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How Different Types of Hallucinogens Work

John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE is board-certified in addiction medicine and preventative medicine. He is the medical director at Alcohol Recovery Medicine. For over 20 years Dr. Umhau was a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause profound distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality, otherwise known as hallucinations. While under the influence of hallucinogens, users might see images, hear sounds or feel sensations that seem to be real but aren’t.

Almost all hallucinogens contain nitrogen and are classified as alkaloids. Many hallucinogens have chemical structures similar to those of natural neurotransmitters (acetylcholine-, serotonin-, or catecholamine-like).

The most commonly abused hallucinogens are:

  • Ayahuasca
  • DMT
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • Mescaline
  • PCP
  • Psilocybin

Hallucinogens can be man-made, or they can come from plants or mushrooms or extracts from plants and mushrooms. Generally, they are divided into two types: classic hallucinogens (LSD) or dissociative drugs (PCP). Either type of hallucinogen can cause users to have rapid, intense emotional swings.

Common Hallucinogens

Some of the more common hallucinogens include:  

Ayahuasca

Sometimes called hoasca, aya, and yage, ayahuasca is brewed from plants containing DMT along with an Amazonian vine that prevents the normal breakdown of DMT in the digestive system. It is usually consumed like tea.

Dimethyltryptamine, also known as Dimitri, is a natural chemical found in some Amazonian plant species, but it can also be chemically synthesized. It usually comes as a white, crystalline powder that is vaporized or smoked in a pipe or bong.

D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a manmade chemical made from ergot, a fungus that grows on certain grains. It is probably the most powerful hallucinogen available, producing hallucinations, changes in the way reality is perceived, and altered moods.

It comes as a white powder or clear liquid and has no color or smell. It can come in capsules, but most often comes on small squares of blotter paper or gelatin that users place on the tongue or swallow to take a “trip.”

Marijuana

The active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which acts on cannabinoid receptors found in brain regions that influence learning, memory, appetite, coordination, and pleasure.

THC is just one of more than 400 different active substances—and 60 different cannabinoid molecules—contained in marijuana. Widely used as a recreational and medicinal substance, marijuana has been found to cause paranoia or anxiety as well as hallucinations, especially in adolescents who use the drug regularly.   Time distortion, which is a symptom of marijuana use, is also part of hallucination.

Mescaline

A natural substance found as the main ingredient in the peyote cactus. The top of the spineless peyote cactus plants has disc-shaped “buttons” that contain mescaline. The buttons are dried out and then either chewed or soaked in liquid to produce an intoxicating drink. Mescaline can also be made through chemical synthesis.

PCP is a dangerous manmade substance that was originally developed as an anesthetic but was discontinued for human use in 1965 due to side-effects. It is now an illegal street drug sold as a white powder or in liquid form. It can be snorted, injected, smoked, or swallowed.

It produces hallucinations and “out-of-body” sensations. Usage, especially in large doses, can be life-threatening and lead to serious mental health problems.

Psilocybin

A natural substance that is found in hallucinogenic mushrooms that contain psilocybin and psilocin. In large enough doses, psilocybin can produce effects very similar to the powerful hallucinogen LSD. “Shrooms” as they are sometimes called can be used either fresh or dried. They are normally eaten, mixed with food, or brewed like tea for drinking.

How Hallucinogens Work

Scientists are not sure exactly how hallucinogens and dissociative drugs produce their effects on the user. However, classic hallucinogens are thought to affect neural circuits in the brain involving the neurotransmitter serotonin, and dissociative drugs cause their effects by primarily disrupting the actions of the brain’s glutamate system.

The regions of the brain that are affected by hallucinogens control mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control, the NIDA says.  

Learn about hallucinogens, a class of drugs that cause profound distortions in a person's perceptions of reality.

Drug Classifications

Drugs are classified according to their common effects and actions on the mind and body. Click on the following links for more information.

Depressants

Hallucinogens

Opiates

Stimulants

Depressants

Depressants slow normal brain function. Because of this effect, depressants are often used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.

Although the different depressant drugs work uniquely in the brain, it is through their effect on GABA activity that produces a drowsy or calming effect. GABA works to decrease brain activity.

Despite their prescription for treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders, depressants also carry high addictive potential. The withdrawal effects from long-term depressant use can be life-threatening and produce some of the worst consequences of any other drug classifications. Keep in mind: this includes alcohol.

Examples include: alcohol, Valium, Xanax, Librium, and barbiturates.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are drugs which cause altered perception and feeling. Hallucinogens have powerful mind-altering effects and can change how the brain perceives time, everyday reality, and the surrounding environment. They affect regions of the brain that are responsible for coordination, thought processes, hearing, and sight. They can cause people to hear voices, see things, and feel sensations that do not exist.

Hallucinogens change the way the brain works by changing the way nerve cells communicate with one another. Click here for more information about how the brain is impacted by hallucinogen use.

Hallucinogens possess a moderate potential for addiction with very high potential for tolerance, moderate level of psychological dependence, and low potential for physical dependence. Most of the risks associated with hallucinogen use are associated with the risk for personal injury and life-threatening accidents.

Examples include: LSD, PCP, MDMA (Ecstasy), marijuana, mescaline, and psilocybin.

Opiates

Opiates are powerful painkillers. They are made from opium, a white liquid in the poppy plant. Opiates produce a quick, intense feeling of pleasure followed by a sense of well-being and calm.

Long-term opiate use changes the way the brain works by changing the way nerve cells communicate with one another. If opiates are taken away from opiate-dependent brain cells, many of them will become overactive. Eventually, cells will work normally again if the person recovers, but they cause wide range of withdrawal symptoms that affect the mind and the body.

As with many other drugs, opiates possess very high addictive potential.

Examples include: heroin, morphine, codeine, and Oxycontin.

Stimulants

Stimulants are a class of drugs that elevate mood, increase feelings of well-being, and increase energy and alertness. Stimulants can cause the heart to beat faster and will also cause blood pressure and breathing to elevate. Repeated use of stimulants can result in paranoia and hostility.

Stimulants change the way the brain works by changing the way nerve cells communicate with one another. Click here for more information about how the brain is impacted by stimulant use.

As with many other drugs, stimulants possess very high addictive potential.

Examples include: cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, MDMA (Ecstasy), nicotine, and caffeine.

Drug Classifications Drugs are classified according to their common effects and actions on the mind and body. Click on the following links for more information. Depressants Hallucinogens