Does Ayahuasca help depression and addiction

Does Ayahuasca help depression and addiction

A recent New Yorker article described ayahuasca as “the drug of preference for the age where kale is king”.

The article that portrayed ayahuasca in a mocking and mysterious tone, despite its growing medicinal and therapeutic potential – including antidepressant and anti-anxiety elements – is a testament to the increasing interest among Western scientists and wealthy urbanites.

Does science back up the hype? As a member of a small group of Brazilian scientists conducting the first-ever clinical trials in the world on ayahuasca for treatment-resistant major depression disorder, I can say that maybe, but too early to tell.

Sacred plants, sacred medicines

It is important to understand the history of ayahuasca as a medicine and a sacred plant.

Ayahuasca can also be used as a therapeutic tool by rural and poor populations, such as those of Amazonian nations like Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. These people have limited access and training to doctors and hospitals but are well-versed in the use of ayahuasca.

Two jungle plants are used to prepare ayahuasca. Rafael Guimaraes dos Santos, Author provided

Spirituality is medical

Ayahuasca’s effects begin 30-40 minutes after intake. The peak occurs one to two hours afterward. The majority of people report a pleasant (but not always easy) experience. This may include deep introspection and the revival of autobiographical memories that were seemingly forgotten, as well as a mood boost. The trip takes four to six hours.

A small number of studies have suggested that these psychoactive effects may have a therapeutic function for humans.

Ayahuasca can be made by combining the leaves from Psychotria visridis and Diplopterys cambrerana, which contain the hallucinogen DMT, with the jungle vine Baisteriopsis cali. This vine is rich in beta-carbolines, including harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline.

Animal studiesCase reports, and Observational Studies suggest that ayahuasca, its alkaloids, may have antidepressant and antiaddictive effects.

Observational research has also shown that members of Brazilian Ayahuasca religions who have been practicing for a long time have recovered after suffering from depression, anxiety and drug addiction (especially cocaine and alcohol).

Recently, preliminary open label studies or non placebo controlled trials on patients with treatment resistant major depression disorder have shown promising results.

The studies led by Jaime Hallak, from the University of Sao Paolo Medical School in Ribeirao Preto, where I work, as well as Draulio De Araujo from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal showed that an ayahuasca dosage was associated with significant, rapid-acting and lasting antidepressant, anti-anxiety effects.

The positive effects began within the first few hours of ayahuasca consumption and remained for 21 days.

From the jungle to the cities

In the Brazilian state Acre, small religious groups began to appear in the early 20th Century, when the rubber industry was being explored. They centered their rituals around ayahuasca, which they regarded as a sacred sacrament. These groups combined Catholic beliefs with Amazonian Shamanism, European Esoteric Philosophy, and Afro Brazilian tradition.

These religions groups began expanding from the North to other Brazilian Capitals in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Early 1990s saw the Uniao do Vegetal, and Santo Daime create groups in Europe as well as the US. They are now among the most important forces working to expand the use of ayahuasca beyond the Amazon.

Healers known as vegetalistas and maestros (those who are knowledgeable) have begun to perform rituals in large cities such as Bogota, New York, and other urban centers. These places are populated by wealthy whites who seek healing for anxiety, mood disorders, and drug addiction.

As more Westerners visit South American countries to heal with ayahuasca and as more healers travel to Europe and the US to perform their rituals, the belief in ayahuasca’s powerful therapeutic potential is spreading worldwide.

Ayahuasca is in the making. Rafael Guimaraes dos Santos, Author provided

In the New Yorker article cited above, an American researcher was quoted as saying, “on any given evening in Manhattan, there’s a hundred Ayahuasca circles going on.”

The recent International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service conference in Acre, organized by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service, brought together more than 700 participants, including dozens of indigenous participants.

Many other international news outlets, such as the New York TimesVice, and Nature, have covered the ayahuasca in the last year. They tend to portray ayahuasca as a “cure” or potential cure for depression and addiction.

It’s too early to tell.

Ignoring the media hype and medical promises, it is important to highlight some of the limitations in the few studies that have sparked this enthusiasm for Ayahuasca.

The results are unsound because of the small sample size (17 individuals) and the non-controlled design (no placebo). In fact, the placebo effect is very important when it comes to antidepressant trials.

It is, therefore not possible to say that ayahuasca “cure’ depression or that it can cause the effects observed.

Now, my Brazilian colleagues and supervisors are trying to replicate the observations in the laboratory using improved methods. A larger study is underway to assess the antidepressant properties of ayahuasca in 80 patients using a placebo-controlled, double-blind design. We at the Ribeirao Preto Medical School have been working on a project to study the effects of ayahuasca on socially anxious people.

Ayahuasca is a popular drink among hipsters and scientists alike. Its psychoactive power may have therapeutic potential by helping us to find the sacred in us.

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