Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Amazon's Antidepressant | Ayahuasca

Gringos who go to the Amazon are usually there to perform some ethno-botanical experiments with ayahuasca, a sacred concoction brewed from the ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves, and a variety of forest goodies.

I thought only hippies and New-Age "witches" took ayahuasca seriously outside of the jungle. I was very surprised, then, when my hosts decided I should travel to a shamanic village deep in the jungle and try the sacred ayahuasca. I declined politely, because all I'd heard of ayahuasca was that it was like peyote - which is to say that it made you so sick you started hallucinating. The offer lingered in my mind, though ... had I overstayed my welcome that badly, or did ayahuasca truly have something to offer me?

Fast forward five years and I've learned that (in addition to being a vehicle for rapid entrance into the spirit realms) practitioners of Western medicine have discovered ayahuasca can also be used as an anti-depressant - and they're taking it seriously enough to begin clinical research. Kira Salak reported in her March 2006 article for National Geographic:
"At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA's School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a native church, the UniĆ£o do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin—one of the mood-regulating chemicals produced by the body—by increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.

Unlike most common antidepressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body's ability to absorb the serotonin that's naturally there.

"Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs]," Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is "a rather crude way" of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution."

Yes, that's a huge chunk of text, but it's important because it shows that ayahuasca could work as an antidepressant without all the nasty (often, enduring!) side effects from mainstream antidepressants.

The primary ingredient of ayahuasca is the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which is mixed with the shrubs containing dimethyltryptamine. Dimethyltryptamine is a naturally occurring psychedelic drug said to be analogous to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Neat, right? The problem is, each brew seems to vary in potency depending on the brewer.

Oh, and heads up: "In addition to its hallucinogenic properties, caapi is used for its healing properties as a purgative, effectively cleansing the body of parasites and helping the digestive tract" (Thanks, Wikipedia!).

Ever die of dysentery playing Oregon Trail? It's like that, only in South America.

Dr. Grob explains some the long-term effects of ayahuasca below:

It's clear that taking ayahuasca is not something that should be done on a lark - still, I want to experience it after reading Kira Salak's personal website and her article, but that's more to do with the the fact that I've taken "mainstream" antidepressants and haven't been impressed by them. After more research is done, I'd be willing to give it a try ...

... I'll have to find a decent "guide" to walk me through the experience, however - I don't want to end up in bat country!

No comments:

Post a Comment