How Ayahuasca Can Revolutionize Psychotherapy
Article from Wakingtimes.com
A look at the psychoactive brew that brings users a spiritual payoff for their “work”
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate), and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room’s rafters.
McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.
“This is nothing,” he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. “Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger.”
McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the ’60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimson weed, but never ayahuasca: There was none.
“It was this rare, legendary thing,” McKenna remembers.
The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultesfollowed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn’t much more than that.
“There was nothing,” says McKenna.
Seeking to change that, McKenna embarked on his first trip to South America at age 20. A decade later, he returned, this time to research his dissertation. After months in the jungle, he brought plant samples back to his lab, where he showed for the first time how ayahuasca works.
To make the brew, shamans boil together two Amazonian plants for many hours, sometimes days. As they simmer, the DMT contained in one of the plants mixes with the other one, the Banisteriopsis vine, and its key ingredient: monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs. Normally when people ingest DMT — a not-uncommon compound in nature — the monoamine oxidase in our gut knocks it out. But the Banisteriopsis allows the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
By the middle of the 20th century, several Brazilian churches splintered off from the shamans and took ayahuasca into a formal setting. In 1991, one of these — a group called the Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV — invited McKenna to one of its twice-monthly ceremonies, during which the tea is administered as a sacrament. (A New Mexico-based branch of the church won a 2006 Supreme Court case allowing them to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies.)
In a room with 500 other people, McKenna drank first one cup, then a second, and was plunged into one of the most vivid ayahuasca visions of his life: a molecule’s-eye view of photosynthesis, or as he explains it, “the force on which life depends.”
When McKenna returned to his body, he writes in his new book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, “I knew that I had been given an inestimable gift.”
McKenna began devising a study to look at the biomedical effects of ayahuasca, and within two years, he was back in Brazil. On this trip, he brought along a team that included Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist who heads the Division of Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
“Nowadays, the word is out,” Grob says. “But when we did this, I’d say, ‘We’re doing an ayahuasca study,’ and people would say, ‘aya-what-sca?’”
For about a month in the summer of 1993, the team of the Hoasca Project ran tests on 15 randomly selected members of the UDV church, all of them men who had been using ayahuasca regularly for at least 10 years. The scientists ran the same tests on similarly aged men who had never been exposed to ayahuasca.
The researchers measured every biological metric they could think of — blood pressure, heart rate, pupil dilation, body temperature — and used structured psychiatric interviews to get where their instruments couldn’t: inside the participants’ minds.
Many of the men had struggled with alcoholism and depression prior to joining the church, Grob learned. They credited ayahuasca with transforming their outlook. “In some cases,” Grob says, “they felt like it had saved their lives.”
When the researchers left Brazil and started processing their data, the blood work came back with one of the project’s most startling discoveries: The long-term ayahuasca users showed higher levels of the transporters of serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood.
“That’s the target that antidepressants work on, and here it was significantly elevated in the drinkers,” McKenna says.
Deficits in serotonin transporters are also connected with problems like alcoholism and depression — the same issues the 15 subjects said the ayahuasca had helped cure.
“Here we have a medicine that apparently reverses these deficits, something no other medicine is known to do,” explains McKenna. “And there’s also a correlation to behavioral change. You can’t say it caused it, but there’s definitely a correlation.”
Today, 20 years after the study, McKenna is preparing to revisit the findings. Within a year, he aims to raise enough money to fund a new study, this time in Peru, to look at the effects of ayahuasca on people with PTSD.
He hopes that additional research will help him establish his ultimate goal: a destination medical clinic in Peru.
“If we can bring together the best of shamanism and the best of psychotherapy, I think we can offer a new paradigm for healing,” says McKenna. “What we’re really trying to do here is revolutionize psychiatry.”
Lisa Yeo doesn’t look like a junkie. The 47-year-old has shimmering blond hair and clear skin, and wears a stylish tangerine shirt. It’s Halloween, and her two dogs — a Shih Tzu and a Dachshund — yap incessantly as kids come to the door.
Just eight years ago, she weighed 80 pounds and was missing her two front teeth.
Yeo’s father gave her her first alcoholic drink at age six, and she was drinking alone by age 11. As a teen, she developed a cocaine addiction, and in her early 20s, she set out on a path that would take her to heroin, crack, and prostitution.
On August 11, 2005, as cops walked her out of a hotel where they had found her shooting up, Yeo realized she was finally ready to change.
She went to rehab for a year, then a recovery house for another two years. But she still wasn’t totally sober: For 18 years, she’d been receiving a court-ordered dose of the opiate substitute methadone. Now, she wanted off all drugs, once and for all.
As Yeo reduced her dose, her body started breaking down. Doctors told her that quitting the methadone was dangerous, and advised her to just accept it as a fact of her life. To Yeo, the thought of staying on methadone was unbearable, and she began contemplating suicide.
Then she heard of a famous Canadian addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate. Yeo set up a meeting.
“I told him this big long story, and at the end of it, he said, ‘Lisa, I think I can offer you a potential way out of this,’” Yeo remembers. “It was just like, really?”
First, Yeo spent a summer at a treatment clinic in Mexico, where she used other traditional plant medicines, iboga and ibogaine, to help wean her body off opiates. By October 2012, Yeo was ready for step two, and boarded another plane to Mexico, this time for a week-long ayahuasca retreat.
The night of her first ceremony, Yeo walked onto a round platform with a roof open to the jungle around it. Not long after she drank – “it tasted bitter, but it didn’t taste as bad as some of the things I’d ingested in my life” — Yeo began to feel something prodding at her liver, damaged by hepatitis C.
“I felt what I thought of as a vine going into the area where I had the pain, and circle, circle, circle,” Yeo remembers. “Then there would be this release, and the pain would be gone.”
The night of the second ceremony, Yeo’s experience shifted: This time, she saw a slideshow of people who had shown her kindness, “babysitters to social workers to prison guards,” Yeo remembers. “It was like flash cards, and at the very end was my mom.”
Yeo has since done a second ayahuasca retreat with Mate, and credits the vine with helping her discover who she is without substances.
“It has given me a go-to place of safety, and a knowing of how to be gentle with myself when any tormenting thoughts creep in,” Yeo says. “It just lifts the trauma, it lifts the pain.”
Treatment for addiction disorders is one of the most promising areas of therapeutic ayahuasca use, in part because doctors still don’t have many other good options.
“Someone walks in your office today, you’re going to basically say the same thing your predecessor might have said 50 or 60 years ago, which is, ‘Find a 12-step group, and if you’re lucky and it’s a good fit, maybe it will help,’” explains Grob. “Otherwise, we don’t have a whole hell of a lot to offer.”
The psycho-spiritual experiences that ayahuasca provides — “like a mystical-level state,” Grob says — seem to offer an effect similar to that of certain faith-based aspects of 12-step groups: showing addicts that there is a power greater than themselves.
When Mate first heard of ayahuasca, he had recently published his book on addictions, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. People kept writing him, asking if he knew about “this weird plant,” Mate remembers. Eventually, he decided to try it himself.
During his first retreat, Mate saw the connection to treating addiction right away.
“The ayahuasca experience just dissolved my defenses,” he says. “I experienced a deep sense of love, tears of joy racing down my face.”
Mate began organizing retreats of his own. He brought in shamans to lead the ceremonies, and used his own training to help participants prepare for, process, and integrate what they experienced.
“It’s not a question of, ‘Here’s a drug that’s going to fix you,’” Mate explains. “It’s, ‘Here’s a substance under the effect of which you’ll be able to do a kind of self-exploration that otherwise might not be available to you, or otherwise might take you years to get to.’”
In 2011, a Canadian First Nations community contacted Mate to treat some tribe members with chronic substance-dependence problems. Mate agreed, and in June, arrived at a remote village for the first of two retreats. A team of researchers, led by the addiction specialist Dr. Gerald Thomas, came along.
Since Grob and McKenna’s study in 1993, some limited research had been done on ayahuasca: Scientists had performed brain scans of ayahuasca users, and administered freeze-dried ayahuasca in a lab. But no one had followed up on ayahuasca’s therapeutic potential. Thomas and his team were ready to continue the work…