The trip of a lifetime: How ayahuasca is being used to treat depression
A psychedelic drink called ayahuasca has gained attention from biomedical students as a means of treatment for depression. It is a sacramental drink that has been used for centuries in South American countries to treat a large variety of ailments. Research on its therapeutic effects was recently conducted in Brazil.
This study was conducted using just six participants with no placebo group. The researchers said that the drink reduced the participants’ rates of depression and the positive effects remained three weeks after they consumed the psychedelic drink.
Ayahuasca is traditionally brewed from the bark of a vine found in the jungle called banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of a shrub called psychotria viridis. These two ingredients are illegal in most countries. Ayahuasca is traditionally used as an integral part of healing ceremonies by shaman and is a very intense hallucinogen. It contains the strong psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is recognized for producing spiritual experiences and could play a large role in addressing psychiatric disorders.
Shaman and villagers of South America believe ayahuasca opens up channels of the user’s psyche to the spirit world. There have been many occasions where American citizens who suffer from issues ranging from depression to drug addiction pay shamans to administer this plant-based treatment in the hopes of curing their conditions. In South America, ayahuasca is legal for religious use and the high demand for it has garnered the attention of thousands of people each year in an effort to sample this intense hallucinogenic drink.
The latest study on ayahuasca was led by Jaime Hallak, a neuroscientist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The research team gave six participants who suffer from mild to severe depression one small dose of ayahuasca. All of these participants were previously unresponsive to other conventional antidepressant drugs and none of them had taken ayahuasca before. After the participants drank the tea, they sat in quiet in a dimly lit room. They were subjected to questionnaires to track their symptoms. Improvements were noticed in just two or three hours after the treatment.
Brian Anderson, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, has published previous papers on the drink’s effects and benefits. He says, “It is a proof of concept of what so many ritual ayahuasca users already know: ayahuasca can help one feel extra well, not just during the experience, but for up to days or weeks after.” He also added that “the relationship between ayahuasca’s psychedelic effects and its therapeutic effects needs to be empirically studied.”
James Stone, a psychiatrist at King’s College London, has also studied the neurological effects of Ayahuasca. He states, “The only things that can really be concluded from this study are that it is tolerated by patients with depression, and in these people did not seem to have any serious side effects following a single dose.” The study did show that the drug could have a positive effect in reducing symptoms of depression, but this research did not reflect the drug’s effect on the general population or on those who suffer from other mental illnesses.
Further research on the drug’s effects on depressed patients is underway. Co-author of the study and a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, Draulio de Araujo and a team of researchers have already treated 46 patients in a double-blinded, randomized and placebo controlled study. This study began in January of 2014 and he states they “hope to finish it by the end of this year.”
Depression affects over 18 million Americans and many of them have suffered in silence. Some suffering from mental health disorders like depression may never receive treatment. Sovereign Health Group is among the leading mental health treatment providers in the country, offering inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for patients struggling with mental illnesses, drug addiction and dual diagnosis conditions. If you know someone who is struggling with depression or another mental illness and is in need of mental health treatment, please do not hesitate to call us to speak to a treatment specialist who will assist you in finding the right treatment option for you.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer