Updated: Nov 2, 2022
"That drug is sort of like the highest rollercoaster at Six Flags in that the velocity in which you are catapulted out of your body and into that psychedelic space is very, very high," explains Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D., Psy.D. of bufotenine, or 5-MeO-DMT
Last week, Christina Haack revealed that she smoked the venom from a Bufo toad as part of a spiritual journey she embarked on prior to meeting her new boyfriend, realtor Joshua Hall. The HGTV star referred to the psychedelic substance, which is illegal in the U.S., as "life-changing," and said that it "basically reset my brain and kicked out years of anxiety in 15 mins." Naturally, her Instagram followers had lots of questions about the experience — including what Bufo toad venom is and how it's used for its psychoactive effects. While Haack has been sharing insight on Instagram, she also admitted that it's a complicated topic and "can't be summed up in a post." PEOPLE spoke with psychedelics expert Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D., Psy.D, a psychotherapist at Field Trip Health — a company which "harnesses the power of legal psychedelic medicine" like ketamine in medically supervised treatment centers — to learn more. What is Bufo toad venom? Commonly known as toad venom, the secretion of the Bufo Alvarius toad — also known as the Sonoran Desert toad or the Colorado River toad — contains bufotenine and 5-MeO-DMT, two substances known for their psychedelic properties. "It is a dried toad secretion," Dr. Dow explains of the part of the toad which is used for the practice. When this dehydrated secretion is burned and the user inhales the vapors released, it can be one of the most powerful psychoactive properties on the planet. "This is probably one of the least well-studied psychedelics," Dr. Dow says. "There's a lot of research with psilocybin, or mushrooms, ketamine, LSD — there's not quite as much when it comes to these molecules. But what we do know is that they affect the serotonin receptors." According to the NIH, the practice of licking or inhaling Bufo toad venom has been around since the Middle Ages, but it regained popularity as part of the 1960s counterculture. CREDIT: GETTY RELATED: Christina Haack and New Love Interest Joshua Hall Leave L.A. for Tropical Birthday Getaway What happens when you use the substance? "Imagine any peak experience you've had in your life where time, and all your thinking, sort of goes away," Dr. Dow says. "Imagine multiplying that times a hundred and that's sort of how psychedelics and this Bufo toad experience, this 20-minute experience that [Haack] took, maybe helped her to feel better." Some psychedelics have been known to help people with anxiety and depression by turning off the "default mode network" in the brain, which Dow describes as the part of the brain that knows that you are you. "When we think of depression and anxiety, we tend to see a lot of rumination and negative self-talk. Well, all that negative self-talk is in that part of the brain, the default mode network," Dr. Dow says. "So if you can actually turn that part of the brain off, you can feel at one with all things in the universe." He continues: "So you're not thinking about things in a normal, conscious way, because the parts of the brain that are used to thinking that way to save time, or to keep you alive, have gone offline. So now other parts of the brain that are more aligned with the collective unconscious, maybe spirituality, those parts are coming forward. So it's going to feel disorienting. It's going to, for a lot of people, feel challenging. For others, it's going to feel like the best ride at Disneyland." Listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on Christina Haack smoking toad venom. Haack, in an Instagram Story, explained that the experience "felt like my ego was being ripped away from me - a much needed 'ego death.'" CREDIT: CHRISTINA HAACK/INSTAGRAM Is it safe? While Dr. Dow says Bufo toad venom is not more "physically" dangerous than other psychedelics, it is more powerful, which comes with risks. "That drug is sort of like the highest rollercoaster at Six Flags in that the velocity in which you are catapulted out of your body and into that psychedelic space is very, very high, and very, very fast, and very, very short-acting," Dr. Dow says. "If you have a rigid personality type — if you're an anxious person with a lot of neuroticism — that kind of journey can be very hard to tolerate." He explains that you should be very prepared if you ever decide to smoke Bufo toad venom, and should take a close look at your family's history of mental illness. "There's not a high risk of physical injury, but there is a high risk for people with a family history, or predisposition to things like psychosis or bipolar disorder because the velocity is so rapid." Dr. Dow says. "If you're somebody who's not prepared for that, or you already have a history... You certainly would not want to give that drug to somebody with a history of schizophrenia. It would be really, really psychosis-inducing." The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) states that 5-MeO-DMT, the main compound in Bufo toad venom, has "a high potential for abuse," and therefore calls it a high risk to public health. "There have been reports of emergency room admissions and a death associated with the abuse of 5-MeO-DMT," the DEA ruling states. 5"-MeO-DMT has never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for marketing as a human drug product in the United States and there are no recognized therapeutic uses of 5-MeO-DMT in the United States." RELATED: Christina Haack Shares First Photos of New Flame Joshua Hall from 'Romantic Dinner' on Vacation Is it popular? While Dr. Dow notes that though smoking Bufo toad venom is less common than taking other types of psychedelics, like ketamine or psilocybin (mushrooms), there are a few famous users who have shared their experiences publicly. Champion boxer Mike Tyson has admitted to using the drug and said, "I've never felt anything like that before… nothing else can supersede that," while appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. Tyson and Tony Robbins, who has also tried it, talked about their experiences on an episode of Hot Boxin' with Mike Tyson last year. Hunter Biden, the second son of U.S. President Joe Biden, also admitted to smoking toad venom in his 2021 memoir, Beautiful Things, in an attempt to help him break free of his addiction to crack cocaine. "I know it sounds loopy," he wrote of the treatment, which he said kept him sober for a year afterward. "Yet whatever else it did or didn't do, the experience unlocked feelings and hurts I'd buried deep for too long. It served as a salve." RELATED VIDEO: Christina Haack Reveals She Smoked Psychedelic Toad Venom and Says It 'Reset My Brain'
Although the legality of psychedelics is a contested topic in many states (including Haack's home state of California), 5-MeO-DMT is considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA, meaning it's illegal to manufacture, buy, possess or distribute it in the U.S. Other Schedule I controlled substances include heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Over the weekend, Haack shared a link to an article on her Instagram Story about a psychedelic decriminalization bill in California that recently passed the State Senate. It will next travel to the House and then to the desk of California Governor Gavin Newsom. If the bill passes there, certain psychedelics (including LSD, MDMA and DMT) will be decriminalized in the state. That said, neither bufotenine or 5-MeO-DMT are included in the bill, so both would still be considered Schedule I controlled substances even if the bill passes. Because bufotenine and 5-MeO-DMT are illegal, Dr. Dow notes that most Americans who want the experience of smoking Bufo toad venom "usually travel somewhere south of the border to do so." "This is probably not one that's going to be legal anytime soon," Dr. Dow says, adding that while there have been studies done on the drug, "we just frankly don't know all that much about it." He continues: "I feel like this is maybe something we're going to know a lot more about in 10 years."