If you have heard of ayahuasca retreats you may be thinking this is another plaything of the rich and famous. Head off to an exotic location. Experience a quaint ceremony. Go through a psychedelic “trip” that you can tell your friends about. That realm of experience does exist but that is not what ayahuasca is all about. So, is ayahuasca a medicine? Is it anything useful. Is it dangerous and maybe a waste of money to head down to the Amazon River basin for the “experience”?
What Is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a brewed drink with hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties. It is made from natural plants that grow in the northwestern corner of the Amazon River basin. The usual ingredients come from the Psychotria viridis shrub, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, a Brugmansia or Datura species, and Nicotiana rustica (mapacho). This concoction has been used for centuries in the parts of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador that are in the Amazon River basin.
How Is Ayahuasca Traditionally Used?
Brewing up ayahuasca takes time and skill. It is not something where you can buy a pill (legally or not) and take it. Throughout the northwest Amazon River basin where it originated, this mix of psychedelics and hallucinogens has been used in ceremonies. This immediately reminds us of how the psychedelic medicines MDMA and psilocybin are used in controlled setting with a coach or psychotherapist in the successful treatment of PTSD, depression, and substance abuse disorders. Rather than a trained therapist or coach, the person in charge of an ayahuasca ceremony is someone experienced in doing this and guiding users through the experience that typically lasts at least five hours during nighttime rituals.
Does Ayahuasca Have Medicinal Benefits?
Ayahuasca is the subject of controlled research into its biochemical properties, effects on the brain, and efficacy as a treatment. At this point in time research has indicated that ayahuasca can stimulate nerve cell growth and protect living brain cells. It has been found to improve mindfulness and boost moods. As to its use as a medicine, early research results show improvement of addictive disorders as well as depression.
Adverse Effects of Ayahuasca
As with all drugs, the effects of ayahuasca are stronger at higher doses and milder with lower doses. Unwanted side effects of this concoction include diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea which in ceremonial settings are written off as “cleansing” experiences. While euphoria coupled with powerful auditory and visual hallucinations are part of the experience and so can overpowering fear and paranoia. At retreats the drug is taken on consecutive nights and the different results each time are common. One night a person may have a calm and enlightening experience and the next anxiety bordering on outright panic.
Will Ayahuasca Become a Useful Treatment Like Psilocybin and MDMA?
There are some practical issues to consider for ayahuasca to be OK’d by the FDA for treatment in the USA. First of all, it has to be produced as a standardized medication with a known and reliable set of constituents. In all likelihood, each individual constituent needs to be investigated for safety and efficacy. Along the way ayahuasca needs to be shown to be safe in humans when used at the appropriate dose. Then it needs to be shown to be more effective (in each of its ingredients) than placebo. A reliable process for creating the medicine needs to be devised so that each treatment does not have to start with going to the Amazon Rain Forest in the morning to cut vines and start the brewing process.
All of that having been said, psychedelic medicines are changing the face of psychiatry. These medicines help rewire the brain making them effective with occasional use as opposed to standard treatments like antidepressant pills that must be taken daily for months and even years with doing anything but modifying symptoms but not changing the root causes of psychological ailments. As such we expect to see further research with ayahuasca and other psychedelics to better understand just what they do in the brain, what conditions they can treat, and what precise treatment modalities will be necessary to provide the best results. Some clarity will be provided when MDMA is approved, probably next year, for standard clinical use.