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DoubleBlind: Image of man holding back shoulder. In this article, DoubleBlind explores the use of psychedelics for treating physical pain.
DoubleBlind: Image of man holding back shoulder. In this article, DoubleBlind explores the use of psychedelics for treating physical pain.

Can Psychedelics Treat Physical Pain?

From ayahuasca to iboga, and even synthetic compounds, people are turning to psychedelics to treat pain, in addition to mental health.

Suzannah Weiss // September 14, 2020

During the first year I spent suffering from chronic Lyme disease, I tried all kinds of treatments, including antibiotics and other Western medications, along with alternative methods like acupuncture, herbal supplements, ozone, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy—but they only took me so far. Still experiencing insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, fatigue, bladder irritation, and muscle twitches, I took several friends’ recommendation to undergo a ceremony with iboga, a powerful psychedelic made of the African tabernanthe iboga plant. 

After my first iboga ceremony with a shaman in Mexico, I was shocked that not only did my Lyme symptoms completely lift, but the pain that I’d been feeling in my knees after falling on them a month prior was also gone. The Lyme-related issues returned after a few weeks, but the more I did iboga—six times total over the course of that year—the more and more lasting the effects were, and the better my knees got as well. 

I’m not the only one to experience a physical transformation like this through psychedelics. Michael Mationschek, a healer in Mallorca, Spain who works with psychedelics, says iboga completely repaired neurological damage he’d incurred after an accident. 

“It was so bad that I couldn’t feel half my face, memory didn’t work, couldn’t walk straight, life force was cutting out,” he says. “And iboga saved my life. The first journey I did with iboga, my motor neocortex rebuilt itself. The next morning, I was eating breakfast and I could see my hand recalibrating itself as if I was using it for the first time. And I could feel my face again and started to get some memory functions back.”

It’s not just iboga that can heal physical ailments. Maria Johanna, who used to run ayahuasca retreats in the Netherlands, has worked with multiple people who saw relief from physical complaints. One woman who could not move her feet walked for the first time in ages after participating in one of her ceremonies. 

“The first journey I did with iboga, my motor neocortex rebuilt itself. The next morning, I was eating breakfast and I could see my hand recalibrating itself as if I was using it for the first time.”

Nor is it only natural psychedelics within the “plant medicine” category that can work wonders on physical ailments. Jen, a 47-year-old in the Chicago area, noticed improvement in her chronic migraines after an acid trip. “It seemed to help both mood and migraines for about three weeks,” she says. The nausea associated with her migraines was completely gone for those three weeks, and she also had more energy. Caitlin Thompson, founder of the mental wellness supplement company EntheoZen, says LSD helped her manage chronic nerve and joint pain, while also alleviating her pain for weeks after each trip. 

Psychedelics have been investigated over the past few years for their ability to help with various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. What’s less well-established—but equally promising—is their potential to help people heal from physical health conditions.

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Johanna believes such transformations are possible because ayahuasca and other psychedelics heal the emotions, which are connected to the body. Some fields such as somatic therapy contend that emotions from past experiences can get trapped in the body, causing pain and other symptoms, and research has correlated traumatic childhood events with physical illnesses. “I believe in the holistic principle—everything is connected, so if you have illnesses or if your body is giving signs, it means something,” says Johanna. “Changing the inner world is changing the outer world.”

James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, agrees that psychedelics can influence the body through the mind. “It’s important to consider the role that neurological systems—including the brain—play in integrating and regulating our physiology, as well as our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” he says. “These functions are not mutually exclusive, but instead can be—and often are—dynamically interactive.”

Sometimes, psychedelics improve people’s health by inspiring them to change their behaviors, says Johanna. “One thing that happens so many times after ayahuasca is that people don’t want to drink alcohol or eat meat anymore because it shows you how important your health is, and you’re more connected with your body,” she says.

Psychedelics can also increase awareness of what’s happening inside someone’s body. Raven Marie, assistant facilitator at the iboga retreat center Awaken Your Soul, was actually able to diagnose a physical health problem because of iboga. During the ceremony, she took a journey into her body and noticed a tumor in her abdomen. This led her to get an ultrasound, and the doctor found that she had uterine fibroid tumors. 

Despite the doctor recommending surgery, Marie chose to continue using plant medicine, including iboga and 5-MeO-DMT, along with other natural healing methods. During the DMT ceremony, she says she remembers feeling as if she shed the sexual trauma of her ancestors. After three months, she went back to the doctor and found out the fibroids had shrunk to the point that surgery was unnecessary. 

During the ceremony, she took a journey into her body and noticed a tumor in her abdomen. This led her to get an ultrasound, and the doctor found that she had uterine fibroid tumors.

There also may be direct physical changes that psychedelics can cause in the body. This is easiest to explain for issues like migraines or Lyme disease that involve the nervous system, says Giordano. Psychedelics like LSD, iboga, and 5-MeO-DMT act on the serotonin system, which could allow them to alleviate a number of neurological issues. The serotonin system also plays a role in the immune system, so stimulating it could stimulate self-healing, Giordano adds. London life science company Eleusis is even working on a drug that could combat inflammation, Alzheimer’s, and retinal disease by binding to serotonin in a similar way to mescaline. In addition, the feeling of connection one might gain from psychedelics can put the nervous system in a parasympathetic state, decreasing inflammation and facilitating healing.

Iboga in particular also acts on the opioid system, which can help with pain relief, even after the drug wears off. “Injury-induced pain — like that from falling on your knees — involves a cyclic mechanism of inflammation, which triggers pain that triggers more inflammation,” says Giordano. “By blocking the pain component through activation of the opioid system, you interrupt the inflammatory-pain cycle,and ‘break the chain’ of pain perpetuation.” Not only that, but substances like iboga and 5 MEO DMT might affect hormones like progesterone and estrogen, which could help with issues like fibroids. 

Read: Using Psychedelics to Heal from Sexual Trauma

There has not been a ton of research on psychedelics’ effects on the body, but the data that does exist is promising. One study in the International Review of Psychiatry found that activating serotonin receptors in animals in a way that mimicked psychedelics produced anti-inflammatory effects. Another in Frontiers in Pharmacology showed that iboga modifies expression of genes affecting brain regions involved in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s Disease. And ayahuasca acts on the brain’s sigma-1 receptor, which could allow it to fight inflammation and oxidative stress. 

Since most potential health benefits of psychedelics haven’t been formally studied, it’s difficult to say they definitely help with certain ailments, rather than simply promoting a feeling of well-being. However, if it’s just the latter, that’s still something, Giordano points out. “Even if the individuals reporting these results simply felt better—and felt better for a protracted, durable time after their psychedelic experience,” he says, “that in and of itself would warrant further research.” 

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and elsewhere. 

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