Ayahuasca is a psychoactive Amazonian brew of two key plant components, the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, also known as ayahuasca, and the vision-inducing leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant, commonly known as chacruna.
The word ayahuasca has its etymological roots in the Quechua language and means, “vine of the soul.” This nomenclature is apt as ingestion of the brew often brings one into a deep state of connection with one’s self and spirit. The brew has been used for millennia as a traditional sacrament in Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Brazil, but has since experienced a global expansion where its use can be found throughout the world, outside of its indigenous origins.
Despite the worldwide spread of ayahuasca, thousands of people travel to the Amazon each year in search of profound healing experiences with the sacred medicine. Working with the medicine in its native environment provides an authentic experience that is hard to match in the Western world, especially given the legal prohibitions that currently add a layer of risk.
In the last two decades there has been a surge of scientific and lay interest in Ayahuasca. Here, I would like to briefly highlight the salient points of a recent review, entitled “The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization,” which was published in Frontiers in Pharmacology (March, 2016) and aimed to summarize what is currently known about ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is comprised of two primary ingredients: dimethyltryptamine (DMT), provided by the chacruna leaves and the beta-carboline alkaloids, harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline arising from the ayahuasca vine. DMT is the hallucinogenic component of the brew, and is abundant in the plant kingdom. Studies have also detected it in human blood, brain, cerebrospinal fluid, and in the pineal gland of rats. Though DMT is classified as a hallucinogen, its exact function has yet to be determined. The alkaloids found in the ayahuasca vine prevent (in a reversible manner) a key enzyme found in our bodies known as monoamine oxidase (MAO) from normally breaking down orally ingested DMT, thus allowing DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier and exert its psychoactive effects.
Though DMT has been studied primarily in terms of its hallucinogenic effects, DMT also plays a role in dreaming, psychosis, and near death experiences. However, DMT may play an even wider biological role. The authors of the review highlight that the latest molecular target that binds to DMT, known as the Sigma-1R receptor, may be a critical nexus point in DMT’s therapeutic effects relative to many common disease states.
The Sigma-1R receptor is essential for managing intracellular stress and can be found in various tissues such as the brain, retina, liver, lung, heart, and immune system. Sigma-1R is a special kind of protein receptor that is known as a molecular chaperone, or a protein that has the function of helping other proteins fold correctly into their three dimensional conformations, especially under stressful situations. Many diseases are associated with dysfunctional chaperones and the Sigma-1R receptor/chaperone has been linked to multiple diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, cardiomyopathy, retinal dysfunction, perinatal and traumatic brain injury, frontal motor neuron degeneration, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, HIV-related dementia, major depression, and psychostimulant addiction, to name a few.
As DMT naturally binds to the Sigma-1R receptor, the authors have suggested that DMT may also have a physiological role beyond its psychoactivity and posit that DMT may elicit cell protective effects by acting on Sigma-1R. Some of these protective effects include restoration of neurons and modulation of immunity.
The authors note that since Sigma-1R is a central component involved in regulating various causes of cellular stress and that Sigma-1R can be traced to such ailments as Alzheimer’s disease, major depression, cancer, chronic low grade inflammation, and more. The research team also report that Sigma-1R is an ideal molecular candidate for interfering with the conversion of environmental and psychological stress into cellular stress.
The authors remark: “This is the point where DMT and ayahuasca take their place in this puzzle via Sigma-1R action. It seems to us that the ingenuity of South American people discovered a broad-spectrum remedy, which hits the dead center of the discussed vicious circle of the malfunctioning molecular web involved in oxidative stress.”
Regarding ayahuasca’s effects on the brain, the authors summarize findings from various brain scanning technologies to understand the brain areas affected by ayahuasca ingestion. Findings revealed that brain areas involved in the processing of emotions showed increased activation, that closed-eye visions and inner experiences take on a sensation of reality because ayahuasca boosts the intensity of imagination to the same level as regular sense perceptions, and that certain areas of the brain enjoy increased flexibility with expanded communication that allows for the release of cognitive states related to emotions and fears.
In terms of treating addictions, ayahuasca balances neurotransmitters, such as 5-HT and dopamine and has an effect on the creation of new neuronal connections, which can lead to psychological insights and processing of repressed traumas, allowing the individual to have better decision making capabilities. Furthermore, via other neurological mechanisms, ayahuasca promotes the rewiring of the brain, creating new neuronal circuits that mediate addictive habits and promote the creation of new circuits that support new and positive behaviors. Studies in mice support this model, as ayahuasca was found to prevent behaviors associated with early development of alcohol addiction and had long-term effects in preventing the reinstatement of behavioral sensitization of alcohol.
Furthermore, in studies involving the use of ayahuasca as a treatment for addiction, researchers noted that patients reported several therapeutic effects, including increased body awareness, reduced drug cravings, the triggering of catharsis, increased inner resources for coping with emotions and urges to use, increased introspection and awareness of the adverse effects of addiction on themselves and others, and enhanced self-esteem and confidence to stay sober.
In terms of the psychological effects of ayahuasca, the authors highlight that it induces an introspective dream-like experience, filled with visions, emotional and autobiographical memories that increase mindfulness capacities and intellectual and spiritual insights. The authors state: “Various psychological blockages and denials may enter awareness and become illuminated from multiple perspectives allowing the participants to gain insight into their maladaptive behavioral, emotional and/or cognitive patterns.” Essentially, ayahuasca promotes the processing of deep thoughts and emotions tied into earlier wrongdoings, self-deceptions, and lies.
Moreover, the idea that one is being held and guided by an intelligent spirit when working with ayahuasca allows for the processing of traumatic memories in a manner that avoids retraumatization and instead often elicits a critical realization that permits access to a previously inaccessible positive aspect of the emotional pattern. In other words, a stunning insight may be revealed that then promotes positive post-traumatic growth, such as forgiveness for one’s self or for an aggressor.
In fact, victims of abuse and recovered addicts frequently mention that their ayahuasca experiences helped them to “recover long-forgotten memories of traumatic events that they were then able to work through, providing a basis for restructuring their personal life.”
Insights gleaned from ayahuasca promote self-reflection and lead to changes in self-perception that provide solutions to personal problems underlying pathological lifestyles. The authors remark: “Ayahuasca helps resolve personal conflicts by providing conscious insights into patterns of psychological functioning that underlie pathological behaviors such as substance abuse and dependence. Participants of ayahuasca rituals often report insights that enable acceptance of previously denied problems and dysfunctional patterns.”
Previous studies have concluded that ayahuasca increases several qualities such as assertiveness, joy, and liveliness. Research has also shown that adolescents who regularly consume ayahuasca show less signs of anxiety, are more optimistic, self-confident, insistent, and emotionally mature than their peers. In a 2012 meta-analysis of publications listed on PubMed, it was concluded that consumption of ayahuasca is safe and under certain circumstances even beneficial. Lastly, there have been no signs of cognitive impairment and no negative effects on general mental health due to prolonged intake of ayahuasca.
We are only beginning to understand the depth and breadth of ayahuasca’s potential as a therapeutic remedy and spiritual resource. Moving towards a model of a fully legal and sanctioned ayahuasca-assisted psychotherapy recourse will require not only further research, but will also demand creative solutions to study design (as it is not straightforward to conduct double-blind studies with ayahuasca), an integration of the spiritual aspects of the human experience, and, most importantly, an increased effort to alter the current political climate that regulates these medicines. This effort will necessitate increased public pressure on regulatory agencies and educational outreach to media, public health organizations, and policy makers. I leave you with a final quote from the paper,
“In summary, education, public policy development, and collective political action, rather than just more science, is necessary for changing opportunities for the use of ayahuasca in treatment of some of the most ravaging social diseases of our times.”
For more detailed information, much of which was omitted here due to space constraints, I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety.