Long used by Amazonian shamans as a ‘medicine for the soul’, the ayahuasca plant has now surfaced to global consciousness. People from all over the world are travelling to South American countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador to take part in an ayahuasca retreat with experienced facilitators to be in the jungle environment where the plant grows naturally.
The use of exotic psychedelic blends by spiritual seekers disenchanted with formal Western religion and lifestyles is hardly something new, but in the case of the ayahuasca tea there may be something more going on. Recent scientific reviews suggest that ayahuasca effects could be beneficial to individuals suffering from depression, substance abuse problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Science of Ayahuasca and Mental Health
There’s much that is known, but also much that is still shrouded in mystery in the world of mental health.
It’s known that irregularities in the production, reception and balance of neurotransmitters has a role to play in the development of mental health problems. Imbalances in one specific neurotransmitter, serotonin is heavily implicated in depression, obsessive thought patterns and poor impulse control.
It’s also known that ayahuasca contains the psychoactive molecule Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which binds to serotonin receptors. One scientific explanation of the role of ayahuasca in helping individuals who have mental health problems is that this binding helps to regulate and modulate serotonergic neurotransmission.
It needs to be remembered however that medications developed to treat mental health problems which act directly on the serotonin system have different effects in different patients, and that placebo effects are often very significant in antidepressant studies. In other words, there are no ‘magic bullets’ in the treatment of mental disorders.
Does that mean it’s all in the Mind?
Well, where else would you look for the answer to mental illness? The scientist who can develop a full understanding of just what ‘the placebo effect’ is, and harness it at will, will have made the greatest contribution to medical science since Alexander Fleming developed penicillin.
Can Ayahuasca be good for mental health? Based on personal reports of many people who’ve used it, the answer is yes. Alcoholics say that they’re better able to control their drinking, and people with a history of depression report sustained mood improvement after drinking the spirit vine medicine.
Most of those who report these benefits took the brew with a facilitator or shaman. It’s possible that the benefits are only partially related to the way DMT and Serotonin interact. Ayahuasca effects are related just as much to the whole Ayahuasca Experience — the commitment implicit in travelling thousands of miles, the willingness to adhere to the ayahuasca diet, and the intention to open up to a voyage of self-discovery could all play a part in what’s happening.
Where Science Meets Spirituality
Holistic healers have long been frustrated by the tendency of conventional medicine to seek reductionist solutions. They sometimes make the comparison of looking for straightforward cause and effect relationships between disease and medicine as ‘trying to describe a rose with a ruler’. You can measure every dimension precisely, even analyze the chemicals responsible for the aroma but it just doesn’t capture the ‘roseness’ of it.
And it may be that this is the truth of Ayahuasca, it needs to be taken with commitment, reverence, and an open heart in the company of an experienced guide to offer the maximum benefits.