Psychedelic Ayahuasca Studied For Depression Relief


There are research studies being done on the effectiveness of ayahuasca – a psychedelic – for treating depression.

The studies are being done are in South America, where the use of ayahuasca for religious purposes is allowed. The South American rainforest is also where people go to experience for themselves the psychedelic properties of ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca is traditionally a sacramental brew made from the bark of Banisteriopsis caapi, a jungle vine, and Psychotria viridis, the leaves of a shrub. Users of ayahuasca have long reported that after the psychedelic effect of the drug has worn off, they continue to feel extremely well for days or weeks afterward.

Preliminary Encouragement

The most recent ayahuasca study was small, but the results encouraged further research. The participants had mild to severe depression that had not responded to at least one standard antidepressant. No participant had used ayahuasca prior to the study.

  • Participants sat in a quiet, dimly lit room after drinking the ayahuasca. Standard depression questionnaires tracked their depressive symptoms.
  • Within two to three hours improvement in depression symptoms were noted.
  • The statistically significant improvements held steady over the following three weeks.

In this preliminary study, the ayahuasca was not tested against a placebo. However, there is a larger ayahuasca study underway at a Brazilian University that is randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled. Results should be reported later this year.

Biochemical Benefits

Researchers will not be surprised if ayahuasca does well in further depression studies since it is biochemically suited to influence brain neurotransmitters. For instance, ayahuasca contains compounds that increase the concentration of serotonin in the brain, as does some commercial antidepressants.

  • The hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine in ayahuasca binds to serotonin receptors.
  • The chemicals harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline in ayahuasca are believed to inhibit an enzyme that breaks down serotonin and other neurotransmitters.

“It is possible that ayahuasca and other serotonergic psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, may be useful as antidepressants for particular subsets of patients in the future,” says psychiatrist James Stone at King’s College London. “We await the results of well-designed, random controlled trials to determine clinical effectiveness.”

Other psychedelic or recreational drugs being studied for their therapeutic benefits are ketamine (for depression), psilocybin (for anxiety, and depression), MDMA or ecstasy (for PTSD), and LSD (for cluster headaches).

Source: Nature
Photo credit: Dick Culbert / flickr creative commons


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