Ayahuasca and psychedelics against depression

A new study confirms that psychedelics could treat depression and anxiety. This type of healing does not only belong in laboratories but it has ancient history, The Courier explore.

Peter Lennon
12th May 2022
Credits: Canva
In April 2021, a study conducted at King’s College London reported success in using psilocybin – found in ‘magic mushrooms’ – to treat depression. The small study, which consisted of 89 able participants, was conducted in two groups. The first group of 60 received a dose of either 10mg or 25mg of psilocybin in a controlled environment, followed by one-to-one support from a psychotherapist. The second group of 29 received a placebo and psychological reports.

The study, which uses a Class A drug, has shown promising results thus far, with the psychedelic effects giving the brain an opportunity to free itself from the rut of negative thoughts. The authors of the report, however, stress that the therapy between dose administrations is vital to the success of overcoming Treatment-resistant Depression (TRD). The study has sparked hope with the field and has moved into Phase III of its study.

A video about the healing power of psychedelics by the Time. Credits: Time via Youtube

Although the psilocybin study has emerged as new research, the use of psychedelic drugs to treat depression is a much older tale. The use of psychedelics can be traced back as far as the ancient world, where shamans used such herbs to access the spiritual realm in religious rites. Due to their featuring in such practices, however, the psychedelics were not considered for their medicinal effects by the western world, who instead labelled such techniques as purely spiritual in nature.

However, in South America the use of ayahuasca – a psychoactive brew – continues to be used in spiritual ceremonies and for its medicinal purposes. The brew commonly comprises of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Pschotria virdis shrub, with the latter plant containing N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT); the DMT acts as the primary psychoactive. Furthermore, the brew is mixed with tea for oral consumption.

DMT. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Much like the control provided by scientific experts, shamans and curanderos (a traditional native healer) advise consumers of ayahuasca to do so in the presence of an experienced user due to the hallucinogenic effects of the substance. Furthermore, such shamans also warn those of brujos (witches), who have reportedly lured tourists to partake in the consumption, with the brujos using their high state to absorb their life energy – an energy that is believed to be limited in all humans.

The ceremony that features the consumption of ayahuasca is led by the shamans themselves, often taking place over the course of a whole night. The effects of the brew can last for hours and is usually followed by purging (vomiting and diarrhea). The purge supposedly relinquishes the body of negative energy. Participants in the ceremony are also advised to abstain from certain foods and activities, such as red meats and sex.

Beyond the continued spiritual practices of the brew, however, lies a potential antidepressant akin to the psilocybin being currently used in British clinical trials. In a randomized placebo-controlled trial in 2018, ayahuasca was shown to be significantly effects against TRD from a single dose. Additionally, the results of the trial indicated that the brew had also been effective against anxiolytic, reducing the severeness of the users’ anxiety.

Preparation of Ayahuasca. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the centuries old usage of such drugs, as well as the promising trials conducted with modern medicine techniques, the biggest hurdle for such treatment will be in bypassing or overturning the strict laws against Class A drugs. As of this writing, both ayahuasca and psilocybin are illegal controlled substances in the United Kingdom, with their usage being strictly limited to such clinical trials. The United States has similar laws in place, with the exception of usage in religious/spiritual ceremonies.

However, with more success in future phases and a continued emphasis on the importance of therapy sessions to guide the “unlocked” mind between doses, the medical community will hopefully be able to prove both the viability and safety of the treatment.  

Read also: Magic Mushrooms and Music Against Depression

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AUTHOR: Peter Lennon
English Literature undergraduate. Although I primarily write for the Courier's Film section, I do love helping out in the Televsion and Gaming sections as well. I also organise and host livestreams/radio shows as FilmSoc's inaugural Head of Radio. Twitter: @PeterLennon79

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