This post was originally published on January 21, 2016.
Psychedelics are a hot topic these days, with many researchers examining their therapeutic potential for treating both addiction and mental illness. On US soil, legal clinical trials with hallucinogens like psilocybin have popped up in the esteemed medical schools of NYU, Johns Hopkins University and UCLA, some of them producing very promising results.
Now Ayahuasca is making headlines. The psychedelic “medicine tea” born out of the Peruvian Amazon and administered by shamans, often in spiritual ceremonies, is drawing Western tourists down to the jungle to try and rid themselves of their nasty drug and alcohol problems, as well as their depression.
The Results are In
This year Nature published a study on Ayahuasca that was conducted by researchers in Brazil. Two men and four women who suffered from depression took the drug in small doses of 120-200 ml. Afterward, they were given three questionnaires to fill out (eight separate times, starting at just 40 minutes after the therapy up until three months later).
The questionnaires revealed powerful results, and one participant had a reduction of 62 percent of depressive symptoms after just one day. Within a week, this reduction climbed to 72 percent.
“We observed antidepressant effects the first hours after administering Ayahuasca, and they remained significant for two to three weeks,” Flávia de Lima Osório and Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, who co-authored the study, told journalist Pablo Noguiera.
And Then There Were the Boozy Rats
It’s telling, but this experiment wasn’t controlled by placebos. For for those wanting more hard-lined proof, a study was published in Physiology and Behaviour that examined the effect of Ayahuasca on alcohol-dependent lab rats, which is important for pharmacologists who aim to develop a drug out of the psychoactive compound in the tea.
Rats were injected with ethanol (alcohol), and their motor skills were examined after administration. Typically, given alcohol’s ability to initially energize you, rats travel greater distances when they get a buzz. The rats were divided into two groups, one receiving saline injections as a placebo, and the other receiving ayahuasca.
“We are simulating a situation where a person goes to a ritual, takes the tea and then drinks alcohol,” said the study’s author Alexandre Justo de Oliveira-Lima, a pharmacology professor at State University of Santa Cruz.
After 10 days, scientists observed that the rats who were given Ayahuasca were 50 percent less active than the control group, so the tea seemed to block the effect of alcohol on the brain, resulting in changed motor skills.
These studies are somewhat of a breakthrough, but they’re darkened by the fact that Kyle Nolan, an 18-year-old who was living at home with his mother after dropping out of junior college, died while taking Ayahuasca down in the Amazon under the “supervision” of a shaman who covered up his death. Nolan didn’t have a drug problem—he just wanted to get some answers to his existential angst.
Turn on, Tune In, and Drop Out?
It’s important to note that throughout the 50s and 60s, experiments with psychedelics like LSD were ongoing and encouraged in the psychiatric and medical community (AA’s founder Bill Wilson reportedly underwent LSD treatment for depression), and many researchers were excited by the drug’s potential. But once LSD got into the hands of the counterculture, hippy-dippy, anti-Vietnam crowd—you can thank Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary for that—Nixon made the drug illegal, classifying it as a Schedule I substance, and the stigma is only now starting to lift.
It’s easy for us folks in recovery to immediately cringe at the idea of taking a drug to solve a drug problem and balk at the use of psychedelics since they have been illicit drugs for the past 40 years. But the bottom line on Ayahuasca, and Ibogaine and psilocybin as well, is that you can’t discount their potential if you honestly examine the science. When the drugs are administered in a controlled settings with medical professionals and taken at specific doses, it’s obvious they often are effective.
At the same time, there are serious risks and side effects involved, from potentially harrowing psychotic breaks to death. (Then again, anyone who watches too much prime time TV knows from pharmaceutical commercials that most drugs have “death” listed as a rare but potential side effect.)
Given my bipolar diagnosis, my sister’s schizophrenia and my ridiculously vivid imagination that already has me checking the abandoned suitcases I find on our street for bombs, I’m loath to ever go near the stuff. Some other sober people are right there with me. But respecting each person’s path to recovery is important to me, so if it’s something you want to try, be my guest.
But please, kids, don’t try this at home—make sure you do it under a doctor’s supervision.