Ibogaine is a naturally occurring psychoactive compound found in the root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga, a shrub native to Central and West Africa. For centuries, members of the Bwiti religion have used iboga as a sacrament in rituals to bind themselves across time with their ancestors and descendants or with each other through a shared experience of consciousness. It is still used today by the Gabonese Fang people in religious ceremonies and as a stimulant and appetite suppressant.
Purified ibogaine hydrochloride was first introduced to European consumers in 1939 under the name Lambarène. It was sold in France until around 1970 as an antidepressant that could improve mood and physical strength, and was used by athletes and those recovering from illness. In his 1973 book The Healing Journey, Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo described his experiences taking ibogaine and other psychedelics and their therapeutic uses.
How ibogaine works in the brain is not well understood. It interacts with numerous neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, including components of the acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and opioid systems. Its effects are prolonged, beginning half an hour to three hours after ingestion and peaking after eighteen to thirty-six hours.
The experience is often described as being in a “waking dream.” At first users experience visual and sensory distortions. Some describe watching a panoramic readout or “slideshow” of past memories. Afterward, they report going through a period of reflection and having residual effects including heightened awareness, mild stimulation, and disturbed sleep for up to seventy-two hours. In high doses, ibogaine can induce intense hallucinations.
Ibogaine’s potential to interrupt drug addiction was first recognized in 1962 by Howard Lotsof, at the time a heroin addict who experimented with ibogaine. Since then, numerous studies have shown that ibogaine can help treat heroin, cocaine, and opioid withdrawal and addiction.
However, ibogaine can be dangerous. There are numerous reports in the scientific literature of fatal cardiac events after taking ibogaine. Other side effects range from nausea and tremors to (less commonly) psychosis and mania to seizures and comas. Because ibogaine can affect the heartbeat, it can be particularly risky for people with preexisting cardiac problems or when mixed with other drugs.
In the United States, ibogaine is listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, making both ibogaine and ibogaine-assisted therapy illegal outside of specially approved research settings. Some ibogaine clinics operate in countries where ibogaine is not legal or is in a gray area, including Mexico and New Zealand; responsible providers give it only with close medical supervision that includes cardiac monitoring.