Ayahuasca, DMT, and LSD – What’s the Difference?

ayahuasca dmt LSD what's the difference
By Tessa Eskin

Psychedelic research has entered the third act of its own fairytale. Scientific interest in compounds like ayahuasca, DMT, and LSD climbed steadily through the mid-20th century, before the War on Drugs unplugged the research entirely. The field lay dormant for decades, abandoned. Nonetheless, prohibition did little to damper the cultural and scientific fascination with psychedelics. Research resumed as soon as it became legally permitted, and interest in the therapeutic applications of psychedelics revived.

Today’s research focuses on the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction, and alcoholism. Psilocybin especially has received much attention over the last 15 years. But despite promising results, research in many respects is still in its infancy, with more questions than answers. The true nature of many psychedelic substances has yet to be unraveled.

Ayahuasca, DMT, and LSD are each powerful psychedelics – but they’re quite different in composition, purpose, and experience. We’ll be exploring these three enigmatic compounds, how they differ, and their potential benefits to health and wellbeing.

Ayahuasca – A Guided Meditation on the Self

Ayahuasca’s rich tradition originated at least 1,000 years ago in the Amazonian basin.

Traditional shamans brew the substance and distribute it in a group ceremony. Participants must keep a clean diet beforehand to enhance the potency of the hallucinogenic brew.

The brew combines the Psychotria viridis leaf, which contains DMT, and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The Banisteriopsis caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which slows the breakdown of DMT to produce a long-lasting psychedelic experience. (Pure DMT experiences are much shorter, since our bodies are fantastic at metabolizing the substance.)

Many turn to ayahuasca for spiritual insight and a sense of interconnectedness with the natural world. The experience is therapeutic at its core, extremely personal and introspective. One can expect a surreal mix of joy, sadness, and awe, and the feeling as if one is dreaming.

The DMT compound in the brew interacts with serotonin receptors, combatting a range of ameliorating serotonin deficiencies. Studies suggest that long-term use of ayahuasca can increase serotonin availability, combating issues like PTSD, depression, ADHD, and senile dementia. A recent study showed that after several days, the ayahuasca experience actually lowered the depression score in participants. 

Although the research is still young, an entire psyche-tourism industry has formed around ayahuasca ceremonies. This is likely a case of human instinct preceding scientific data. Anecdotal evidence shows highly successful results, with many participants reporting a positive change in mindset and lifestyle following guided ayahuasca experiences.

DMT – The Spirit Molecule

Pure DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) delivers one of the most intense psychedelic experiences known. The trip generally lasts from 5 to 20 minutes when inhaled or injected in crystal form. Synthesized in 1931, the hallucinogenic properties were later discovered in 1956 by Stephan Szara, the chemist who first tested the substance on himself. The effects often conjure a near-death experience, prompting much scientific fascination.

DMT is a neurotransmitter found in the mammalian (including human) brain, as well as in most plants. Still, each individual experience is unique, depending on dose, mindset, environment, and the body’s specific chemistry.

The hallucinations brought on by DMT are particularly vivid. Many report geometric forms and kaleidoscopic images in technicolor abstraction. And then there are the strange reports of encounters with spirit like hallucinations, plant-spirits, and intelligent beings and entities. This appears to be completely unique to the DMT experience. Whatever the dose, the trip is usually spiritual in nature, often triggering a kind of ego death and in many cases, a renewed belief in some kind of divinity.

DMT poses many mysteries, as the research is still relatively new. Still, there are obvious connections between the creative faculties, imagination, and dream states. Many report a stronger connection to their subconscious, allowing movement through emotional and mental blocks. The experience leaves many with a fresh perspective on life, which can be beneficial to those suffering from mood disorders or substance addiction.

LSD – Opening the Mind

The discovery of LSD in 1938 by Albert Hoffman led to some of the most far-reaching shifts modern culture had ever seen. In 1943, Hoffman tested the substance on himself, succumbing to the full effects while riding his bike home. The potent psychedelic became a worldwide phenomenon both within the medical community and the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Due to LSD’s ‘mind revealing’ qualities, early researchers used it in combination with psychotherapy to treat depression and alcohol addiction.

D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is derived from the ergot fungus and manufactured as a white powder or clear liquid, devoid of scent and color. Unlike DMT, LSD is consumed orally. It can be taken as a capsule, in liquid form, or blotter paper placed on the tongue, and the LSD trip can last up to 15 hours. For those hesitant to embark on the long journey, there is the option of micro-dosing. Even a minuscule dosage can improve mood and heighten focus

LSD works quickly to bind receptors for serotonin, causing euphoria and a sense of peace. Effects generally start 40 minutes to an hour after ingesting. The lengthy trip features visual hallucinations, brightened colors, and moving patterns. LSD intensifies the sensations and opens the mind with heightened awareness. Many experience a distortion of time and perception.

A recent study showed that LSD is particularly beneficial to those suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The drug instills a sense of interconnectedness with nature. For people nearing the end, it can bring peace through a deeper understanding of the natural life cycle. LSD, like DMT and ayahuasca, can also help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, helping patients to ‘reset’ their habitual thought patterns and gain new perspectives.