What is it?
Dymethyltriptomine (DMT) is a chemical compound in the alkaloid family, and is found in many plants, and even in our own brains. Rick Strassman, a doctor specializing in psychiatry and psychopharmacology, and the first scientist to undergo studies with DMT in the U.S. refers to the compound as the “spirit molecule“.
Often psychoactive chemicals are associated with the plant that humans historically interacted with. Dimethyltryptamine is most commonly associated with ayahuasca, which is getting more attention as the tech industry continues to experiment with psychedelics. It makes sense to draw these associations, as it is anthropologically significant, and its starting to be evolutionarily significant, as our co-evolution with plants with psycho-active compounds is the reason for the compounds abundance. (Sullivan, 2001) (Saniotis, 2010)
Where Is it?
It may be misunderstood that ayahuasca is the only source of DMT. Although it is toxicologically and historically significant, DMT is present in many other plants. One of the being Phalaris arundinacea, or reed canary grass. Why though?
Unlike ayahuasca, reed canary grass doesn’t have a co-evolutionary history with people. It contains far less DMT than ayahuasca, and it is prolific. Reed canary grows across North America, Europe and Asia, with a distribution that prefers the northern hemisphere (Hugo, 2017)
All psychoactive compounds that humans take advantage are synthesized in plants as a defense mechanism against herbivory. (Sullivan, 2001) For example nicotine and caffeine are both very effective insecticides, that exist in the foliage and stems or bark of plants like tobacco, coffee, tea, and even citrus. (Kretschmar et al. 1999) They are known as allelochemicals: compounds produced by living organisms that when released into the environment have a negative effect the health of other organisms.
Several studies show that the tryptamine alkaloids present in Phalaris arundinacea ( DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, Bufotenin) have a significant effect on herbivory. In a study they find that “relative palatability and total alkaloid concentration were linearly related”. (Marten, 1972) Which means that as the alkaloids increased, palatability decreases at the same rate. Animals grazing reed canary grass high in tryptamines had diarrhea, increased breathing rate, and increased water intake, compared to animals grazing reed canary with less of these compounds. (Woods, 1973)
Why do we seek out mind altering substances?
Up until recently it was thought that our thirst for psycho-active compounds is largely due to them being more widely available in the recent millennia, and “a ‘mismatch’ between emotional mechanisms that evolved in the past without pure drugs or direct routes of administration…” (Sullivan, 2001) This means that when we take drugs now, our brains are “short circuited” and tricked into feeling good, which is a signal in our brain that indicates a fitness benefit: an increase in reproductive success.
Scientis R.J. Sullivan offers an alternative theory to human’s relationship with mind-altering-substances. His work asserts that in order for our body to even be able to interact with some of these chemical compounds, our genetics must have been interacting with them for a long time.
Psychotropic phytochemicals mimic mammalian neuro transmitters, which is evidence that these chemicals have been evolving alongside humans for millions of years. Similarly, the ability of mammals to metabolize psychotropic plant substances is evidence of an ancient co-evolution. (Sullivan, 2001)
Why does Phalaris have DMT?
Ok so maybe Phalaris just randomly chose DMT as the chemical constituent to ward of pests, and humans just never caught wind of it, like they did with other psychotropic chemicals in plants like ayahuasca, peyote, or marijuana. But I’m not satisfied with that conclusion. The fact that Phalaris contains the exact same chemical as ayahuasca, that so effortlessly is recognized by our neurotransmitters, and induces ego death, the sensation of oneness with the universe, and a feeling of physical and emotional blast off, must not be mere coincidence.
Does this plant have an ancient history with humans that isn’t known? Or has it just evolved with other mammals, and found that DMT is effective in disorienting the herbivore enough to choose other forage. Or maybe there are yet to be known chemical acceptors among plants, that interact with DMT in a similar way that humans do. Maybe its purpose is exactly related to its effect on humans. It does exist in our brains already, without the help of plants…
Kretschmar J.A., Baumann T.W. 1999. Caffeine in Citrus flowers. Phytochemistry (**Edition**) [Internet]. [**Last Updated**, cited 2017 Feb ] Volume 52, Issue 1. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com.evergreen.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/
Simmons A.B., Marten G.C. 1971. Relationship of Indole Alkaloids to Palatability of Phalaris arundinacea L.1. Agronomy journal (**Edition**) [Internet]. [**Last Updated**, cited 2017 Feb 19] Volume 63, No. 6, p. 915-919. Available from: https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/aj/abstracts/63/6/AJ0630060915
Woods DL, Clark KW. 1973. Palatability of Reed Canary Grass Pasture [Internet]. Contribution no. 372. Winnipeg, Manitoba:Department of Plant Science, University of Manitoba; [**Last Updated**, cited 2017 Feb 21] Available from: http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/pdfplus/10.4141/cjps74-014
Saniotis A. 2010. Evolutionary and Anthropological Approaches Towards Understanding Human Need for Psychotropic and Mood Altering Substances. Journal of psychoactive drugs (**Edition**) [Internet]. [**Last Updated**, cited 2017 Feb 21] Volume 42, Issue 4. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49821786_Evolutionary_and_Anthropological_Approaches_Towards_Understanding_Human_Need_for_Psychotropic_and_Mood_Altering_Substances
Sullivan RJ, Hagen EH. 2002. Psychotropic substance-seeking: evolutionary pathology or adaptation?. Society for the Study of Addiction (**Edition**) [Internet]. [**Last Updated**, cited 2017 Feb 21] Volume 97, Issue 4. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/11403848_Psychotropic_substance-seeking_Evolutionary_pathology_or_adaptation