A hallucinogenic drink which contains an illegal class A drug could be used to treat depression and alcoholism, a new study suggests.

Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a psychedelic brew used by indigenous tribes in the Amazon region as traditional medicine and contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – which is illegal in the UK and the US.

The beverage, which is made by crushing foliage from the Psychotria Viridis and the stems of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine, has become the subject of controversy in recent years after the deaths of many tourists visiting South America were associated with it.

But the new study shows ayahuasca users reported lower problematic alcohol use than people who took other hallucinogenic substances such as LSD or magic mushrooms.

Previous research has suggested that drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can help alcoholics tackle their addiction.

DMT molecule illustration.
Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine – a class A illegal drug (Zerbor/Getty Images)

Scientists from from the University of Exeter and University College London used Global Drug Survey data from more than 96,000 people worldwide.

They also found adults who consumed the beverage for a year reported “higher general wellbeing” than other respondents in the survey.

Lead author Dr Will Lawn, of University College London, said: “These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol use disorders.

“Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca’s potential as a psychiatric medicine, and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment.”

However, Dr Lawn points out that the conclusions drawn from the data are purely observational and do not demonstrate causality, saying that more research is needed to examine the effects of ayahuasca on health and wellbeing.

Ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca uses Psychotria Viridis leaves and Banisteriopsis Caapi stems along with other ingredients (Wikimedia Commons)

He added: “Moreover, ayahuasca users in this survey still had an average drinking level which would be considered hazardous.

“Therefore, randomised controlled trials must be carried out to fully examine ayahuasca’s ability to help treat mood and addiction disorders.

“However, this study is notable because it is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest survey of ayahuasca users completed to date.”

Of the respondents in the online survey, 527 were ayahuasca users, 18,138 used LSD or magic mushrooms and 78,236 did not take psychedelic drugs.

The paper is published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.