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Calea Zacatechichi (Leaf of god/bitter leaf) a shrub, native from Mexico to Costa Rica. It is used by the Chontals of Oaxaca as well as other meso-american tribes. Dreams are important in mesoamerican cultures. They are believed to occur in a realm of suprasensory reality and, therefore, are capable of conveying divine messages. They take it to 'clarify the senses' and to enable one to communicate with the spirit world. After drinking a BITTER tea from the shrub's crushed dried leaves, the Chontal lies down in a quiet place meditates and smokes a cigarette made of the dried leaves. In native folk medicine calea is also used for gastrointestinal disorders, fever and nausea. Resent studies show that Calea Zacatechichi produces ' significantly more meaningful dreams'. In human healthy volunteers, low doses of the extracts administered in a double-blind design against placebo increased reaction time end time-lapse estimation. A controlled nap sleep study in the same volunteers showed that Calea extracts increased the superficial stages of sleep and the number of spontaneous awakenings. The subjective reports of dreams were significantly higher than both placebo and diazepam, indicating an increase in hypnagogic imagery occurring during superficial sleep stages.Other techniques are breathing the stream from the boiling tea and placing a little bit of the herb under your bottom lip while you sleep & dream, and putting leaves under your pillow at night.


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Calea Zacatechichi, Dream Herb
Journal of Ethnopharmacology 18 (1986) 229-243 Elsevier Scientific 
Publishers Ireland Ltd 

Lilian MAYAGOITIA. Jose-Luis DIAZ and Carlos M. CONTRERAS 

Departamenta de Psicobiologia y Cunducto, Instituto Mexicano de 
Psiquiatria, Antiguo 

Camino a Xochimilco 101, San Lorenzo Huipulco Tlalpan 14370 y 
Departamento de Fisiologia. Instituto de Investigaciones Biomedicas, Universidad Nacional 
Autonoma de Mexico, Apartado Postal 70228. Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacan 04510 
(Mexico, D.F.) 

(8 octobre 1986)


Calea zacatechichi is a plant used by the Chontal Indians of Mexico to 
obtain divinatory messages during dreaming. At human doses, organic 
extracts of the plant produce the EEG and behavioral signs of somnolence 
and induce light sleep in cats. Large doses elicit salivation, ataxia. 
retching and occasional vomiting. The effects of the plant upon cingulum 
discharge frequency were significantly different from oneirogenic 
drugs (ketamine, quipazine, phencyclidine and SKF-10017). In 
human healthy volunteers, low doses of the extracts administered in a 
double-blind design against placebo increased reaction time end time-lapse 
estimation. A controlled nap sleep study in the same volunteers showed 
that Calea extracts increased the superficial stages of sleep and the 
number of spontaneous awakenings. The subjective reports of dreams 
were significantly higher than both placebo and diazepam, indicating an 
increase in hypnagogic imagery occurring during superficial sleep stages. 


Dreams are important in mesoamerican cultures. They are believed to 
occur in a realm of suprasensory reality and, therefore, are capable of 
conveying messages (Lopez-Auatin. 1980). The use of plant preparations in 
order to produce or to enhance dreams of a divinatory nature constitutes 
an ethnopharmacological category that can be called "oneiromancy" and 
which justifies rigorous neuropharmacological research. 
There are several plants used in Indian communities of Mexico to obtain 
divinatory messages from dreams. Several puffball mushrooms 
(Lycoperdon spp.), wrongly reported as hallucinogens (Ott et al., 1975), 
are eaten fresh by Mixtec Indians before going to bed in order to dream (Diaz, 
1975. 1979). Nahuatl Indians from the Sierra de Puebla use an as yet 
unidentified species of Salvia, known by the name of Xiouit, for the same 
purpose (T. Knab, pers. commun.). The plant known as Bacana to the 
Tarahumara Indians, which has been reported to be an analgesic, 
antipsychotic and divinatory agent(Bye. 1979), was later found to be 
employed for dreaming during night sleep (William Merrill, pers. 
commun.). Finally, Calea zacatechichi Schl. (Compositae) is used in the 
same context by the Chontal Indians of Oaxaca. 
C. zacatechichi is a plant of extensive popular medicinal use in Mexico 
(Diaz. 1976). An infusion of the plant (roots. leaves and stem) is employed 
against gastrointestinal disorders, as an appetiser,cholagogue, cathartic. 
antidysentry remedy, and has also been reported to be an effective 
febrifuge. With other aromatic Compositae, dry C. zacatechichi is used as 
insecticide (Diet, 1975). There is also some information concerning 
psychotropic properties of this plant that require further clarification 
(Schultes and Hofmann, 1973). 
The pioneer study on the appetiser properties of zacatechichi, conducted 
at the Instituto Medico Nacional of Mexico, mentioned some psychotropic 
effects (Sandoval, 1882). MacDougall (1968) reported that a Chontal 
informant knew that the leaves of the plant were to be either smoked or 
drunk as an infusion to obtain divinatory messages. Subsequent 
interviews with MacDougall's informant and active participation in 
ceremonial ingestion revealed that the plant is used for divination during 
dreaming (Diaz, 1975). Whenever it is desired to know the cause of an 
illness or the location of a distant or lost person, dry leaves of the plant 
are smoked, drunk and put under the pillow before going to sleep. 
Reportedly, the answer to the question comes in a dream. A collection of 
interviews and written reports concerning the psychotropic effects of 
these; preparations on 12 volunteers has been published (Diaz. 1975, 1979). Free, 
reports and direct questioning disclosed a discrete enhancement of all 
sensorial perceptions, an increase in imagery, mild thought discontinuity, 
rapid flux of ideas and difficulties in retrieval. These effects were followed 
by somnolence and a short sleep during which lively dreams were reported 
by the majority of the volunteers. These preliminary observations 
suggested that the psychotropic effects of the plant were similar to those 
interesting from ethnobotanical. psychological and neuropharmacological 
of the "cognodysleptic" drugs, whose prototype is Cannabis saltva 
(Diaz, 1979). The possible effects upon dreaming are the most 
perspectives . 
C. zacatechichi is a shrub measuring 1-1,5 m in height. The plant has 
many branches with oviform and opposite leaves (3-5 cm long and 2-4 cm 
wide). The leaves show serrated borders, acute endings and a short petiole. 
They are rugose and pubescent. The inflorescence is small and dense 
(comprising around 12 flowers each) with the pedicels shorter than the 
heads (Martinet, 1939). The plant grows from Mexico to Costa Rica in dry 
savannas and canyons (Schultes and Hoffmann, 1973). The name of the 
species comes from Nahuatl "zacatechichi" which means "bitter grass' and 
is the common name of the plant all over Mexico. It is also known with the 
Spanish names of "zacate de perro" (dog's grass), "hoja madre" (mother's 
leaf) "hoja de dies" (Cod's leaf), and thle-pela-kano in Chontal Diaz, 1975). 
Several sesquiterpene lactones had been isolated from the plant. Calaxin 
and ciliarin were identified by Ortega et al. (1970), and the 
germacranolides, 1B-acetoxy zacatechinolide and l-oxo zacatechinolide, by 
Bohlmann and Zdero (1977). Quijano at al. (1977. 1978) identified 
caleocromenes A and B and caleins A and B. while Ramos (1979) found 
caleicins I and II. Herz and Kumar (1980) isolated acacetin, o-methyl 
acacetin, zexbrevin and an analogue, as well as several analogues of 
budlein A and neurolenin B, including calein A. C. zacatechichi samples 
show differences in chemical composition, which has led Bohlmann et al. 
(1981) to suggest that chemical taxonomy may help to reclassify the 
genus. Further taxonomic work is required since our Chontal informant 
distinguishes between "good" and "bad" varieties according to their 
psychotropic properties. 

In the present paper we report some properties of zacatechichi extracts 
upon cat behaviour and EEG, human reaction time, nap EEG, and 
subjective experiences. 

Materials and methods 

Plant collection and extract preparations: 
"Good" samples of C. zacatechichi were collected under the guidance of 
the Chontal informant near Tehuantepec, Oaxaca during November, 1978. 
Specimens of this collection were identified by Dr. Miguel Angel Martinet 
Alfaro at the National Herbarium of Mexico as C. zacatechichi despite the 
Fact that there were minor morphological differences relative to previously 
collected material. The samples were identical with collections made in the 
area of the isthmus of Tehuantepec. 
One kilogram of the dried plant (stem and leaves) was mashed and 
extracted with hexane until exhaustion in a Soxhlet apparatus. This 
fraction was dried and 308 of an solvent-free hexane extract were 
obtained. The remaining material was thoroughly extracted with methanol 
and the organic fraction evaporated. This procedure resulted in 86 g of a 
solvent-free gummy residue called the methanol extract. Both extracts 
were separated in fractions and packed in gelatin capsules for 
pharmacological experiments. The dose was estimated in the following 
manner: the human dose for divinatory purposes reported by the Chontal 
informant is "a handful" of the dried plant. Since the mean weight of 
many handfuls taken by several people was 60 g. we decided that the 
average human dose (HD-1) is around 1 g/kg of dried-mashed material. 
Therefore, the HD-1 for the hexane extract was 30 mg/kg, and 86 mg/kg for 
the methanol extract. In the experiments with cats. doses of HD-2. -4. -6 
and -10 of both extracts were used. The EEG effects of C. zacatechichi 
extracts were compared with those elicited by phencyclidine (Bio-ceutic 
Laboratories), quipazine (Miles Research Products),ketamine (Parke 
Davis) and SKF-10047 (Smith Kline B French), and industrial solvent 
toluene which can produce the appearance of 6 cps spike and wave 
activity in the cingulum of cats. During the appearance of this 
electrographic activity,animals show oneiromimetic behaviour (Conteras 
et al.. 1979, 1984). 

Behavioral toxicology in cats 

This first experiment was performed in order to assess the possible toxic 
behavioral effects of C. zacatechichi extracts. For this purpose three male 
cats (3 kg each) were used. Observations were done from 1300 to 1500 h in 
a sound-attenuated recording chamber (109 x 76 x 74 cm) with a triple-glass 
wall. Each animal was placed in the cage and its behavior was recorded for 
1 h prior to oral administration of a gelatin capsule (25 x 8 mm) 
containing a zacatechichi extract and 2 h thereafter. Each capsule was placed inside 
the mouth and swallowing was forced by giving 2-3 ml of saline solution. 
The extracts (methanol or hexane) and doses (HD-1, HD-2. HD-4. HD-10) 
were randomly assigned and tested only once. Two cats were observed 
three times and the third animal twice. Between tests each animal was 
allowed to rest for 6 days. Sampling ad libitum (Altmann. 1974) was used 
to evaluate the cats' response. Attention was given to abnormal behaviors 
such as ataxia, bizarre postures and movements directed to non-existing 
objects (Fischer. 1969). 

EEG activity in cats 

Several common EEG effects to a series of oneiromimetic compounds 
have been reported by Winters et al. (1972). A dissociative action in 
multi-unitary activity between the reticular formation and basolateral 
amygdala and a hypersynchronic rhythm (2-3 cpa) in cortical recording are 
the two most characteristic features. Tracheal administration of 
neurotoxic industrial solvents produce limbic discharges while cats display 
"hallucinatory behavior" (Contreras et al., 1979). The following experiment 
was designed to ascertain whether C. zacatechichi extracts share these 
neurophysiological actions. 
Six adult male cats were stereotaxically implanted with stainless steel 
concentric bipolar electrodes in the basolateral amygdala, the septum and 
cingulum according to the atlas of Snider and Niemer (1961). Epidural 
electrodes were placed on the cortex at the marginal circumvolution. After 
surgery the animals were allowed a & 1 week recovery period. Each cat was 
used as its own control and the effects of oral administration of 
zacatechichi extracts (HD-6) were compared to those of phencyclidine 
(400 ug/kg i.m.), quipazine (10 mg/kg i.p.), ketamine (6 mg/kg i.m.) and 
SKF-10047 (3 mg/kg i.m.). These drugs are dissociative psychodysleptics 
and produce 6 cps wave-and-spike activity in cingulum recording in 
addition to the characteristic hypersynchronic rhythm (Contreras at al., 
1984). In each experiment, control recordings were taken in addition to 
t 60 min and + 120 min after drug administration. 

Reaction Time and Time-lapse estimation in humans 

Measurement of reaction time to a light flash and the ability to calculate 
fixed lapse times in humans allows the identification of hypnotic 
compounds (Fernandez-Guardiola et al., 1972). Objective evaluations of 
time perception modification by marihuana have been achieved with the 
same technique (Fernandez-Cuardiola et al., 1974). From the experiments 
performed in cats it appeared that zacatechichi had hypnotic properties. 
Therefore, we chose this experimental paradigm to evaluate human effects. 
The study was performed in 5 healthy volunteers (3 women and 2 men. 
ages 23-34) according to the procedure described by Fernandez-Guardiola 
et al. (1972, 1974). The subjects were informed about the experiment and 
the known effects of the plant and a written consent was obtained. 
Capsules containing either a Calea extract (HD-1) or placebo were 
administered 1 H before the task in a double-blind randomised design, 
where neither the volunteers nor the evaluator knew which substance had 
been ingested. The first session did not involve the administration of any 
substance in order to habituate the subjects to the experimental 
manipulations. Physiological responses recorded included EEG, 
electromyogram, electrocardiogram, and galvanic akin response. All 
sessions were done at the same time period (1700-1820 h). A complete 
session consisted of alternated 10-min periods for reaction-time evaluation 
and 10-min periods for time-lapse estimation. In the reaction-time periods. 
the subjects were instructed to press a button with their dominant hand as 
soon as possible after a light wee dashed. Intervals between consecutive 
Bashes were of 10-s duration. In the following 10 min, alternating with the 
reaction-time periods, the subjects were asked to estimate the dash 
intervals by pressing the button each time they thought the light should 
have been dashed. The entire test lasted 80 min. Analysis of variance was 
used to assess results between and within individuals, the protected "t" 
and Least Significant Difference tests were used in paired comparisons. 

Sleep recordings in humans 

The conventional procedure for EEG recording of sleep (Rechtschaffen 
and hales. 1968) was used in a similar double-blind randomized design 
which, in this case, included a low dose of an active hypnotic drug 
(diazepam, 25 mg orally). In order to standardize the nap session, all 
volunteers were asked to reduce their normal sleep time by 2 h the night 
before testing. The extract, diazepam or placebo capsule was ingested 1 H 
prior to the recording session (17-19 h). The physiological variables 
recorded included respiratory and heart rates, number of nap episodes. 
total time spent in wakefulness (W). in slow wave sleep stages (SWS stages 
I to IV) and in rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM) (Rechtschaffen and Kales, 
1968). The respiratory rate was recorded by means of a thermistor located 
in the nostril and connected to a polygraph amplifier measuring the air 
temperature in each inhalation-exhalation cycle. This is an indirect method 
which provides the frequency and amplitude of respiratory rate. Data 
analyses were done by means of factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA). 
For paired comparisons, the Student Newman-Keuls test was used. 

Dream reports 

The psychological effects of Calea extracts were evaluated by the 
application of directed questionnaires and analysis of free reports of the 
subjective sensations and dreams in all human volunteers after the 
reaction-time, nap sessions and the following night. Neither the subjects. 
the interviewer nor the evaluator knew whether the individual had taken a 
plant extract, diazepam, or placebo. The results were compared by the 
binomial test. 

Results and discussion 

Behavioral toxicology in cats 

Some minor behavioral changes were observed with low doses of both 
extracts (HD-1 and HD-2). The cats stared for long periods of time and 
30 min after the administration of the zacatechichi extracts somnolence 
and sleep were frequently observed. The HD-4 and HD-1O doses of the 
hexane extract produced ataxia, bilateral contractions of nasal and 
maxillar muscles, and stereotyped pendulum head movements. The HD-10 
dose also induced salivation with vomiting occurring about 90 min after 
administration. The methanol extract produced ataxia (HD-4) and 
compulsive grooming (HD-2). A common toxic effect of both extracts 
(doses HD4 and HD-10) was retching and thick salivation. 
It was not clear if these effects were elicited by direct central nervous 
system stimulation or in response to local gastric irritation caused by 
some bitter principle of the plant. This activity was noted by Giral and 
Ladabaum (1959) and may be responsible for the appetiser properties of C. 
zacatechichi. Stare and pendular head movements can be elicited by several 
psychotropic drugs such as toluene (Alcaraz et al., 1977; Contreras et al., 
1977), quipazine (Sales et al.. 1966, 1968) and dopamine agonists (Ernst. 
1967). These effects are,therefore, not specific for any one of the several 
classes of psychotropic compounds. Moreover, staring and pendular head 
movements may merely be indications of somnolence. In order to analyse 
more precisely the neural effects, electrophysiological recordings were 
taken in free-moving cats. 

EEG activity in cats 

Both plant extracts produced similar EEG changes which were very 
different from the other drugs used(Fig. 1). The hexane extract induced 3 
cps large voltage rhythms in the cortex, cingulum and septum while the 
methanol extract provoked 8 slowing of the EEG rhythm more 
predominant in subcortical structures. Somnolence was observed during
the appearance of these changes. A quantitative analysis of frequency of 
discharge in the cingulum was performed for all drugs tested (Fig. 2). The 
hexane extract produced only minor changes while the methanol extract 
clearly decreased the frequency. This response is in contrast to the known 
psychodysleptic compounds which produce decreases of 6-7 cps (Contreras:- 
et al.. 1984). 

The results of these experiments show that zacatechichi does not share 
the neurophysiological effects of the dissociative psychodysleptics and 
only induces the behavioral and EEG signs of somnolence and sleep. The 
apparent low toxicity of the plant in these experiments and its history of 
ethnobotanical use allowed us to ascertain the hypnotic potency, dream- 
inducing effects and other psychotropic properties in human beings. 

Reaction time and time-lapse estimation in humans 

No differences among the three treatments were found for human 
rate, galvanic skin response and EEG recordings. With the methanol extract, short periods of sleep (stage I) usually appeared between flash intervals, and the subjects were awakened by the light. Both extracts 
produced a statistically significant slowness of reaction-time (Fig. 3): 
250 ms with placebo, 280 ms with hexane extract and 290 ms with 
methanol extract (P < 0.01). Similarly, the IO-s lapse was overestimated 
with the zacatechichi extracts (Fig. 4). The methanol extract increased 
estimation by 3 s on average (P < 0.001). Both extracts increased 
respiratory rate, but this change was not significantly different from 

The characteristic EEG slowness and the increased reaction times of 
subjects treated with both extracts suggested that zacatechichi may 
contain hypnotic compounds. Moreover, a larger effect was elicited by the 
methanol extract suggesting that the active compounds might be found in 
the polar fractions. An increase in time-lapse estimation and a weak 
respiratory analeptic effects have been reported after marihuana 
administration (Fernandez-Guardiola et al., 1974). 

Sleep recordings in humans 

Since the experiment just discussed did not allow an analysis of sleep 
stages, the possibility of sleep and dream modifications by zacatechichi 
was tested in a nap study conducted in the same human volunteers. 
Heart rate, total time and frequency of each stage of sleep did not 
change with any treatment in comparison to placebo (Fig. 5). However. it 
was found that the frequency of W and SWS-IV stages were significantly 
modified by treatments (W F(3,32)= 5.28, P < 0.01; SWS-IV F(3,32) = 3.35. 

P<0.05). Post-hoc paired comparisons showed that, upon onset of sleep, 
the methanol extract and diazepam increased significantly the frequency of 
W stages (P < 0.05) when compared to placebo. In contrast, methanol 
extract and diazepam decreased significantly (P < 0.05) the number of 
SWS-IV stages. The other stages of sleep were not significantly modified 
by treatments. SWS-I and SWS-II showed a light increase in comparison 
to placebo and, in contrast, SWS-III and REM stages decreased slightly. 
Respiratory rate was significantly modified by treatments (F(3,400)= 
79.92, P < 0.005). Paired comparisons showed that the methanol extract 
increased (P < 0.05) when compared to all other treatments (Fig. 6). 
Although this small increase may lack physiological relevance, it does 
suggest a pharmacological effect upon respiratory rate. 

These results support the idea that zacatechichi extracts, particularly 
the methanol fraction, contain compounds with activity equivalent to sub- 
hypnotic diazepam doses. Ingestion of the plant produces a light hypnotic 
state with a decrease of both deep slow-wave sleep and REM periods. The 
question of the ethnobotanical use and open trial reports of dream 
enhancement was studied in the following section by the evaluation of 
subjective reports during the sleep study. 

Dream reports 

The quantitative results concerning hypnagogic imagery and dreams are 
summarizsd in Table 1. Data from the reaction-time and the nap sessions 
end the following night were pooled. Significantly more dreams (P < 001, 
in comparison to placebo) were reported after the methanol extract. 
Similarly, the number of dreams reported during naps was significantly 
higher following the administration of the plant extracts than with 
diazepam (P < 0.01). It can be appreciated that, although not significant, 
the number of dreams reported was greater after the ingestion of Calea 
extracts than placebo. A more detailed analysis of dream content is shown 
in Table 2. The number of subjects that did not remember dreaming was 
always greater after placebo and diazepam administration and, conversely, 
the individuals that reported more than one dream per session were always 
the ones treated with zacatechichi extracts. The dreams reported by 
subjects ingesting Calea extracts, were of a shorter content (measured by 
the number of lines written in the report). Spontaneous reports of 
emotions and nightmares were not different among the four treatments. 

Nevertheless, with the methanol extract more colors during dreaming were 
mentioned . 

These results show that zacatechichi administration appears to enhance 
the number and/or recollection of dreams during sleeping periods. The data 
are in agreement with the oneirogenic reputation of the plant among the 
Chontal Indians but stand in apparent contradiction to the EEG sleep- 
study results. It is well known that dreaming activity is correlated to the 
REM or paradoxical phase of sleep (Aserinsky and Kleitman, 1953) and it 
could be expected that a compound that increases dream would also 

increase REM stage frequency or duration, as it has been shown to occur 
with physostigmine (Sitaram et al., 1978). In contrast, zacatechichi 
increases the stages of slow wave sleep and apparently decreases REM 
sleep. This also occurs with low doses 12-10 mg) of diazepam (Harvey, 
1982). Despite this similarity in EEG effects, diazepam decreases dreaming 
reports (Firth, 1974) while zacatechichi extracts enhances them. Such 
discrepancy may be explained by the fact that dreaming and imagery are 
not restricted to the REM episodes but also occur during slow wave sleep 
(SWS I and II) as lively hypnagogic images (Roffwarg et al., 1962). Such 
images are reported as brief dreams and are known to be enhanced by 
cannabis sativa (Hollister, 1971). All this suggests that Calea zacatechichi 
induces episodes of lively hypnagogic imagery during slow wave stage I of sleep, 
a psychophysiological effect that would be the basis of the ethnobotanical 
use of the plant as an oneirogenic and oneiromantic agent. 


The authors wish to express their gratitude to Dr. Alfredo Ortega for 
advice in the preparation of the plant extracts. 

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