Here at No Fallen Heroes we have dedicated ourselves to the reduction and eventual elimination of veteran suicide. We have been especially excited about the prospects of routine use of psychedelics to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substances abuse as these are major risk factors that make suicide more likely. Two psychedelic medicines are currently under investigation for treatment of depression and PTSD. These are psilocybin and MDMA. They have both received special designation as breakthrough therapies. This is because in early studies they have been shown to be much more effective than antidepressants and effective in just a couple of doses instead of requiring daily meds for months or years. However, there are other psychedelics like ayahuasca that may likewise be useful for treating conditions like depression and PTSD and which likewise could be helpful in reducing the incidence of suicide. What is ayahuasca and does it show any promise as a therapy?
Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic made by boiling the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The active chemicals obtained are MDT (dimethyltryptamine) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. The name is pronounced eye-ah-WAH-ska and this concoction has been used in the Northwest corner of Brazil and neighboring Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador for many centuries for therapeutic and religious purposes. When taken as a liquid the drug’s effects last about four to six hours and include euphoria, auditory and visual hallucinations, powerful emotions, introspection, and feelings of unity and connection. Possible side effects include diarrhea, moderately elevated blood pressure and heart rate, anxiety, fear, panic, and an elevation of body temperature.
How Ayahuasca is Used
Traditionally this drug is used in ceremonial settings. Those who have used this drug for centuries have found that the setting in which the drug is used is very important as are the expectations of the person using the drug. When ayahuasca is used in a quiet and relaxed environment is it likely to result in a pleasant and therapeutic experience. When used in a noisy and crowded place the end result is commonly unpleasant or very negative. Follow-up of those who have used this medicine show no long term negative effects including in folks who had an unpleasant experience due to taking it in an inappropriate setting. The medicine is not addicting as the person does not build up a tolerance like in some other drugs.
Research Involving Ayahuasca
In recent years Ayahuasca has become the subject of numerous investigations with more recent ones studying how well it can help people with depression and anxiety. Studies on Ayahuasca are not as far along as those on MDMA or psilocybin but there have been positive results in that Ayahuasca seems to help decrease depression and anxiety in these studies just as it appears to do the same in ceremonial settings. It is particularly interesting that those using this concoction over the centuries discovered what researchers have seen today in that the setting is particularly important to getting a positive result with psychedelic medicines. With both MDMA and psilocybin the patient has a therapist or coach who is familiar with treating depression, PTSD, or substance abuse and that person helps talk the person through there session after taking the psychedelic medicine.
Will Ayahuasca Be a Potential Therapy for Depression or Anxiety?
In the United States any medicine has to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before it can be used for therapeutic purposes. Drugs from cold pills to cancer therapies must first be shown to be safe in the doses to be used. Then they need to be shown to provide the intended therapeutic results. And, last of all, they need to be shown to work better than a placebo when used along with any other treatment modalities, such as psychotherapy for depression or PTSD. When a drug passes all three levels of testing, they are OK’d for general use either over the counter or as prescribed medicines. Both MDMA and psilocybin are psychedelics that are passing through FDA testing and likely to soon be available for treatment of depression and PTSD. A positive aspect of this drug that we see is that it is not a street drug in common use and has no bad reputation. Furthermore, it has a long history of use with therapeutic intent. Our hope is that it will be added to the arsenal of therapies needed to eliminate veteran suicide.