- Area: Health Sciences
- Program: Health and Wellness
- Program: Health Professions
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Type of Writing: Essay (Explorative)
- Course Level: 2000
- English Speaking Nativeness: Native
- Year: 2020
- Paper ID: HS.H.a.W.H.P.E.E.2.N.2.2.2177
The Use of Ayahuasca as a Treatment for Psychological Disorders
Dexter Boothe was raised in an abusive household in a poverty-stricken area of Richmond, Virginia. For as long as he can remember, Dexter suffered from severe depression, social anxiety, and insomnia. He had been on antidepressants since the age of 10. By the time he graduated high school as valedictorian, he had spent several months in a psychiatric treatment facility due to many suicide attempts. Dexter went to college, where he eventually got his Ph.D. In the middle of his doctorate program, he again became suicidal, and after another suicide attempt, he admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital for a second time. He had been prescribed every antidepressant possible at this point in his life, yet none of them worked. He was diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression, and his doctors told him that he would never get better. When Dexter was released from the hospital, his girlfriend told him about this psychedelic drug that seemed like it could help– ayahuasca (Missildine, 2020).
Feeling like this was his last hope, Dexter and his girlfriend found a local shaman and joined several individuals at an ayahuasca retreat. On their first night, the group sat in a circle and were each given a bucket and a cup of ayahuasca tea. The shaman and his spiritual helpers sang ceremonial songs, and within 30 minutes, the majority of the group began vomiting into their buckets. Dexter never threw up but instead experienced intense hallucinations that lasted several hours. When he awoke the next day, he felt as if this tremendous pressure that had been weighing on his shoulders his whole life had been lifted. On Dexter’s second night at the retreat, he experienced another ayahuasca session where he felt his depression lift away from his body. After only two sessions, he began to gain confidence and self-esteem, and he no longer suffered from depression and insomnia. Dexter is now a big advocate of ayahuasca use and promotes its perceived benefits (Missildine, 2020). So what is ayahuasca, and is it a viable cure for depression?
Ayahuasca, also referred to as daime, vegetal, caapi, yaje, natema, and hoasca (Ungvarsky, 2020), is a reddish-brown, bitter, foul-smelling psychedelic tea. It is made by mixing water with the vine of Banisteriopsis caapi (B. cappi) and the leaves of Psychotria virdis (P. virdis) (Murphy-Beiner & Soar, 2020). These plants are native to the Amazonian region in South America and have been used ritualistically for thousands of years. P. virdis contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a naturally occurring hallucinogenic compound found in several plants, animals, and humans (Kohlmetz, 2019). When consumed alone, the DMT in P. virdis is inactive, but when combined with B. caapi, the psychoactive properties remain, as B. caapi contains β-carboline alkaloids, which prevent DMT degradation (Dominguez-Clavé et al., 2019). B. caapi also acts as a strong monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). This naturally occurring enzyme causes the brain to release large amounts of neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation, including serotonin and dopamine (Ungvarsky, 2020).
Ayahuasca ceremony centers can be found all across the globe. The majority of centers exist in the Amazonian region, including Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. In the United States, ayahuasca is classified as a Schedule I drug, defined as “ a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (“Drug Scheduling”). However, ayahuasca ceremonies can still be found in the U.S. as religious consumption is protected under the First Amendment.
Ingestion of ayahuasca tea can induce a “dream-like but conscious state characterized by introspection, visions, enhanced emotions, and recollection of personal memories” (Dominguez-Clavé et al., 2019). The psychotropic effects begin 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion, reach maximum intensity between 60 to 120 minutes, and last over four hours after ingestion (Uthaug et al., 2018). Ayahuasca’s psychotropic effects last a lot longer than the effects of pure DMT, which only remain for 10 to 15 minutes (Kohlmetz, 2019). The types of hallucinations users experience differs between each user, but common themes include experiencing one’s death, talking with ancestors or dead relatives, and communicating with the “spirit of the plant,” who many seasoned users refer to as “Mother,”` who gives users spiritual guidance. One user stated, “Ayahuasca takes you to the swampland of your soul” (Levy, 2016). The majority of users are drawn to the tea for its alleged healing properties, with the hopes of being able to cure psychological and physical ailments.
Scientific interest in ayahuasca began in the early sixties in conjunction with the counterculture movement, and in 1969 the first American study of the tea was released by Harvard biologist Richard E. Schultes, pioneer of the ethnobotany field (Levy, 2016). In the modern era, dozens of studies have focused on ayahuasca as a treatment for psychological ailments. One Spanish study focusing on ayahuasca’s effect on mental health and quality of life in naive (first-time) users found that depression significantly decreased in 80% of their subjects. This decrease persisted for over six months (Jiménez-Garrido et al., 2020).
A German study investigating ayahuasca’s “afterglow” effect found that mindfulness, decentering, and cognitive flexibility significantly improved within twenty-four hours of ayahuasca use and was not influenced by prior ayahuasca use (Murphy-Beiner & Soar, 2020). Mindfulness can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” decentering can be defined as “the ability to take a detached view of one’s own thoughts and emotions, considering them as temporary events of the mind,” and cognitive flexibility can be defined as “the ability to shift perspective or approach in order to adapt to change in the environment, and involves executive function abilities of problem-solving and response inhibition” (Murphy-Beiner & Soar, 2020). These three principles of mindfulness, decentering, and cognitive flexibility are key elements of meditation practices and are believed to significantly improve mental health.
A similar study focusing on ayahuasca ceremony attendants in the Netherlands and Columbia and the sub-acute and long-term effects of ayahuasca on cognitive flexibility and ego dissolution found that ratings of depression and stress significantly decreased directly after the ayahuasca ceremony, while mindfulness and cognitive flexibility significantly increased. These cognitive changes persisted for several weeks. (Uthaug et al., 2018). Another Spanish study found that ayahuasca significantly improves emotion dysregulation and mindfulness in individuals with BPD-like traits (Dominguez-Clave et al., 2019). Emotion dysregulation is a core symptom of BPD and can be defined as a poor ability to regulate emotions.
It should be noted that ayahuasca can have some severe side effects on certain individuals. Individuals on antidepressants that take ayahuasca can experience a serotonin flood that can cause permanent brain damage. This is due to the high amounts of MAOI in ayahuasca being combined with the high amounts of MAOI in antidepressants. Another population who shouldn’t take ayahuasca is people with high blood pressure or heart disease. Ayahuasca causes an increased heart rate, which may result in heart attacks for these individuals (Ungvarsky, 2020). Another potential risk of ayahuasca is that ceremony centers are unregulated. There have been instances of shamans adding additional substances to the tea, resulting in psychosis and deaths (Levy, 2016).
The many existing studies of ayahuasca indicate it as being a viable treatment for psychological conditions. It greatly increases mindfulness, decentering, cognitive flexibility, and emotion dysregulation, and significantly reduces symptoms of depression. Its effects are immediate and can last for at least six months after one dose. With a large influx of research showing ayahuasca’s positive benefits on mental health, it warrants further investigation into its potential as a viable alternative to conventional pharmaceutical treatments for psychological illnesses.
Dominguez-Clavé, Elisabet. “Ayahuasca Improves Emotion Dysregulation in a Community Sample and in Individuals with Borderline-like Traits.” Psychopharmacology, vol. 236, no. 2, Feb. 2019, pp. 573–580., doi:10.1007/s00213-018-5085-3.
“Drug Scheduling.” DEA, United States Drug Enforcement Agency, www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling.
Jiménez-Garrido, Daniel F., et al. “Effects of Ayahuasca on Mental Health and Quality of Life in Naïve Users: A Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Study Combination.” Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-61169-x.
Kohlmetz, Ernest, MA. “DMT.” Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health, 2019.
Levy, Ariel. “The Secret Life of Plants.” New Yorker, vol. 92, no. 28, Sept. 2016, pp. 30-36
Missildine, Whitt. “This Is Actually Happening – 158: What If You Entered The Void? on Stitcher.” Episode 158: What If You Entered The Void?, This Is Actually Happening Podcast, 28 July 2020, www.stitcher.com/show/this-is-actually-happening/episode/158-what-if-you-entered-the-void-76 501164.
Murphy-Beiner, A. and K. Soar. “Ayahuasca’s ‘Afterglow’: Improved Mindfulness and Cognitive Flexibility in Ayahuasca Drinkers.” Psychopharmacology, vol. 237, no. 4, Apr. 2020, pp. 1161-1169
Ungvarsky, Janine. “Ayahuasca.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=121772780&site=eds-live&scope=si te.
Uthaug, M. V., et al. “Sub-Acute and Long-Term Effects of Ayahuasca on Affect and Cognitive Thinking Style and Their Association with Ego Dissolution.” Psychopharmacology, vol. 235, no. 10, 2018, pp. 2979–2989., doi:10.1007/s00213-018-4988-3.