Health and Medicine

Can Ayahuasca, the ‘sacred plant’ of the Amazon, help addiction and depression?

The ConversationAyahuasca goes by many names: Daime, Vegetal, Hoasca, Kamarampi, Huni … whatever you call it, this plant-based psychoactive decoction, which has been used by indigenous Amazonians for centuries to contact the spiritual world, has suddenly burst into global consciousness.

As a recent New Yorker article put it, ayahuasca is “the drug of choice for the age of kale”.

The article, which positioned ayahuasca as a hipster trend in a tone of mockery mixed with mystification, nevertheless belies the growing interest of Western scientists and rich urbanites in its medicinal and therapeutic potential, which include antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-addiction elements.

Does the science support the hype? As part of a small cohort of Brazilian scientists undertaking the world’s first clinical trials on ayahuasca and treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, I’m here to say: maybe, but it’s too soon to tell.

Sacred plant, sacred medicine

First, some background, which is key to understanding how ayahuasca is perceived as both a sacred plant and medicine.

This idea is shared by indigenous groups, vegetalistas (healers that use plants to treat disease), and Brazilian religions such as the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal, which blend Catholic, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilian beliefs.

In the indigenous context, ayahuasca is used to contact the supernatural world, the realm of the jungle spirits, who are called on to bring peace, happiness, and good health – or harm and disease.

During ayahuasca ceremonies, shamans invoke specific spirits either to heal their patients, or to harm their enemies. For them, ayahuasca is a powerful and dangerous plant used with great caution, and only by individuals who’ve undergone a prolonged initiation process that usually involves abstaining from sex and certain foods, along with periods of isolation in the jungle.

Ayahuasca is also used therapeutically by the rural, poor and mestizo, or mixed-race, populations of Amazonian nations, including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador, who have limited access to hospitals and physicians but extensive training in ayahuasca.

One of two jungle plants whose leaves are used in the preparation of ayahuasca. Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, Author provided

The spiritual is medical

The effects of ayahuasca start 30 to 40 minutes after oral intake, with a peak occurring one to two hours later. Most people describe a pleasant (although not always easy) experience, which may include changes in perception (mostly visual), deep introspection, revival of seemingly forgotten autobiographical memories, and mood boost. The trip lasts four to six hours.

A limited number of studies have suggested that those psychoactive effects could play a therapeutic role for humans.

Ayahuasca is made by combining the leaves of Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana (which contain the hallucinogen DMT), with the jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which is rich in a group of alkaloids called beta-carbolines (harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline).

Studies in animals, case reports and observational studies of long-term users suggest that ayahuasca and its alkaloids may have anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and anti-addictive properties.

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