Ayahuasca Research: Where Science Meets Spirituality

Liz Zhou · June 29th, 2021

A Brief History of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a natural psychoactive brew that is used to treat physical, mental, and spiritual disorders and imbalances. Composed of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf, ayahuasca is regarded as one of the most sacred plant medicines of the jungle. Its active ingredient, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), produces vivid hallucinations and altered perceptions that can last up to several hours. In this non-ordinary state of consciousness, profound insights, emotional shifts, and healing commonly occur.

In some cases, ayahuasca may induce acute physical sensations such as nausea, tingling, increased heart rate, shivering, sweating, and even vomiting. These side effects, while potentially unpleasant, are normal and indicative of the medicine’s physical cleansing effects.

Ayahuasca is consumed in ceremonial contexts across South America—from the União do Vegetal and the Santo Daime religious traditions in Brazil; to the Cofán tribe in Colombia; to the Shipibo community in Peru, among many others. The word ayahuasca, from the indigenous Quechua language, translates to “vine of the soul” and alludes to the mystical nature of many people’s experiences with this plant medicine.

Indigenous communities in the Amazon basin have long used ayahuasca as a tool for healing and spiritual exploration. Over the past century or so, the medicine has slowly gained recognition in the Western world. A growing body of research and anecdotal reports has led to a surge of interest in ayahuasca retreats—wherein individuals, typically from Western countries, travel to healing centers in the Amazon Jungle to partake in traditional ayahuasca ceremonies.

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What The Research Shows: Ayahuasca & Mental Health

A newly published study details the effects of ayahuasca on individuals at the Ayahuasca Foundation retreat center in Iquitos, Peru. This 2021 observational study stands out as the first to explore not only mental health outcomes, but also the epigenetic effects of ayahuasca in a natural setting. Epigenetics refers to the influence of environmental factors on gene expression. In this case, how might exposure to ayahuasca impact which genes are activated and which genes are turned off?

Sixty-three self-selected study participants attended ayahuasca ceremonies within the Shipibo tradition of the Peruvian Amazon, in a retreat setting designed for tourists. Ceremonies took place at night and lasted around five hours, with individuals seated in a circular arrangement inside the ceremony space—a round wooden building called a maloka. Upon consuming the medicine, participants would focus on their inner experience while a local shaman, accompanied by a few trained facilitators, sang traditional medicine songs—referred to as icaros—throughout the night.

Participants attended between four and 11 ceremonies, depending on the type of retreat they had chosen. Standard questionnaires were used to evaluate each individual’s level of depression, anxiety, self-compassion, general distress, and wellbeing prior to the retreat, immediately after the retreat, and at the six-month follow-up.

Saliva samples were also collected pre- and post-retreat for the purpose of epigenetic analysis. Researchers from King’s College London, University of Exeter, University of the West of England, and the Interdisciplinary Cooperation for Ayahuasca Research and Outreach (ICARO) contributed to this work.

Consistent with prior psychedelic research, participants experienced significant reductions in anxiety and depression, as well as improvements in general wellbeing, mindfulness, and self-compassion. Perception of difficult life events changed in the short term and the long term: Participants viewed their memories in a less negative way following the retreat.

Interestingly, those who reported a greater degree of mystical experience displayed the most improvement in depression outcomes post-retreat. This finding suggests that the perceived mystical context may improve the efficacy of the healing experience.

Future Path for Research: Ayahuasca & Epigenetics

Within this 2021 study, lab analyses suggest a link between ayahuasca consumption and epigenetic shifts in the SIGMAR1 gene (sigma non-opioid intracellular receptor 1). Specifically, the post-retreat saliva samples of participants showed an increase in SIGMAR1 methylation—the process by which a methyl group is added to a gene, which may alter the gene’s expression.

It is not yet clear exactly how the expression of the SIGMAR1 gene is affected by ayahuasca exposure, if at all. That being said, the implication of the SIGMAR1 gene is notable in and of itself, as SIGMAR1 has been associated with neuroplasticity and traumatic memory recall. Within this study, increased methylation changes were observed in participants with a higher degree of childhood trauma.

Additional research is necessary before the full implications of this potential epigenetic shift can be determined. Larger sample sizes are required before solid conclusions can be drawn, with the research set to continue over the coming years. The results are interesting, nevertheless. “We propose that future research should investigate SIGMAR1 as a potential mechanism of action underlying ayahuasca,” the researchers wrote.

Bridging Science & Spirituality

Studies like this help us to understand traditional healing modalities from a scientific point of view. Yet there is also a spiritual aspect to the ayahuasca experience, as anecdotal reports frequently reference spiritual encounters, transcendent experiences, alternate realities, and time travel, among other mystical concepts. Given the often ineffable nature of the ayahuasca experience, scientific research is unlikely to capture the full story of what is going on in a plant medicine ceremony. 

  “We do have to be careful when we reduce ayahuasca down to numerical values, using our own scales to measure depression—because ayahuasca is so much more than an antidepressant. It sits at a  cross-section between so many different modalities-  art and music,  anthropology and sociology, science and spirituality etc.”says Simon Ruffell, lead researcher of the 2021 study and Clinical Research Fellow at The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

It is common to regard ayahuasca as merely the sum of its chemical components—DMT and MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). But the cultural and energetic context surrounding the ayahuasca experience plays just as important a role as the brew itself. 

A more holistic definition of ayahuasca takes into account the contextual factors—the shamans, the icaros, the maloka, the jungle, and the indigenous community from which the medicine originates. Without all these pieces, the ayahuasca experience would not be possible. Healing through ayahuasca is more than just drinking a psychoactive brew—it also involves engaging with the spiritual and cultural frameworks that underlie the ayahuasca tradition.

As more people from Western society come into contact with this ancient healing modality, it becomes increasingly important to integrate indigenous wisdom into a modern paradigm. Bridging science and spirituality allows multiple points of view to coexist, complement, and build on each other.

Different types of language can be used to explain the same concept. For instance, from a scientific point of view, ayahuasca reduces symptoms of depression by altering the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. From a shamanic point of view, this might be framed as the lifting of negative energy or the clearing of bad spirits.

“Neither view is superior or inferior,” Ruffell says. “When we bridge the gap, we arrive at a more holistic understanding of the self.”

Art created by Shea Jozana (@gaiafightsback). Original images sourced from Wikipedia (maloka and ayahuasca brew)

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