Psychedelics vs. Plant Medicines: Definitions and Differences

Medically reviewed by 
Chelsea Tersavich, PA-C
Published on 
August 8, 2022
Updated on 

As psychedelic medicine continues to gain public awareness, more light is shed on an adjacent topic relating to psychedelics —”plant medicines.”

Alongside the rise of psychedelic medicine services, there’s an equal rise in plant medicine advocates, retreats, facilitators, coaches, and more.

What exactly is meant by plant medicines in relation to psychedelics? Are they merely synonyms saying the same thing? Are there important differences between the terms? 

This resource explores the key definitions and differences between the emerging fields of psychedelics and plant medicines.

Defining psychedelics

There are likely as many definitions for psychedelics as there are varieties of experiences you can have when working with them. Nearly everyone will have a different definition of what “psychedelic” means. 

It’s important to know that everyone is referencing the same compounds or experiences when having a discussion about psychedelics.

There are a few ways to begin defining psychedelics, including psychedelic experiences and psychedelic medicine. Three frameworks help define what a psychedelic is: the phenomenological, the neurobiological, and what is meant by “psychedelic medicine.”

The phenomenological definition

Phenomenology is the study of subjective experience, e.g. what it’s like to be you, and what your experience of psychedelics is like. 

This is focused on the experience that the compound creates, rather than the specific pharmacology of the molecule, for example.

Simply put, a psychedelic is an exogenous (outside of you) compound that reliably induces a psychedelic experience. 

It’s something that you take that provides an altered state of consciousness, and overlaps with many of the classic characteristics of a psychedelic experience

Several of the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience include:

  • Ineffability: A feeling that you cannot adequately put the experience into words.
  • Distorted Sense of Time/Space/Self: An alternative to how you experience the progression of time, the boundaries of space, or the boundaries of what you refer to as “yourself”
  • Noetic Quality: A distinct feeling that you are accessing something “more true” than waking reality
  • Novel Insights/Perspectives: Psychedelic compounds reliably bring about experiences, insights, or perspectives that were “previously inaccessible” in regular waking states

There is also considerable overlap between the psychedelic experience and a “mystical experience” —a direct experience or embodied feeling of being connected to something far greater than yourself.

Given these definitions, according to the phenomenological definition of psychedelics, a psychedelic is a compound that reliably brings about several of the sensations or experiences mentioned above.

The neurobiological definition

Some individuals may also choose to define a psychedelic based on the neurobiological effects it has on the brain or body. This may not be as powerful of a definition, but it is a framing you can use nonetheless. 

Some neurobiological definitions of psychedelics include:

  • It has a mechanism of action in the serotonin system or acts as a 5HT2A receptor agonist. This applies to the “classical” psychedelics LSD, psilocybin, and DMT.
  • It lowers activity in the default-mode network (DMN), the network responsible for your sense of self in time or space.
  • It facilitates increased and novel connections in the brain. Psychedelics often allow disparate networks in the brain to connect and share information that is not normally done in waking reality, providing novel experiences or new connections/insights.

When defining psychedelics based on neurobiology, these three classifications are usually the benchmarks that are referred to.

The psychedelic medicine definition

It is possible to use psychedelics, or have psychedelic experiences that are not strictly medicinal or clinical in nature. As a result, the term “psychedelic medicine” has been increasing in recognition and popularity over the past few years.

Psychedelic medicines are compounds that have psychoactive properties that affect one’s conscious experience, and are shown by clinical research and trials to be effective in treating a physical or mental health condition.

Currently, there are three standout psychedelic medicines: ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin. 

These compounds have the backing of regulatory agencies for research purposes, are available for prescription by licensed clinicians or as part of a clinical study, and have a broad history of scientific research supporting their use in healing and medical contexts. Several other compounds are moving through various stages of clinical trials to take their place as recognized psychedelic medicines.

This is just to highlight that some psychedelic compounds, and some varieties of psychedelic experiences, are not explicitly medicinal. There is a worthwhile distinction drawn between psychedelics and psychedelic medicines, though there is some overlap with specific compounds. Ketamine is both psychedelic and a psychedelic medicine, for example.

What are plant medicines?

There are a few ways to approach the definition of plant medicines. The most straightforward of which is simply looking at two words that make up this term.

By “plants,” most individuals are referring to an organic, unadulterated substance that is naturally occurring. And “medicine” refers to possessing medicinal qualities that help individuals heal from illnesses and ailments, whether physical or psychological in nature. 

Common examples of plant medicines include mushrooms, ayahuasca, and 5-MEO-DMT from the Bufo Alvarius toad. All of these substances are made with natural plant or animal ingredients, are not synthesized in a lab, and are taken in their raw, unaltered form.

It’s important to note that plant medicines don’t need to be psychoactive or psychedelic in nature. Tea is arguably the most ancient plant medicine, with its use in healing illnesses spanning back thousands of years.

However, in the context of psychedelics and plant medicines, people often point to natural compounds that also exhibit psychedelic properties. 

An opposite to plant medicine would be something like LSD, which requires complex synthesis in a lab to create, and cannot be harvested or found in nature.

Key differences between psychedelics and plant medicines

There are a few core differences between psychedelics and plant medicines. 

Please note that none of these differences are value judgements, or claims regarding which are better or worse than the other. 

There are distinct differences, and people will have different preferences for the experiences, compounds, and medicines that they wish to work with.

The psychedelic experience

The first key difference between psychedelics and plant medicines is that by definition, psychedelics need to reliably induce a psychedelic experience, as we have covered earlier.

While several plant medicines reliably induce a psychedelic experience, this is not a requirement for them. Plant medicines such as tea, certain varieties of medicinal mushrooms, or certain spices have no psychoactive or psychedelic properties, yet easily fit the definition of plant medicine.

To put it differently: All psychedelic compounds include a psychedelic experience, while only some plant medicines include a psychedelic experience.

The presence of organic compounds

Another distinction between these two terms is largely based on whether the compounds are naturally occurring, organic compounds.

It is not possible for someone to go on a walk in the forest and come across naturally occurring MDMA, regardless of how hard they look. 

However, it is possible for someone to walk in a forest and come across a patch of naturally growing psychedelic mushrooms. 

This is the most prominent distinction between psychedelics and plant medicines, and largely what people mean when they are pointing to differences between these two classes of compounds. 

This is not an argument on whether or not organic compounds are superior or inferior to synthesized medication, but this is the core classification difference and likely origin of the different terms. 

Some individuals feel it is very important to note the difference or prefer only to work with one variety of compound over the other.

Overlap between psychedelics and plant medicines

As we pointed out earlier, it’s important to recognize that there can be significant overlap between these two classes of compounds.

For example, psilocybin-containing mushrooms are classical psychedelics and naturally-occurring plant medicines. 

Ayahuasca, 5-MEO-DMT from Bufo Alvarius, Yopo, and several other indigenous medicines native to Central and South America easily fit the definition of a psychedelic compound and plant medicine.

Key Takeaways

There are two core points to take from this article if you explore the differences between plant medicines and psychedelics.

Some, but not all, plant medicines are psychedelic. But by definition, all psychedelics are psychedelic in nature.

Secondly, the difference between a plant-medicine psychedelic and a non-plant-based psychedelic is whether or not the compound occurs organically in nature, without the need for modification or synthesis. 

Neither one of these classes is better or worse than the other. As the richness of conversation and interest in psychedelic medicine increases, the vocabulary and definitions used continue to increase.

The distinction between plant medicines and psychedelic compounds has emerged from this growing interest. We will likely see more distinctions emerge over time as the use and recognition of these experiences are normalized into mainstream culture.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

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