Ayahuasca Treatment:
Can a Psychedelic Plant Have Therapeutic Benefits?

Paracelsus Recovery
6 min readMay 11, 2023

Ayahuasca increases acceptance and creativity, potentially aiding the treatment of mental illnesses. But its chemical complexity remains a scientific mystery.

Ayahuasca, pronounced iowaska, is a psychoactive plant-based tea that has been used in Amazonian shamanic rituals for centuries. However, the rise in tourism to South America witnessed over the last two decades, saw the ceremonial plant grow in notoriety — now known worldwide for its profound hallucinogenic effects. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the Peruvian Amazon, drawn in by the allure of ayahuasca’s healing potential, and its promise of a spiritual awakening. Unlike other psychedelic drugs, the intention with ayahuasca is purely medicinal, with many retreats turning away individuals who are looking for a high or who are not “sufficiently serious about it.” As a result of the increased worldwide interest and the positive similarities between each hallucinogenic experience, there is now a growing body of scientific literature exploring the plant’s therapeutic potential. In particular, various studies (Pahlhano-Fontes et al., 2019; Liester et al., 2018) have shown it can be used to treat depression and addiction. What’s more, the profoundly complex molecular structure of the brew has left scientists as baffled as they are intrigued. This article explores its chemical structure and therapeutic usage, emphasizing ayahuasca’s rejuvenation of the body-mind connection, and the significant role this connection plays in robust mental health.

Nature’s Antidepressant: The Science Behind Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is comprised of a unique combination of several plants, but in particular, it contains the bark of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria Viridis) which contains the hallucinogenic drug N-N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is the most potent hallucinogenic drug known to man, and poignantly, one can find it almost anywhere. It is naturally occurring in many plants and animals and is even present within the human body. Studies (2018) show that DMT seems to mirror near-death experiences, particularly the subjective state of “transcending one’s body and entering an alternative realm.” When smoked, DMT instantaneously sends the user into a psychedelic trip. Nicknamed the ‘businessman’s trip,’ it is a rapid and short-lived experience, lasting only 40–60 minutes. Studies (2018) of the drug found that when orally ingested, DMT is inactive because the presence of enzymes within our gut called monoamine oxidases (MAOs) prevent it from entering our bloodstream.

However, in the case of ayahuasca, research (2017) has discovered that the Banisteriopsis caapi vine contains B-carboline alkaloids, which are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). In the past, MAOIs were used pharmacologically as antidepressants because they stop MAOs from breaking down serotonin and dopamine. In so doing, they increase the brain’s access to these neurotransmitters. Thus, when these plants are combined and ingested, the chemical constitution of the ayahuasca vine prevents DMT from being broken down within the digestive system. This allows it to enter the bloodstream, while it also produces a feeling of euphoria, which may be akin to an antidepressant. Consequently, DMT is permitted access to the central nervous system, providing very different results than if it is smoked.

In particular, when orally consumed ayahuasca results in a purge, which involves vomiting and diarrhea. The purge is believed to be a crucial element of the healing process, and without it, the individual cannot access the full healing of the hallucinogenic trip. During an ayahuasca ritual, a shaman provides the brew to each individual and proceeds to offer spiritual support. Once ingested, effects arise within 20–60 minutes and last for anywhere between 2–8 hours.

Image Description: Infographic Explaining What Ayahuasca is, How it Works and the Risks Involved.

Therapeutic Benefits: Yage Increases Mindfulness and Self-Acceptance

Ayahuasca induces a deep state of introspection, and many individuals claim it brought them to other universes or returned them to a ‘womb-like’ state of oneness with the world. Research (Uthaug et al., 2018) suggests that the self-reflection it provides can cultivate an increased openness to one’s internal dialogue, and even alter thinking style. In particular, it significantly increases an individual’s capacity to be non-judgmental and non-reactive. Uthaug et al., note that this may help individuals battling depression because it can “foster acceptance of thoughts and feelings… which may be therapeutic for individuals who experience persistent negative thoughts” (p. 2980). Further studies (Kuypers et al., 2016) have found that ayahuasca can increase “creative divergent thinking,” which refers to a form of thinking wherein one can conceptualize multiple potential outcomes to any given problem. Thus, ayahuasca may be able to strengthen adaptive coping mechanisms and the capacity to deal with change.

Another study (2015) in Brazil analyzed the effects of ayahuasca on individuals with depression. They found that improvements occurred within hours of ingestion, and these benefits, “which were statistically significant, continued to hold up in assessments over the next three weeks.” In particular, the participants noted that it increased their levels of spirituality, which in turn led to increased emotional balance. Spirituality is frequently an essential aspect of recovery from addiction. The brain is very similar to every other organ in our body — when it is sick, we must invest an enormous amount of energy into it. However, as a result, the individual loses a connection with their peers, environment, and even their own body. Ayahuasca treatment may serve as a therapeutic tool in rebuilding this vital connection.

Notwithstanding, although there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that ayahuasca treatment can aid mental health, there are many limitations to acting on this knowledge. Scientific advancements are in their earliest days, and there remains a long list of adverse side effects that require more in-depth investigation. In particular, if DMT is the most potent psychedelic drug in the world, we must remember that this means it is delving into deep layers of the unconscious, and one can never be sure as to what they will find therein. Although it holds potential for therapeutic benefits, we must first ensure its administration would be safe and controlled in both dose and environment.

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