Gary, a London-based ayahuasca user, believes that ayahuasca can alleviate depression. Before he started taking the South American plant-based brew, he suffered from intense bouts of anxiety and panic attacks.
“[Ayahuasca] is a very potent tool that shakes your psyche up and puts it back together again [...] The first time I took it I felt like I was dying,” said Gary, who requested his surname remain anonymous. “It’s a radical means to fast-forward your self-development.”
Ayahuasca, or “spirit vine” in Native American or Quechuan languages, is a brew made out of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and DMT-containing leafs from the Psychotria viridis bush, making it illegal in the UK and many other countries. For centuries, shamans in South America have used it as a religious sacrament. It is known for its ability to alter people’s states of mind—inducing hallucinations and, sometimes, resurfacing traumatic memories.
Over the years, many have touted ayahuasca for its abilities to cure everything from anxiety and depression to PTSD.
But until Brazilian researchers published a study in the journal Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry) in March 2015, there was little clinical research to support ayahuasca’s potential to alleviate mental illnesses such as depression.
”Ayahuasca has been used therapeutically, in a broad sense, by the indigenous and mestizo populations of Northwestern Amazonia for centuries,” Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, a researcher from the study, told me in an email. “Moreover, people around the world are searching for ayahuasca rituals to improve their health.”
So far, observational studies of ayahuasca have been conducted in the field, and limited to deducing its effects on the brain using neural imaging. Guimarães dos Santos explained that his research group aimed to support the observational studies conducted on ayahuasca’s healing potential.
For their study, the researchers administered ayahuasca to six volunteers who suffered from depression, and who were not responding to conventional pharmacotherapy treatments.
“In this small group of patients, we observed fast-acting (starting in minutes/hours) and enduring (until 21 days later) antidepressant and anxiolytic [anxiety-inhibiting] effects associated with the administration of a single ayahuasca dose,” explained Guimarães dos Santos. “We were surprised to observe this rapid and possibly enduring anti-depressive response with a single dose, and that most volunteers did not experience intense psychedelic effects.”
The pilot study has been criticised for the lack of a placebo group and the limited number of volunteers. However, Brian T. Anderson, a physician and ayahuasca researcher in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, said that though the study was small, it marked an important step in scientifically exploring the plant brew’s potential as a medical treatment.
“The idea of testing a substance like ayahuasca to see if it can help with depression is something that needs to be done using objective measures, and using the standardization that comes with a biomedical study,” said Anderson.
The suggestions of ayahuasca’s therapeutic potential is exciting. However, both Anderson and Guimarães dos Santos said that it would be a long time yet before it might become generally available.
Despite the paucity in scientific research backing up the claims of ayahuasca’s curative potentials, interest around the plant-brew continues to grow.
“The motivation for people to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies is very different from the general use of other drugs. People aren’t seeking a novel experience, the whole seeking of ayahuasca is related to improving their health and life,” said Benjamin De Loenen, the executive director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service ICEERS, a non-profit dedicated to the safe use of traditional plants. “We try and have all the information available to them, so that they can make responsible decisions.”
UK government site Talk to Frank, which gives out confidential drug advice, warns people who have a history of mental health issues against the plant brew.
“DMT could have serious implications for somebody who has a history of mental health problems. It may also be responsible for triggering such a problem in someone predisposed but unaware of this,” states the website.
At present, Draulio de Araujo, a researcher from the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande, is conducting a larger, ongoing clinical study with a group of 17 people on ayahuasca’s effects on depression.
Meanwhile, some people are continuing to experiment on their own. For Gary, who has taken ayahuasca hundreds of times since 1991, safe and well-informed consumption of the plant brew and its surrounding cultural practices is key.
“I don’t think everybody should be forcibly fed ayahuasca. You’ve got to be brave enough to do it, and therefore, you’ve got to need it badly enough,” said Gary, who experienced violent vomiting, and deeply introspective sessions on ayahuasca. “I would like to see it made available all over the world, but made available in the right contexts.”
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.