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Mental & Emotional Health

An Almost Unknown Psychedelic to Kick the Habit

Addiction is a public-health crisis in America today, without many good treatment options. But researchers are looking into ibogaine, an hallucinogenic drug that shows promise for getting rid of both cravings and withdrawal symptoms for a wide variety of substances, including heroin, cocaine, and opioids.

Ibogaine, which is derived from a Central West African shrub, is not an approved treatment yet in the United States, although there have been promising results in other countries.

One facility, the Experience Ibogaine Treatment Center, is located across the border from San Diego. Its website looks like an ad for any balmy vacation spot, except for what it promises: “World Class Ibogaine Therapy and Detox.” 

Aeden Smith-Ahearn, Treatment Coordinator at Experience Ibogaine, says ibogaine causes people to dissociate and go into a dream-like state. But the part of the substance that works for addiction has nothing to do with the hallucinogenic properties of the drug.

“The treatment works because of a molecule called noribogaine which is metabolized from Ibogaine by the liver after ingestion,” explains Smith-Ahearn. “The noribogaine actively seeks out the opiate receptor sites in the brain and bonds to them for several months. In doing so, noribogaine repairs the chemical imbalances from the addiction. It’s as if it almost ‘tricks’ the brain into believing everything is normal.”

Researchers around the world are trying to create the noribogaine compound separately so that it can be used without the hallucinogenic properties, which would be a safer, more controllable treatment option. A pharmaceutical company in California began trials of such a drug early last year.

One of the key benefits of ibogaine, compared to other addiction options, is “how quickly it gets you back to feeling like a normal human being,” says Smith-Ahearn.

The withdrawal process is a brutal one, both physically and psychologically. Ibogaine is a one-time treatment that gets rid of severe withdrawal symptoms and can move people forward in their recovery by jumping over some of the hardest parts of getting off substances.

Thaddeus Camlin, a psychologist who studied ibogaine for opioid addiction for his doctoral dissertation, says most people who try ibogaine do it because they’ve attempted conventional treatments and found them unhelpful. “There is a particular appeal for people who use opiates due to the alleviation of withdrawal symptoms.”

As part of considering such treatment, generally a patient spends a week in a medical setting. (Ibogaine has been linked to deaths from heart disease, and a legitimate practitioner should have any prospective candidate thoroughly examined for heart problems by a medical doctor.)

The ibogaine session begins on the third day and lasts 24-72 hours. During that time the patient is never alone and is constantly monitored.

Researchers in Brazil are currently recruiting candidates for the first randomized, placebo controlled, double blind trial of ibogaine, Camlin says.

It won’t be finished until December 2019 but will be a huge leap forward in rigorous study of the substance.

He and others caution, though, that people outside of medical settings may offer uncontrolled ibogaine treatment, pitching it as more akin to a spiritual guide or black market experience. It should be obvious that this is a bad idea, but with addiction comes desperation for all those involved, whether the addict or those who care about someone trapped in dangerous life choices.

While ibogaine is not a cure for addiction – that is up to the addict himself – growing evidence is providing hope that it (or its components) can help with some of the worst parts of substance withdrawal.

 

Editor’s note: Check with your doctor before deciding whether to use this treatment for addiction.

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