Ayahuasca:

an Ancient Antidepressant

Patrick Smith

March 2017

Although the psychedelic brew ayahuasca is genuinely ancient, having been used by South American shamans for millennia, it’s witnessing a modern revival. Everyone from PTSD sufferers to entrepreneurs seem to be interested in its potentially therapeutic and healing effects. As lifestyle coach Tim Ferriss says on his podcast, there’s barely a party in California without an ayahuasca enthusiast telling the story of their journey into psychedelic self-improvement.

The ayahuasca experience lasts several hours, and isn’t a ride in the park. It starts with a ‘purge’, consisting of vomiting and sometimes diarrhea, and it doesn’t get much better from there. Users will find themselves in a gap between realities, often re-experiencing childhood traumas and personal vices in a vibrant and intense kaleidoscope of meaning and emotion. It’s been described as being like hundreds of therapy sessions condensed into several hours. There are endless anecdotes of sufferers of various mental health conditions finding relief in ayahuasca therapy, where they have found none in contemporary psychiatric treatment – we include some of the best anecdotes at the end of this article.

The scientific literature surrounding ayahuasca is scattered but encouraging. Various observational studies suggest that ayahuasca is not only safe (when used responsibly), but also that users are less likely to be addicted to substances or to suffer from depression. Last year, a study reported reduced depression scores in six patients who took a single dose of ayahuasca – although there was no control group, and patients knew they were taking the drug.

Last month, a Brazilian group produced the first sturdy clinical evidence of the effectiveness of a single dose of ayahuasca in the treatment of depression, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

The study recruited 35 people who had been suffering from depression without responding to typical treatments. Half of them were given a single dose of ayahuasca, and half a placebo. Their depression scores were rated on two separate scales at three timepoints: immediately before and after the treatment, and one week later.

Ayahuasca had an immediate and significant effect on the participants’ depression scores compared to placebo. One week after the treatment, the ayahuasca treatment group had an average depression score in the ‘mild’ range, reduced from the ‘severe’ category they began with. The placebo group did not improve their depression scores after a week.

These results are welcome news for ayahuasca enthusiasts, who until now had to rely mainly on anecdotal reports to promote the healing effects of ayahuasca. Not only is this study the first double-blind trial of ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects, but it’s also the first with an entirely separate placebo group. This is something that many studies of psychedelics usually can’t achieve thanks to the prohibitive nature of researching psychedelics – most studies have to opt for a ‘crossover’ design where each patient is given the drug and placebo on separate occasions. Crossover designs aren’t ideal, as patients are often aware when they’re given an active drug compared to a placebo, especially with a powerful psychedelic.

This study could make use of a separate placebo group because it was carried out in Brazil – a country where ayahuasca is legal. This means the researchers had fewer obstacles in their path, in financial and regulatory terms, and could afford to recruit more patients and administer more doses of the drug.

In the UK, for example, recent studies on the psychedelic psilocybin are enormously expensive, costing thousands of pounds for each dose of the class A drug. Scientists could be achieving so much more if they were free of these restrictions and costs.

This highlights the ‘pathological paradigm’ of illegal drugs – whereby illegal substances are deemed to have no medical benefit simply because they cannot be studied due to their legal status. This ayahuasca study from Brazil shows us the extra scientific potential we can gain from legalising psychedelic substances.

The surge of ayahuasca’s popularity is being followed by a growing body of scientific evidence. We’re seeing people flock by the hundreds to South America to heal themselves with the help of a cocktail of sacred plants. Two religious groups in the US have been granted the right to use ayahuasca in their healing ceremonies. People are even starting to order their own ingredients online to brew their own healing medicines at home – dubbed ‘pharmahuasca’.

This introduction of ancient medicines into our pharmaceutical culture may be unstoppable, but it won’t be a smooth ride. Drug policy will certainly be the last one to join the party – and what a party it’ll be…

Accounts of the Ayahuasca Experience:

“I threw up into the bucket, and the air seemed to be filled with golden strands of light, like a cobweb trying to entice me in. I threw up again, red fractals into the bucket. […] I was just myself, my pure self like a little core of light I gave up, I was all hers. She had destroyed me, wiped me clean and turned me into a blank page. No memories, no concept of self except that little burning light. True ego death. […] She [ayahuasca] told me what I was made for. My reason for being here, my purpose in life. She told me what my place was in the universe and the answer was so obvious I was astounded. […] Satisfied that I had finally listened she slowly left me and I came out of the dark space of the other side of the universe back into this one. Sitting on the floor, covered in spit and bile and tears and vomit. But clean.” – Full experience

“It’s true what they say about how truly nothing will prepare you for your experience and if you’re committed, prepare to enjoy the ride. Ayahuasca has turned me into a vulnerable, sensitive, raw and exposed sham. Ayahuasca is also responsible for allowing me to recognize profound beauty, truth, and happiness when I come to notice it.”

“I battled with quite a few demons inside for what seemed like hours, then when I felt like I had nothing left to give the happiness began to return. Following the ceremony I tossed and turned for a bit then went into a deep/refreshing sleep for a few hours.
My real breakthrough came the next day though, during integration therapy. When I was discussing my experience and emotions I arrived on a realization of my true source of anxiety and once I encountered this it felt like the weight of a million worlds was lifted from me, really the most incredible thing I’ve ever felt. It was sincerely like 100 hours of therapy lived in one moment.”

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