past studies regarding the effects of psychedelics (now referred to as “club drugs”) have created new interest in exploring alternative treatments to addiction. The majority of recent clinical research is currently being conducted with MDMA (Ecstasy) and psilocybin (mushrooms) in the U.S. with permission of the Food and Drug Administration.

Although some hallucinogenics have shown to exert beneficial effects on addicts with histories of chronic substance abuse, the fact is that all “club drugs” are known to significantly alter brain chemistry, disrupt signaling between brain cells and possibly increase the risk of worsening depression, anxiety or severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. In addition, we do not fully understand exactly how LSD, Ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs impact brain functioning in the long term. While using hallucinogenics may relieve some addiction or withdrawal symptoms, the potential for club drugs to do permanent damage to the brain clearly exists. Something that is universally agreed upon is the self-reflection necessary during addiction recovery. As we addressed in our blog on deprivation tanks, the ability to look inward and have a spiritual awakening can help many in recovery. Here are some of the drugs that are used in an effort to create a chemically induced ‘trip’.

Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA)

Ecstasy is an amphetamine-based drug that substantially increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain. A rapid, steep rise in these particular neurotransmitters makes people taking Ecstasy experience intense hallucinations involving all five senses. Euphoria and a feeling of “oneness” with others makes MDMA a favorite of party-goers known as “ravers.”

While addicts may feel less depressed or discouraged when using Ecstasy to defeat their addiction, this club drug can cause serious psychological side effects due to serotonin neurotoxicity. MDMA forces the brain to release massive amounts of serotonin, which may induce acute psychosis and even damage neurons permanently. In fact, studies involving recreational users of Ecstasy found they suffered chronic panic attacks, recurring paranoid thoughts, flashbacks and even suicidal ideation.


Ketamine for addiction treatmentA powerful anesthetic and hallucinogenic, ketamine has also been used experimentally to treat addictions. In some clinical tests, ketamine reduced cravings for cocaine, enhanced mood and decreased depression. Researchers speculate ketamine’s ability to help an addict involves promoting the development of new neurons and inhibiting reconsolidation of memories related to drug-taking activities. Ketamine can be used in a controlled environment to effectively treat depression, and while it is not effective for every case, many do find success with it, with limited side effects.


Addiction treatment using psilocybinA naturally occurring chemical compound found in several hundred species of mushrooms, psilocybin is converted in the body to a hallucinogenic substance called psilocin. It is psilocybin that produces mind-altering effects similar to mescaline, LSD and Ecstasy.

A small amount of research exists involving the use of psilocybin to treat alcoholicsMost results were positive, with participants reporting a decrease in cravings. But experiments with psilocybin for the treatment of addiction are done under controlled conditions and medical supervision to avoid subjects suffering serious adverse effects. Taking psilocybin is known to potentially cause severe panic attacks requiring hospitalization, as well as agitation, confusion, episodes of self-injury and psychotic episodes.


Is Ibogaine an effective Addiction TreatmentAn alkaloid isolated from the bark of a West Central African tree, ibogaine is a ritual hallucinogenic used by Africans that is seriously being studied as a component of western addiction treatment programs. According to some proponents of using ibogaine for treating addictions, it seems to normalize or reset neuroadaptions thought to promote dependence on addictive drugs. However, the mechanism of action through which ibogaine reduces cravings is unknown.

There are major safety issues with ibogaine, specifically its potential to damage neurons and the cardiovascular system. The brain area negatively impacted by this substance is the cerebellum, which controls movement, helps regulate pleasure and fear and is involved somewhat in language, attention and cognition. Neurotoxicity is an umbrella term describing adverse effects to function and structure of the peripheral and/or central nervous system, including the brain.

Bradycardia or other types of cardiac arrhythmia are another risk of using ibogaine for recreational or addiction treatment purposes. Since 2006, eight deaths have been reported due to taking ibogaine, although some may be related to pre-existing or undiagnosed heart disease, pulmonary emboli or co-occurring drug use.

Authors of research papers about ibogaine and addiction treatment also state that uncontrolled, non clinical settings currently used to give addicts ibogaine make it difficult to evaluate the exact cause of these deaths. Consequently, the majority of addiction psychologists and psychiatrists consider ibogaine an experimental treatment requiring much more research before it can be legally approved to treat substance addictions.

FHE Health Believes in Evidence-Based, Safe Treatment for Addictions

While many treatment centers focus on treating only the addiction, we focus on healing the body, the mind and the deep, inner core of your true self. At our recovery center, patients address the underlying issues of their addiction while gaining the coping and life skills tools they need to achieve the goal of sobriety and take control of their lives again.

If you are searching for addiction help for yourself or someone you care about, remember that few treatment centers set the standards as high as FHE Health. Call us today to learn more about our outstanding treatment programs supported by authentic, clinical research.

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