When John Sheldon, a musician from Massachusetts, was 60, he traveled to Peru on a quest: to overcome his addiction to Prozac, which he’d been taking for 15 years to treat severe depression. “Each time I tried to stop, I got really depressed and had absolutely no energy,” recalls Sheldon, who says his physician compared his dependence on serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to a diabetic who can’t live without insulin. It was a contention that vexed him, until he found hope in the form of reports from friends who said they’d had transformative, healing experiences in a shamanic-led ceremony with a plant medicine called ayahuasca.
What is Ayahuasca?
A Quechua word, which translates to “the vine of the soul,” ayahuasca goes by many different names, including caapi, dapa and countless other tribal monikers. To complicate things, the term ayahuasca refers to both the vine and the specially prepared concoction made from the vine and one or more plants, most often the leaves from the chacruna or chaliponga shrubs.
Interestingly, it’s the combo of plants (and somewhat complex eight-hour preparation) that is necessary to produce the visions and heightened awareness reported by those who drink it. While the leaves contain N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT, one of the world’s most potent hallucinogenic substances, it’s the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) contained in the vine that allow DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier and attach to receptor sites. The result: a mind-bending, psychedelic experience that, for many, can be terrifying, but also life-changing, revealing deep insights about the nature of reality, and also one’s unique psyche, such as the root source of negative emotional patterns.
A Sacred Brew
In the Amazon rain forest, the ayahuasca brew is recognized as a sacred medicine that indigenous people have used for likely thousands of years to heal both physical and psycho-spiritual ailments. In a growing number of treatment centers, such as the well-known Takiwasi Center in Tarapoto City, Peru, founded in 1992 by Jacques Mabit, MD, a pioneer of ayahuasca research and drug addiction protocols, an increasing number of people from around the world are seeking out the plant medicine to help with substance abuse.
As the psychoactive component of the ayahuasca brew contains a schedule 1 controlled substance, it is illegal in most countries, with the exception of where it’s used by religious groups that have fought for the right to use it in ceremony. Despite these restrictions, there is a rapidly growing underground use of ceremonial ayahuasca in cities globally, with events being discovered mainly by word of mouth.
How Ayahuasca Helps with Addictive Behaviors
“The first time I did ayahuasca, I knew why it could help people with addictions,” says Gabor Maté, MD, a former practicing physician and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction. Having spent 12 years working with one of the densest populations of drug addicts in the world in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Canada, Maté has been a strong proponent of the idea that all addiction stems from childhood trauma rather than genetic predisposition. It’s a contention that fits neatly into the framework explaining ayahuasca’s success with addiction, which is reportedly much higher than Western protocols, and yet it’s arguably difficult to quantify in terms of published data.
“No matter what a person is addicted to—whether it’s eating, shopping, sex, drugs—each addicted person harbors a deep pain, which they may or may not be in touch with. The plant removes the self-created barriers to get in touch with the source of that pain, so you realize what you’ve been running from all of your life,” says Maté, who, along with Mabit, was featured in Jungle Prescription, a Nature of Things documentary depicting a growing number of physicians challenging the Western model of addiction treatment by using ayahuasca.
In reality, there is very little research to substantiate the use of ayahuasca, and virtually none as a remedial protocol for addiction, which is a point of contention for Maté. “Because ayahuasca is not one of these quantifiable pharmaceutical agents that you can put into a pill form and then run double-blind studies on, it just does not fit into the Western medical model. There is no way to get approval for a study [in North America] using ayahusca,” he says. While he’s witnessed people overcome various addiction through its sacred ritual use, he still admits, “there is nothing scientifically that I can tell you that here is the proof.”
Ayahuasca and the Brain
There are several ways that ayahuasca seems to work. First, it hyperstimulates the neocortex, the area of the brain that’s involved in higher-process functioning, including conscious thought, language and reasoning, while simultaneously stimulating the amygdala, which functions as a storehouse of early emotional memories, including our most traumatic ones. As Maté explains, when these two centers wake up—one holding childhood memories and the other giving us adult insight—amazing things happen. “Imagine waking up these memories with the insight of the adult,” he says. “It’s like the adult self accompanies the wounded child self, but in a way that the adult can observe compassionately what happened to the child.”
The other way that ayahuasca may work is by giving users a greater sensitivity to serotonin, the naturally occurring neurotransmitter that regulates mood and plays a major role in the pleasure-seeking dependence of addiction.
The Ayahuasca for Addiction Experience: Not for the Faint-Hearted
For Sheldon, his trip to Peru to overcome his Prozac addiction proved successful, but it wasn’t instant—or easy. First, in order to participate, the shamans required he wean himself off of his medication, which took an agonizing five weeks. “It was brutal, difficult both physically and psychically,” says his wife Susan. “By the time he was off of [Prozac], the depression came crashing back big time. It was all he could do to get on the plane.”
While many people who use ayahuasca experience a great purging, often in the form of vomiting, there are other forms of expulsion, too: excessive crying, profuse sweating, diarrhea and even intense salivation among them. Furthermore, the thick, dark tea is considered anything but tasty. By most accounts, it’s a foul-smelling beverage that doesn’t go down easy.
While Sheldon never threw up, he admits wishing he did. “I felt like I was kind of being obliterated,” he explains. “You think it’s going to be an adventure, and two ceremonies in, you’re on your knees, thinking, ‘What the hell have I done?’” For him, the plant medicine showed him a terrifying creature, like the one from the movie Alien, which had seemingly gestated inside of his body. “Ayahuasca uses whatever symbols have meaning for you,” he explains. “And I wasn’t happy that it used that one.”
Disappointed he still wasn’t able to expel this creature even after three ceremonies, Sheldon found catharsis while walking during the day. “I felt something fly out of me,” he says. “I actually fell down and felt the creature leave me. But at the same time, I realized that whatever it was had been helping me, too, protecting me from traumas in my life.”
After five ceremonies, Sheldon experienced a sensation he likens to having his brain completely rewired. “I felt as if all of the connections up there were being made in the right way,” he says. “It felt light and sparkly at the top of my head.”
He’s never used or felt he needed his depression medication since that day. But while Sheldon’s story is one of triumph over addiction, not everyone has the same results.
Contraindications and Guidelines for Use
“Ayuhasca isn’t a magic bullet, and people have to do the work,” says Maté. “It’s not for everyone.” At his seven-day ayahuasca retreats, and others like Takiwasi, candidates are carefully screened. People who aren’t considered good candidates generally include those with heart conditions, serious metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes) and pregnant women. People who have had psychotic or manic episodes are not good candidates because ayahuasca can trigger them. Also, a few deaths have been attributed to ayahuasca use, although the causes have not all been conclusively determined. Furthermore, there are interactions with certain drugs and foods, which makes taking a careful inventory and medical history necessary prior to using the powerful plant medicine.
When it comes to illicit drug users, such as those on heroin, Maté advises them to be detoxed under doctor supervision beforehand. “You can’t be going through withdrawal during ceremony. While ayahuasca will help with heroin addiction, it won’t stop it,” he says. In the case of opiate addictions, users are advised to first work with Ibogaine, another powerful plant medicine, under the close supervision of an experienced practitioner. And then, once detoxed, ayahuasca can be helpful in understanding the root of the addiction and prevent relapse. At the Takiwasi Center, however, people are treated with a variety of plant medicines, not just ayahuasca, over a course of nine months to step-down from chemical dependences as well as deal with underlying psycho-spiritual issues.
During the 1990s, there was some concern about using ayahuasca while on antidepressants due to the potential to trigger serotonin syndrome, so people on these meds are generally advised to clear them from their system entirely before they go into ceremony.
Ayahuasca shamans typically want participants to be as “raw” as possible before their experience, so they require abstinence from all alcohol and drugs, including cannabis. Most retreats share similar basic guidelines for diet; generally, no overly salty or spicy foods, fermented products (yogurt), meat or dairy for a few days prior to ceremony. And as MAOIs can be dangerous when combined with certain foods and medications, it’s important to evaluate the full list of possible interactions.
The main concern with ayahuasca use may be less in its efficacy than safety, especially as it relates to the setting, the experience level of those administering it, and the ability of one’s support team to prevent personal injury during what has the potential to become a “bad trip.” As the brew’s popularity increases, the number of lodges offering an ayahuasca experience has become equally prolific, but not every retreat is reputable, or makes equal effort to screen its participants for contraindications. Further, there have been reports by female tourists who have suffered assaults from sexual predators posing as shamans (during ceremonies), so the importance of finding an experienced retreat with a good reputation can’t be stressed enough.
Ayahuasca Is Not a Quick Fix
While an Internet search can turn up hundreds of anecdotal reports of people healing their addictions (in addition to myriad diseases) through ayahuasca, it is not a miracle cure. In cases of severe addictions, it can take more than one ceremony, or even a weeklong retreat, to be successful. In best-case scenarios, people with addictions would work with adept shamans as well as trained counselors for a period of at least several months.
Ultimately, overcoming addiction through ayahuasca is a powerful journey that calls forth a deep level of personal responsibility. It also necessitates one do research in order to understand all of the risks to health and safety, including the legality of the setting in which ayahuasca is used. It’s advisable to only entrust yourself to a skilled team, which is often determined best by talking to others who’ve had positive experiences and success.
Ayahuasca Addiction Treatment Retreats and Further Research Resources
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The information published here is not intended as medical advice. Consult a physician for more information about health practices and overcoming addiction.