What is This Thing Called DMT?

In Ayahuasca ceremonies DMT is the active chemical in the tea that causes the psychedelic experience. But just what is this enigmatic chemical? It’s actually a tryptamine with powerful psychoactive properties (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). Tryptamines are a family of chemicals that include many important neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a tryptamine, as is melatonin – a hormone involved in regulating the sleep/wake cycle.

Tryptamine alkaloids such as Psilocybin (the active ingredient in Magic Mushrooms) and DMT are commonly used by people for their psychedelic effects. Many synthetic tryptamines have also been made, including the migraine drug sumatriptan.


DMT occurs in varying amounts in virtually all species of plants. It’s also continually being produced in small amounts in the body all the time – the brain, blood, lungs and other parts and is possibly the only hallucinogen to do so. It is one of the few substances which can cross the blood brain barrier. Some research has suggested that the main factory for DMT in the body is the pineal gland (the third eye in esoteric traditions) located in the centre of the brain. However the evidence for this is thus far quiet weak, even though the pineal gland has been shown to contain a tryptamine chemical. Some say DMT may be involved in dreaming – such as flying dreams. From time to time I have flying dreams and am fascinated and incredibly moved by their powerful feeling of euphoria.

It is still quite a mystery as to how the extreme psychedelic activity of DMT really works. However we do know that DMT molecules are very similar to serotonin molecules, and bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Put another way DMT and serotonin are very similar keys that bind to the same lock at the serotonin neuron synapse. So it directly affects the serotonin system and therefore greatly affects mood and physiology.

DMT is not orally active – so when it’s consumed it’s broken down by an enzyme in the stomach before it can enter the bloodstream. So eating it has little or no psychoactive effect. The Amazonian Indians prepare plants containing DMT as powdered snuffs typically called yopo. Yopo is made from the resin of various species of jungle trees in the genus Virola, related to nutmeg. The resin is cooked, dried and pounded into a fine powder. In other places the snuff is derived from the beans of Adadenanthera peregrine. The powder is place in the end of a tube made of wood or bone and forcefully blown into a person’s nose. This causes a very immediate intense psychedelic experience lasting about 20 minutes or so. Indians may dance, sing and see visions while intoxicated with yopo. Snuffs are widely used across the Amazon basin and like Ayahuasca, variations exist in its preparation from tribe to tribe and area to area.

DMT can be made in laboratories and in the 1960’s synthetic DMT was sold in some quantity on the black market. In the early 1980’s Terence McKenna raved about the strange visions DMT can precipitate. Today, hard to obtain botanical DMT extracts from various species of Acacia are made. If one smokes the unpurified leaf or bark, not enough DMT can get into the body to have any real effect – so it has to be purified. Extracted DMT is a brown slightly crystalline solid that smells like burnt plastic or mothballs. Users of the black-market chemical smoke the drug in a joint made with marijuana or various garden herbs or in a glass pipe. Because of its short acting duration, DMT is known as the businessman’s trip although I can’t see too many businessmen indulging in it. Some users lose all awareness of their surroundings, being overwhelmed by visual hallucinations.

Here is a link to some accounts of DMT trips – quite fascinating.

As taking DMT – especially smoking it – can be quite unpleasant, ensures it will not become a problem illicit drug. There are several different chemical relatives of DMT. One is called 5-MeO-DMT. Apparently instead of visual hallucinations, the smoker experiences a complete dissolution of reality – more frightful than DMT and so not as commonly used. However, a natural source of this drug has recently interested psychedelic explorers. The Sonoran Desert Toad found in southern Arizona produces large amounts of 5-MeO-DMT in its venom glands. Milking the toad for venom was an old Native American trick. The venom can be dried and smoked and apparently gives a gentler experience. Media reports, and not to mention Homer Simpson, have tended to sensationalise the story, reporting inaccurately that people were licking toads to get high. Toad licking is dangerous, as toad venom can be genuinely toxic if it gets in the eyes or mouth.

For more on DMT search for Dr Rick Struassmans book – DMT the Spirit Molecule. A professor at the University of New Mexico in 1991 he commenced the first official psychedelic research program in the US since 1970.

Quiet Earth sponsored audio: Understanding Ayahuasca and DMT

Categories: Mind, Science

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