My friend Lydia has never forgotten her first migraine. It was July 1999 and she was 11. Her family was leaving on a trip to Australia in just two days, but the pain was so overwhelming that she could barely pack. After that first memorable experience, she continued to struggle with migraines for years, vomiting up to three times per episode and fighting through day-after hangovers so bad that even nodding her head hurt.
Lydia’s migraines typically lasted about four hours and always included optical migraines (also called aura) that caused visual distortions, followed by a splitting headache, nausea, and vomiting. When Lydia and I met in our first semester of college, she still hadn’t found an effective treatment. But now there’s mounting evidence that ayahuasca and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) may offer relief for migraine sufferers.
Cluster Headaches, Migraines, and Psychedelics
The concept of treating headaches with psychedelics is not entirely new. Cluster headaches have seen a lot of psychedelic press in the last decade thanks to a 2006 study published in Neurology that showed psilocybin and LSD effectively treated the headaches in the majority of study participants. Migraines like Lydia’s are different from cluster headaches, which are rarer and so intense that they’re often known as “suicide headaches.”
Compared to cluster headaches, there have been no clinical trials or peer-reviewed studies published on the effects of psychedelics on chronic and episodic migraines — but that doesn’t mean people aren’t experimenting on their own. In my early college years with Lydia, the Amazonian psychedelic brew ayahuasca was not as well known for its healing properties to treat a variety of illnesses, but nowadays, there’s evidence that ayahuasca and isolated DMT — one of the principal psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca — could treat migraines like the ones my friend has experienced for most of her life.
Why DMT and Ayahuasca Make Sense for Migraine Treatment
In a 1996 newsletter from MAPS, neuroscience researcher Dr. Ethan Russo (who has published several studies on the use of cannabis to treat migraines) reported that his research was looking into ethnobotanical treatments for migraines in the Northwest Amazon. Along with other plant substances, Russo proposed to study the efficacy of DMT to treat migraines, reasoning that DMT’s role as a serotonin receptor agonist — meaning it behaves similarly to serotonin, binding to the same receptors in our brains — could make it an effective treatment for migraines. Unfortunately, the funding for the study was cut before research could begin, but Dr. Russo’s reasoning still stands that DMT and ayahuasca could be an effective alternative to prescription medications.
Online forums like Mycotopia, DMT Nexus, and Hip Forums abound with accounts from people who report using DMT or ayahuasca to great success. One contributor to the Shroomery forum, who was particularly concerned about using narcotics, shared that 20 mg of DMT reduced his migraine by 95% within ten minutes of smoking it.
Better Than Prescription Drugs?
It’s helpful to look at popular migraine medications to understand why DMT and ayahuasca might offer effective treatment for migraines. Sumatriptan, a tryptamine-based drug sold under brand names like Imitrex and Alsuma, is the pharmaceutical most commonly prescribed to treat migraines. Interestingly, sumatriptan is comprised of some ingredients that will look familiar to any psychonaut worth their salt: DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and bufotenine, the psychoactive alkaloid found in Bufo toads. Like DMT, sumatriptan is also a serotonin receptor agonist, known to narrow blood vessels in the head and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.
For people worried about negative side effects from pharmaceutical prescriptions, ayahuasca could prove to be an ideal alternative. Graham Hancock, a psychedelic researcher known for his banned TED talk on ayahuasca, credits the brew with giving him months of relief from the chronic headaches that plagued him since the age of 17. On his website, he shared that ayahuasca treatments — all told, about 15 administered over the course of two years — led to a major decrease in episodes and greatly reduced his need for sumatriptan injections.
His desire to cut back on prescriptions is one shared by many, and there are several reasons why psychedelics like ayahuasca and DMT are a preferred treatment:
- Ayahuasca and DMT don’t have withdrawal effects, meaning you can stop using them whenever you want. It’s debated among practitioners whether DMT can acutely treat migraines or if it should be used as a preventive tool — some say it instantly decreases their migraines, while others prefer not to use it as an acute treatment. For people who don’t want to risk using psychedelics during actual migraine episodes, it’s helpful that they can still dose intermittently without suffering from withdrawal from their prescription drugs.
- Because you use it intermittently, the side effects don’t take over your daily life. Of course, there are side effects to using both DMT and ayahuasca, but they only last for the length of a single experience. For many, this is preferable to the daily onslaught of prescription drug side effects, like one guest writer on Harvard’s Health Blog who found relief with his prescriptions but reported constant fatigue due to his daily mix of medications.
Choosing Between Ayahuasca and DMT
Deciding between ayahuasca and DMT mostly comes down to differences in legality and how you prefer to administer your medicine:
As seen from the chart above, isolated DMT is illegal in most countries around the world, while ayahuasca ceremonies are widely available in countries like Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Another benefit of ayahuasca comes from the MAO-inhibitors found in the B. caapi vine (the other ingredient in ayahuasca besides the DMT-containing chakruna plant), which make DMT orally available for ingestion. In contrast, DMT by itself is not orally active, but it can be smoked.
One benefit of DMT is that it’s a much shorter experience at an average of fifteen minutes, compared to the two to six-hour-long ayahuasca experience, which can also involve vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. However, taking either will also almost always includes visual hallucinations — these distortions of reality are beautiful for many people, but can also be unnerving for others.
The reality is that migraines are a complicated problem and psychedelics like DMT and ayahuasca might not work for everyone. As Dr. Joel Saper, the medical advisory board chair for the Migraine Research Foundation put it, “There is no condition of such magnitude — yet so shrouded in myth, misinformation, and mistreatment — as migraines.” Luckily, the multitude of personal stories cropping up shed some needed light on the possibility of using DMT and ayahuasca as an alternative migraine treatment. Now we’re just waiting to see if science will back the stories up.