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How Does Ibogaine Work?

"In an honest moment, an opioid-peddling CEO may describe iboga as a rabble-rouser threatening to blast a hole in share prices." ("Iboga: The Root of All Healing," by Daniel Brett)

Many knowledge gaps abound regarding the intricate workings of ibogaine on the human brain, given the fact that there has been little, well-funded research on the iboga tree and its long-term effects in interrupting drug addiction.
In a world where Big Pharma are imperiously “ruling” the world, even influencing entire governments (as evidenced by the recent Covid pandemic) with their greedy, no-life-is-sacred-as-long-as-it-gives-us-enough-money-to-hide-in-Cayman-islands-offshores agenda, the lack of funding for a plant that holds the potential to free millions of people from drugs or over-the-counter opiates, benzodiazepines or antidepressants is unsurprising, to say the least.
Tabernanthe iboga is a shrub endemic to Equatorial Central Africa; namely, Gabon and some regions of the Congo basin; thriving in the moist, lush rain-forest soil, it bears oval-shaped, orange fruits inedible to humans, and produces white and pink flowers. But its real magic lies in the bark of its roots.
In Tsogo, the Bantu language of Gabon, the name ebhoge comes from the verb boghaga, which means “to care for.” Among the Bwiti people of Gabon, the plant is seen as a fully cognizant being, whose mission is to impart wisdom, self-actualization and healing when taken during ceremonial rites of passage, teaching humankind about life, death, memory, and identity through its hallucinogenic properties.
Those who have taken ibogaine have reported visions from repressed, long-term memories of past events, and an ensuing period of deliberate reflection of these same memories and the role those events had in shaping their lives. (Jetter; 1994)
In the more traditional cures for drug addiction, a fair percentage of addicts do eventually find freedom from their heroin and opiate addictions, but not without experiencing the horrific withdrawal symptoms that go with the process of detoxification which, by their very nature, are one of the main reasons that an addict’s greatest short-term fear is going “cold-turkey.” Once the physical withdrawal symptoms are over, comes the emotional and psychological nightmare: the raw, exposed nerves, the gaping, gnawing emptiness, the ceaseless cravings, all of which, combined, often lead to relapses.
The prime advantage of ibogaine is that it washes drug-based toxins out of the body and, due to the way it works in the brain, reduces the physical pain of withdrawal.
In the context of addiction treatment, when we speak of ibogaine, we are really speaking of ibogaine hydrochloride, where the hydrochloride removes several impurities and other compounds, producing a solution containing between 85% and 95% pure ibogaine.
Before we can understand how ibogaine works on the brain in treating addiction, we must first examine the effects of drug use on the brain, and how it changes its neurochemical functioning.
A brain not addicted to any drug will always produce a specific threshold of dopamine. When a person experiences a pleasurable event, extra levels of dopamine are produced; in such instances, what is known as the brain’s reward centre releases a flood of chemicals that make one experience feelings of heightened pleasure. However, as with all good things in life, this surge of dopamine and its consequent natural high are short lived, and the dopamine levels will quickly fall back to their normal threshold. It is this return to “normality” that enables a person to repeatedly feel excitement during certain events.
The brain of a drug addict functions in a radically unique way because the natural processes of the brain’s reward centre have been altered by the drug in question. Let us take heroin, for the sake of an example. When the brain is presented with heroin, it reacts by producing an enormous surge in dopamine. What this does is deplete the available amounts of dopamine in such a way that, when the surge finishes, the dopamine levels do not return to their normal baseline threshold, but in fact plunge to absolute zero.
This is highly problematic on two fronts: both short-term, and in the long run. The short-term consequence of this neurochemical process is that, since the user experiences such a grim, gnawing void in which nothing gives them pleasure like it used to before, they will set about obtaining more of that drug to “fix” the problem it created in the first place.

The long-term consequence of addiction is that, when exposed to repeated artificial surges, the brain adapts and rewires. Through the ongoing depletion of natural dopamine levels, according to studies, the “brain adaptations often lead to the person becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food, sex, or social activities;” a state known in psychiatry as “anhedonia,” or the inability of a person to experience pleasure in formerly pleasurable acts.

Now that we are familiar with what addiction does to the brain, let us look at how ibogaine reverses the changes caused by prolonged drug use. On the one hand, it normalizes both dopamine and serotonin, the two chemicals intrinsically bound to sensations of pleasure and happiness.
Secondly, and more importantly, it regenerates the areas of the brain damaged by prolonged substance abuse, thereby cancelling out the cravings and withdrawal symptoms normally experienced. When ibogaine is ingested, the liver converts it into a compound called noribogaine, which remains present in the body for an extended period.
To further understand how drugs work on the brain, let us use a metaphor in which the substance be it alcohol, heroin, cocaine, crack, or any other highly addictive drug assumes the role of a key.
The neurological receptors, then, are the lock, or the keyhole. Each substance (key) has a specific “chemical shape,” and when it enters the brain, and finds its corresponding keyhole or lock in the dopamine command centre, it will attach itself to that receptor, thereby activating the command centre and telling it to release dopamine.
Ibogaine acts as a blocker, thereby interrupting the neurological cycle of craving and reward because it denies the drug access to the dopamine receptors, quite literally getting in the way and attaching itself to them, so that, say, an opiate will no longer be able to attach and stimulate its chosen receptor.
The levels of depression that go hand in hand with drug withdrawal and subsequent recovery occur due to a lack of serotonin. One of the more common pharmaceutical antidepressants are called SSRIs, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, whose function is to stop too much natural serotonin from being removed from circulation in the brain. This abnormal absorption (or reuptake) of extra serotonin is a consequence of addiction. Ironically enough, ibogaine works in the same way, only with an added benefit: because it is chemically like serotonin, it not only stimulates its production as it also stops its abnormal reuptake.
As referred before, prolonged use of drugs such as alcohol, heroin or pharmaceutical opiates damages the receptors and neural pathways of the brain’s reward centre. It is precisely these damaged circuits which are behind the excruciating pain of the withdrawal symptoms which make it so difficult for addicts to gather the resolve and the gumption to finally quit for good, since most attempts at quitting are plagued by relapses, and with each new relapse, any renewed attempt at quitting again will involve a repetition of the intense physical and emotional pain of withdrawal.
In this respect, ibogaine is particularly fascinating, because it triggers different receptors to produce a group of naturally occurring chemicals called neurotrophic factors, which not only repair the damaged neurological tissue but also stimulate regular production of serotonin and dopamine, in effect short-circuiting trigger responses to external stimuli that would ordinarily lead an addict to seek their substance of choice for relief.
A commonly used “substitution therapy” for heroin or opiate addiction is the use of long-acting opiate “agonists” which nullify the effect of real opiates when they are taken (such agonists include buprenorphine, Subutex, Suboxone, or methadone). While this does deter the addict from using, since the brain ceases to feel a reward or high even when using, because the agonists have blocked the receptors, the main problem with this form of treatment is that it substitutes one addiction for another. While it is useful to get the addict away from the routine of scoring and requiring all the money and time that goes into using, these agonists must continue to be taken for an exceptionally long time and must be tapered off very gradually—a period often lasting a year or longer, depending on the addict’s level of addiction before treatment.
What makes ibogaine an increasingly attractive alternative to these traditional “substitution therapies” is that it only takes one single dose to prevent withdrawal symptoms and eliminate subsequent cravings, whereas with long-acting opiate agonists, one is still, for all intents and purposes, an addict; if one stops taking the agonists, one will go into the same kind of withdrawal common to opiates…except an agonist withdrawal can take nearly up to a month instead of roughly a week, as is the case with heroin and pharmaceutical opiates such as Oxycontin, Oxycodone, or Fentanyl, to name a few.
For the Bwiti tribes of Africa, the iboga tree is a fully sentient being in its own right; differing from other religious initiation or religious ceremonies which require a Shaman, in Bwiti rituals, iboga itself is the guide, the shaman.
In central Africa, eating the root is a ritual practice that takes place in a ceremonial setting after much preparation and the help of the entire village. The initiation lasts several days and is carried out in the forest or very close to nature. It is usually done only once in a lifetime, and the integration time is prolonged. Some say you need at least a year to get back on your feet. In Bwiti it is believed that once ingested, the wood works in you for life. (“Iboga: Lessons from the Bwiti Tradition and Therapeutic Use,” by Svea Nielsen.)
What is of real value in an addict’s recovery when using ibogaine are its hallucinogenic properties, as first concluded in the 1960 by a Chilean psychiatrist called Claudio Naranjo. With many of his patients, he used iboga as an integral part of the therapeutic process.
After ingesting ibogaine in what is known as a “flood dose,” the nature of the visions is intensely personal, as the wood mines the mind for repressed memories often about themselves or close relatives. It is precisely these visions and memories which help the addict to acquire a deeper understanding about the role of their behaviours and thought patterns in their use of drugs as self-medication. As Naranjo wisely wrote:

“Ibogaine cannot open a door by itself, but it is the oil for the hinges.” (Naranjo, 1969, 224)

Some patients report encounters with spirit animals and experience sensations like flying, and the hallucinations can last for hours. The therapeutic value of this is that these visions and memories are not forgotten after the journey; it is the subject’s contemplation and analysis of these memories, hallucinations, and spiritual encounters that induces the desired transformation.
The hallucinogenic states that addicts treated with ibogaine experience can vary. After the initial Treatment is given, some addicts have one episode of vomiting, which researchers suggest might be related to motion sickness. Addicts undergoing treatment will tend to lie down and prefer darkened rooms in which to do so. This type of calm environment, free of sensory distractions may be precisely the right environment better suited to the deep introspective phase which follows the visual hallucinations.

Here at Ibogaine Treatment UK (a subsidiary of Tabula Rasa Retreat TM), we know full well the importance of post-treatment integration, which is why our facilities are fully geared to aftercare with a team of dedicated, fully trained therapists, nutritionists and medical staff. For the duration of your stay with us, for a recommended two weeks, you will benefit from being a part of a vibrant community with close contact to nature and an atmosphere conducive to healing.

However, our aftercare does not stop there: we also offer long-term therapeutic online follow-up.

After 12 to 24 hours, depending on the person and ibogaine dose given, addicts will gradually begin to experience less of the hallucinogenic state. Patients can once again return to the “real world” rather than meandering through the halls of memories and recollections (Lotsof; Wachtel). Although there is some variability in the results of such studies, it has been proven that as little as a single ibogaine treatment can halt cravings for up to six months. A series of up to four treatments could help an addict remain clean and craving-free for three or more years. (Nielsen, 2018).

Ibogaine is most known for its helpful effects related to Opiate withdrawal. Several studies conducted have shown ibogaine does not appear to cause addiction and is, in fact, safe. In one study, rodents were given Ibogaine for six consecutive days and researchers examined its effects. They detected no withdrawal symptoms or signs that the rodents experienced cravings at the end of the trial. Even though ibogaine is still classified as a Schedule I drug, suggesting it has the potential for abuse, the National Institute on Drug Abuse does not consider it a danger for abuse or addiction (Nielsen, 2018).

Other addictions to certain substances have seemed to respond well to ibogaine, including cocaine, nicotine, morphine, and alcohol. However, a significant amount of research in this area has been mostly conducted on animals and, to a smaller extent, humans. These studies revealed that addicted rodents, when treated with ibogaine, experienced fewer withdrawal symptoms and a decreased pursuit and intake of the addictive substances (Santos, et al, 2017).