Ayahuasca and Mental Health: What do we really know?
Across the globe, seekers have been turning to Ayahuasca with a melange of intentions: personal growth, emotional trauma healing, spiritual transcendence, or perhaps a wild encounter with the divine. But many are learning that Madre Aya has the potential to offer healing for some of what plagues our modern society: addiction, physical maladies, and even mental illness. But what do we really know about the power and potential of this sacred plant to support the difficult journey of depression, addiction, anxiety, or other mental health illnesses?
Due to the legal difficulties of testing Ayahuasca’s effects, research is currently fairly limited. But a handful of scientists are leading the way in doing good work, so here is what we do know — and the results are promising.
Administered in the proper setting and with an integration period, Ayahuasca can help reduce alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco use.
Although the neuroscience behind why is still being uncovered, studies are showing that Ayahuasca can help substance-addicted individuals reverse their chemical dependency on alcohol, tobacco, and even cocaine. A 2013 Western Canada-based study found statistically significant improvements in hopefulness, empowerment, mindfulness, and quality of life meaning following facilitated ceremonial use. Limited longitudinal studies, mostly based in Brazil, show that this effect lasts — meaning individuals who work with the medicine experience long-term reductions in addictive symptoms and, importantly, have no addictive side-effects.
Ayahuasca can improve overall life perspective.
Long-term studies conducted in Brazil involving patients with recurrent depressive disorders have found that although the most significant effects of working with the plants do in fact subside after a few months, the long-term impacts may be more inspiring. Participants’ overall view of their wellbeing and life experience changes for the better and many of them believe their experience with the medicine to be one of the most important experiences of their life — even 4-7 years later. Could this experience of connection and spiritual transcendence create a deeper impact than we know? It seems possible.
Ayahuasca is a safe, non-addictive approach to therapy.
Unlike many other pharmaceutical therapies, Ayahuasca has been seen in a longitudinal study to create no chemical dependency or tendency towards addiction — even among long-term ritual participants. This is likely in part due to the physical intensity of ceremony, but also a result of the chemical compounds of the plant. The plant also poses little physical threat to participants, having been shown to cause adverse side-effects only in extreme cases when combined with certain medication or administered in conjunction with more dangerous plant medicines.
Ceremonial use of Ayahuasca has resulted in decreased psychiatric symptoms.
A 2017 study published in Mental Health Clinician reviewed a number of short-term and longitudinal studies that have shown a decrease in psychopathology scores as well as more acute psychiatric symptom scores. Also reported were improvements in body image, satisfaction, serenity, and joy. Although the study is careful to say that more research is needed, the findings are certainly promising.
Ayahuasca has been used for centuries to support wellbeing.
Although the modern scientific research may still be unfolding, what we do know is this plant medicine has a very long history of being used in indigenous cultures across Central and South America. It has been used in ritual and ceremony and, some believe, even as a part of the educational experience. Embraced as a spiritual practice, a path for connection to self and the Divine, and a tool for healing the unwell under the guidance of a Shaman or curandero, history speaks for itself.
Is working with Ayahuasca for everyone? Certainly not. But could it be a powerful tool to support the mental wellbeing of a world that needs a more holistic, safe, and effective approach?
That’s for you to decide.