Salvia May Unlock the Mysteries of Stimulant Addiction

By Zachary Siegel 08/21/15

Yes, that weird drug you once smoked in your parents’ backyard when you were 16 is used to treat stimulant addiction.

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The Mazatec people of Oaxaca in southern Mexico have been conducting rituals for hundreds of years that involve the ingestion of Salvia divinorum, or “Divine Sage,” which supposedly produces a transcendent healing experience.

Salvia has strong hallucinogenic properties and therefore has a history of recreational use in the United States. But to the Mazatec people, it is a healing medicine, used to treat arthritis, inflammation, and headaches—to list a few. But yet another reason the Mazatec choose to undergo the magico-ritualistic experience is to treat substance abuse or dependence.

According to recent fieldwork in Oaxaca conducted by researchers at Yale University’s School of Medicine, villagers employ salvia to treat people for a variety of addictions.

Similarly, in more traditional Western medicine, the pharmacological properties of salvia are being studied and have yielded interesting results in rats addicted to stimulants. According to researchers, salvia leaves contain several unique chemicals, one of which is salvinorin-A, said to be the most potent naturally occurring psychedelic substance.

Unlike other psychedelics—like MDMA and LSD, that act on serotonin systems—salvinorin-A activates a select group of κ-opioid receptors. Rats addicted to psycho-stimulants were given doses of salvinorin-A, and were observed dispensing cocaine much less often than rats addicted to stimulants without the dose of salvia.

Also, rats who were given cocaine tended to move around erratically, but interestingly, rats that were given a dose of salvia and then cocaine did not display “cocaine-induced hyperlocomotion.” Salvinorin-A did not appear to restrain behavior in general. “Instead, it seems to suppress only cocaine-related behaviors and motivation,” said the Yale medical researchers.

Though much different from the Mazatec use of salvia, which is part of a larger ritual and subsequent worldview, Western medicine’s interest in the drug has been largely ignited by the tribe.

By increasing the understanding of salvia and how it works in the brain, scientists may help inform the treatment of those who are dependent on stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.