Ecstasy (MDMA): Are There Safer Alternatives?
Ecstasy or Molly
The drugs ecstasy or Molly contain MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), which is a substance that has stimulant properties similar to amphetamines and properties of hallucinogenic drugs like mescaline. MDMA may have clinical uses, particularly in the treatment of various mental health conditions like PTSD, and it was originally marketed as an aid for psychiatrists. The drug also produces significant feelings of euphoria and stimulation, and often makes people feel more empathetic or sociable.
The substance was once a very popular rave drug used by younger individuals, but it has lost some popularity due to education regarding its severe potential to produce physical dependence, long-term issues with cardiac functioning and neurological problems, and depression. The drug is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), indicating that the federal government does not consider it to have medical utility, and it cannot be possessed legally except with special permission from the federal government.
Because the drug is illegal for recreational use, there been numerous substances that have been touted as natural alternatives to ecstasy. Some of these are illicit drugs such as hallucinogenic drugs, cocaine, and others. This article will not discuss the use of any illicit drugs as being a safe alternative for the use of some other illicit substance. Instead, this article will focus on so-called “safe” alternatives to ecstasy that have been available over the counter.
MDMA use results in massive neurotransmitter release, and this leads to extreme feelings of euphoria. The methamphetamine component (the MA in MDMA) also produces a rush of energy. There been numerous attempts by private companies to release so-called “legal herbal alternatives” to ecstasy that attempt to capitalize on the stimulant effects of the drug. Various products that can be presented as herbal teas, pills or capsules, powders, or even as products that can be vaped or smoked are available in the market. They go by many different names, including but not limited to:
- Cloud 9
- X or herbal X
- Herbal ecstasy
- Bliss or herbal bliss
- Xphoria or ultimate Xphoria
- Rave energy
Many of these substances contain herbs like ginseng, guarana products, and others. Many contain ephedra, which comes from a shrub that has been used in Asia for many years as a medicinal herb and is often referred to as ma huang. Ephedra is also the natural counterpart of the drugs norephedrine, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which are used as antihistamines or stimulants. The use of the drug ephedrine was banned by the Food and Drug Administration as a dietary supplement due to severe untoward side effects, and it can be found in prescription medications. The synthetic forms are regulated under different state and federal statutes, and synthetic forms of ephedra marketed as herbs are not covered under FDA regulations.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that claims associated with the use of ephedra include increased empathy and sociability, stimulation, and aphrodisiac-like effects. Some claim that its use results in a mild euphoria that is similar to the effects of ecstasy, but in a safe and legal form. However, NIDA reports that the drug is associated with:
- Nausea, dizziness, and fainting spells that can result in dangerous situations
- Extreme sedation or fatigue and loss of appetite that can lead to weight loss
- Cardiac issues that can include high blood pressure, potential myocardial infarction (heart attack), and an increased potential for stroke
- Cognitive and neurological issues that can include the development of tremors in the extremities, an increased potential to develop seizures, or even a loss of judgment and rational thinking that can lead to impulsivity
- The development of hallucinations and/or delusions
Ginseng and Ginkgo
Ginseng and ginkgo are herbs that have been used medicinally for centuries by many different cultures. There is research on both of these herbs that suggests that they do have some potential medicinal uses, but the research is mixed, and it is best not to use high amounts of these herbs without being under the supervision of a physician.
These herbs may be added to concoctions labeled as herbal ecstasy. In small to moderate amounts, they are probably not going to produce any untoward effects in most people, although one can never rule out the potential for interactions with other medications, interactions with other substances, and even allergic or other unpredictable reactions.
Both of these herbs have a reputation for increasing energy, being useful as aphrodisiacs, increasing cognitive function, and other health benefits. They act as stimulant medications. Taken alone, they probably will not produce effects similar to MDMA.
The guarana plant has been a popular additive in numerous products, including weight loss supplements, energy drinks, and formulations that claim to be safe alternatives to ecstasy.
Sources on the Internet also report that the herb itself has properties that may make it a safe alternative to ecstasy. The major psychoactive ingredient in guarana is caffeine, and the seeds of the plant contain twice as much caffeine as coffee beans. The stimulant effects of the substance come from this high level of caffeine.
Caffeine can be dangerous to use in large quantities because it can produce issues with high blood pressure, dizziness, jitteriness, and potential allergic reactions. Caffeine can also produce a mild form of physical dependence. Mixes that contain both guarana and caffeine simply add caffeine to even more caffeine.
Some sources suggest using caffeine as an alternative to ecstasy. Caffeine does increase energy, produce mild euphoria in some individuals, and is one of the most commonly used drugs throughout the world.
There are identified risks to using very high amounts of caffeine. Chronically using caffeine in very high amounts can lead to issues with cardiovascular functioning, inability to sleep, decreased appetite, etc.; however, its use in moderation is generally deemed safe for most people.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a stimulant that naturally occurs in the central nervous system and other areas of the body. It is also found in certain foods, including chocolate. Internet sources and advertisers refer to PEA as the “love hormone” because it produces euphoria, and this feeling of wellbeing can lead to people becoming more sociable.
However, numerous sources suggest that use of this drug without being under the supervision of a physician may be unsafe because it has effects that are similar to amphetamines. Potential effects include:
- Rapid increase in heart rate
- Irritability and/or agitation, appetite loss, weight loss, and/or sleep difficulties
- Potential psychosis
- Issues with tolerance, potential withdrawal, and abuse
Just because PEA occurs naturally in humans in minute amounts and may have some beneficial effects, companies marketing the substance make the mistaken notion that more is better. The dose people take is far higher than the amount that occurs naturally in the body.
Quercetin is an antioxidant that naturally occurs in various fruits and may have positive energy-producing effects by enhancing the production of mitochondria in cells. It is often found in sports drinks and used for athletic performance enhancement, but it also has some significance stimulant properties that can lead to issues with sleep, energy loss, jitteriness, etc.
It has been used to address issues with high cholesterol, circulation problems, heart disease, and other physical ailments. It is also potentially useful in the treatment of psychological disorders. such as anxiety disorders and even schizophrenia. It is doubtful that the substance produces effects similar to ecstasy, but one can find sources on the Internet that suggest using the substance in place of ecstasy.
One of the potential concoctions that is currently very popular as a safe alternative to ecstasy is a concoctions labeled Katy, which consists of the herbal stimulant kava kava and other substances. Kava has been touted as a safe and natural treatment for anxiety; however, the World Health Organization reports that its use can increase the risk of liver damage and skin damage. WHO considers it to be unsafe due to potential effects on other organ systems as well.
Some of the other substances that are listed on the ingredients for Katy include:
- Omniracetam, which does not appear to be a valid substance
- EGCG, a substance that has been included in many different types of dietary supplements and been flagged by the Food and Drug Administration because it has not been established as safe for personal use
- Guarana extract and other substances
There are various concerns associated with these so-called safe and legal alternatives to ecstasy.
- The composition of many of these substances is not regulated; therefore, the actual ingredients listed on the labels may not really be in the product. This can result in numerous issues and complications.
- Many of these substances have identified risks and probably should not be used without being under the supervision of a physician.
- There is little information on the effects of mixing many of these substances.
- There is little information on how they use of many of these substances will interact with medications people may already taking.
- Mixing substances with alcohol may result in serious effects. Individuals who use ecstasy commonly use it in situations where alcohol use or cannabis use is common.
- Chronic use of some of these products may lead to physical dependence or the development of a substance use disorder.
- Finding safer alternatives to a dangerous illicit drug like ecstasy is not the same thing as finding safe alternatives to ecstasy. Safer alternatives are still not safe alternatives.