According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 250 million people of all ages suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability around the world and a significant contributor to the worldwide disease burden. More people are on antidepressant medication now than ever before, and the numbers keep rising.
Ayahuasca, the most powerful psychotropic known to man, is a brew of two different Amazonian plants, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. This pairing has been used for centuries in healing ceremonies in the Amazon, but over the past decade or so, it has gained worldwide prominence, with thousands of people travelling across the globe to participate in indigenous healing ceremonies, typically in South America and most notably in Peru.
The growing popularity of ayahuasca is directly related to the surge in spiritual and personal development seekers in recent years. Ayahuasca is being used as an effective tool for mental, physical, and spiritual growth, stimulating growing scientific interest, as researchers seek to understand how this plant actually works.
How Does This Plant Work to Combat Depression?
One of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, outlined the results of a study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil that showcased the antidepressant effects of just a single dose of ayahuasca on a group of six participants who were suffering from major depression.
The researchers were able to demonstrate that ayahuasca could effectively alleviate symptoms of depression within hours of intake and the effects of the antidepressant lasted weeks afterward.
While this study was admittedly small, it was the first ever to clinically measure the effects of ayahuasca on patients suffering from depression.
The same team has now expanded their research, addressing some of previous study’s limitations by increasing the number of participants and including neuroimaging techniques that can assess blood flow in the brain after exposure to the plant medicine.
Seventeen volunteers suffering from recurrent major depression who had not previously experienced any relief from their antidepressant medications were included in this new study. The volunteers spent two weeks in an inpatient psychiatric clinic prior to the study. They were not given any medications or recreational drugs, and none had ever taken ayahuasca before or had experience with similar drugs. At the time of the study, three volunteers were experiencing a mild depressive episode, thirteen a moderate episode, and one a severe episode.
For the treatment, in individual sessions, each patient received ayahuasca in a dimly lit room with a comfortable chair. It is important to note that the ayahuasca was given without the traditional ceremonial elements, as the researchers wanted to observe the pharmacological effects of ayahuasca in isolation. These means there was no shaman, music, singing, or other elements that could alter patients’ mood.
During the trial, the only adverse effect observed was vomiting, which is traditionally seen as not only a physical but also a psychological purge — a powerful metaphor for letting go of what no longer serves you. Almost half of the participants vomited, but none viewed the experience as uncomfortable, and all said their overall experience of this plant medicine was pleasant.
Researchers used standard clinical questionnaires to determine depressive symptoms 10 minutes before the ayahuasca session, multiple times during the session, and up to to three weeks afterward.
Neuroimaging scans taken eight hours after participants ingested ayahuasca showed increased blood flow to areas of the brain where diminished activation is usually associated with depression and increased activation is generally associated with antidepressant effects.
The reseachers of this study attribute the antidepressant effect of ayahuasca to Dimethyl tryptamine (DMT), the primary psychoactive component of ayahuasca. DMT activates serotonin in the receptors within the central and peripheral nervous systems.
It is important to mention that because the study was not randomized or double-blind and did not have a control group, the authors could not determine with absolute certainty that the antidepressant effects were solely attributable to ayahuasca. The authors also stated that the “controlled clinical setting in which the experiments took place is different from the typical ritual context of ayahuasca consumption, which may impact the generalizability of our findings.”
In a comment to the journal Nature, neuroscientist and co-author of the current study Draulio de Araujo noted that he and his team are hoping to finish a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study of ayahuasca for treatment of depression with a planned 80 participants by the end of this year. In the meantime, the scientific results that we already have, not to mention the countless number of people (myself included) who have experienced the life changing, psychological effects of ayahuasca for mental and spiritual well-being, clearly attest to the healing potential of this medicine.
If you have been considering participating in an ayahuasca ceremony to assist you with depression or other issues you are currently dealing with, please be advised that there are a number of antidepressant medications and other drugs that ABSOLUTELY CANNOT be taken with ayahuasca. Combining these two can lead to serious side effects, including death. Please be careful and do your research. If you want to go ahead, be sure to have weaned yourself off these medications for the required length of time before participating in any ayahuasca ceremony.
It is also advised that you only take ayahuasca under the guidance of a trained shaman or practitioner. This does not necessarily mean in Peru or even South America; just be sure to find a trusted source, hopefully from a friend or a loved one.