ByPostdoctoral Fellow, Ribeirão Preto Medical School, Universidade de Sao Paulo.
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. (Post continues after video.)
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 Daimeand 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.
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).
Observational studies have also indicated that long-term members of Brazilian ayahuasca religions have apparently recovered from depression, anxiety, and drug dependence (especially alcohol and cocaine).