More Evidence Psychoactives May Fight Depression: Ayahuasca Clinical Trials Begin

For anyone who has been struggling to cure or even manage their depression, the news that scientists are conducting clinical trials of psychedelics/psychoactives like ayahuasca is a sign of hope. For others, ayahuasca may seem like an excuse to get “high.” But scientists and researchers have hope that the drug can bridge gaps in brain chemistry that traditional anti-depressants and other drugs have not been able to cure.

In short, people feel—and research has shown—that using psychedelics has been able to make inroads where other antidepressants cannot. Now, clinical trials for ayahuasca have begun, and proponents of psychedelics are hopeful that the medical establishment will get on board with what some have been touting as a cure for ages.

How depression affects the brain

Anyone who has experienced depression knows how limiting it can be—not just in terms of mood and attitude, but in the everyday struggle to get things done and function normally. Depression sufferers have searched for a way to mitigate the life-altering effects of the illness for years, particularly when traditional medicine doesn’t produce the results they need to function.

In general, depression can be present one’s whole life, or be triggered by major life events like divorce, death and loss of a job. Sometimes major depressive episodes are caused by hormone imbalances, stress and genetics. Whatever the cause, depression can have a devastating effect on one’s everyday life and even their will to live.

Depressive episodes often go hand-in-hand with an overproduction of cortisol—the stress hormone that triggers a fight-or-flight response—which affects normal function in the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for making memories and regulating emotions, can shrink, and the amygdala, which also regulates emotion and sleep patterns, are both affected—even enlarged—by depression.

What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a mixture of two Brazilian plants, which is brewed into a tea that has psychedelic effects. Each year, people specifically travel to Brazil, where it is legal, to see if the plants will alleviate their mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, alcoholism and PTSD. The drug is made from the bark of a vine and a shrub found in the Amazon rainforest, and users report a four-hour trip which is characterized by a “deep introspection.”

The drug is so powerful that many scientists, newly enlightened after their own experiences, are interested in what it can do that traditional antidepressants cannot.

Ayahuasca and depression

Treatment-resistant depression can confound both patients and mental health practitioners. Yet a recent study revealed that 64% of people with treatment-resistant depression reported a reduction in symptoms after a single dose of ayahuasca. The deep introspection that patients feel helps them find perspective regarding their lives, but is often associated with religious experiences as well.

Shamans, for example, have used ayahuasca for centuries as part of religious ceremonies. Some researchers are hesitant to do more study out of an interest in respecting their culture; they believe there needs to be a balance between the scientific and sacred.

Clinical trials

Much like “magic mushrooms” or psilocybin, ayahuasca clinical trials are performed by placing a subject in a room with the drug, calming music and a therapist or psychiatrist. Scientists are interested in how the drug functions with a guided and introspective “trip,” which the setting is designed to facilitate.

In fact, the music is deliberately chosen to be different from that which is played in traditional ayahuasca ceremonies, to ensure that the results are independent of that specific experience. They also have a shaman on hand in the event that the subject undergoes a spiritual crisis during the trip.

Some researchers are developing an ayahuasca pill, which reduces the risk of vomiting—a surprisingly controversial position. Practitioners and members of the ayahuasca communities feel that the vomiting provides a way for the body to physically rid itself of emotional trauma. Whether that is an actual scientific or simply an emotional way of viewing the drug is up to scientists to discover.

Religious concerns

Some ayahuasca users—including scientists and cultural anthropologists—are concerned about what scientific research will do in terms of the cultural and religious significance of the drug. They believe we should continue to research and use the drug, but to be cautious of the way scientific research can undermine the very real effects ayahuasca can have on a person’s worldview and perspective.

One thing is clear: ayahuasca is a promising solution for those with treatment-resistant depression.

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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