What is plant medicine? Simply put, it is the use of some variation of leaves, roots, or stems to treat ailments. In the United States, the most common way for people to utilize plants is through the use of essential oils. In other parts of the world plants may be steeped or soaked to make a brew. Ayahuasca, also known as caapi or yage, is one such brew endemic to many indigenous tribes located in the Amazon Basin. It is now being witnessed by western science that plant medicine has the capacity to heal physical ailments and disease, restore mental functionality, develop spirituality, purpose and lasting happiness.
What is Ayahuasca?
In the Quechua language, where the word derives from, ayahuasca refers to both the jungle liana (vine) Banisteriopsis caapi used to make the brew and the psychoactive drink itself which can contain one of several different added plant species depending on geographical area. The brew is thought to have been used in the Amazon for thousands of years and it is unknown how it was first discovered.
The Scientific Study of Ayahuasca
Scientific history detailing ayahuasca began in 1851 when an English botanist named Richard Spruce discovered the use of the same plant among several different South American tribes. Spruce published his fieldwork in a book titled Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon & Andes in which he details the use of the “caapi” plant.
Shamans view the herb as a portal into the spirit world, and they believe it can heal illnesses such as depression, addiction, and cancer. The healing power of ayahuasca is so revered it is referred to as “The Medicine”, meaning that it is the only medicine. The effects of ayahuasca include both auditory and visual stimulation as well as the potential for heavy introspection. People have reported different experiences that can include elation and/or fear with users detailing the experience as transformative or somehow life-changing.
The Chemistry of Ayahuasca
Research on the chemical profiles and makeup of different ayahuasca brews was first seriously studied by Richard Evans Schultes in the 1950’s. Schultes, who later became a professor at Harvard and was eventually known as “the father of modern ethnobotany”, initially went to the Amazon to study arrow poisons. He soon began investigating other plants that had the potential to be useful. This was not a small task considering the Amazon contains over 80,000 plant species, but Schultes believed that the “native botanists” within the local indigenous societies had thousands of years of plant-medicine “research” that had been passed on from generation to generation. By collaborating with native Amazonians, Schultes was able to effectively narrow his research to focus on plants that already had a known history and lore to build from including the various brews known as Ayahuasca. He explained his research in a 1990 interview stating:
“Ethnobotany simply means someone who is investigating plants used by primitive societies in various parts of the world. It’s as simple as that. And ethnobotany has been around for many, many, many thousands of years. We are now trying to salvage some of the knowledge that primitive societies have amassed over thousands of years, and passed down from father to son orally. And with every road that goes in, every airport, every missionary, every commercial person, even tourism, this is fast disappearing”
Schultes found that the psychotropic effects of the brew depends on the synergistic chemical reaction of two botanical sources, one always being the alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi vine (or close relative) and the other being one of several potential admixture plants that contain the alkaloid N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Two alkaloids present in the B. caapi vine work as selective and reversible inhibitors of Monoamine oxidase (MAOI). Elevated levels of MAO-A is seen in patients diagnosed as having major depressive order and is also associated with aggression and panic disorder. DMT is an alkaloid known as a potent and “short-lived” hallucinogen. DMT is not active orally unless it is combined with an MAOI, such as is the case with ayahuasca. A common feature of a hallucinogenic experience with DMT is the presence of human-like beings that are perceived as otherworldly or spirit-like. The terms “machine elves” was coined by ethnobotanist Terence McKenna to describe this phenomena.
Scientists Begin to Investigate the Psychological Effects of Ayahuasca
The first scientific investigation of the psychological effects of Ayahuasca began in 1993 by an international consortium of scientists. The United States’ contribution was led by Charles Grob, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles. Grob was invited to study “hoasca” users belonging to a syncretic church in Manaus, Brazil that had adopted the use of the brew. It is interesting to note that both the shamanic uses of ayahuasca among aboriginals and within mestizo folk medicine were used for healing or divination purposes, while contemporary use in syncretic churches of Brazil was based more in ritual, similar to the Christian Eucharist.
In 1993, when Grob began his study, Ayahuasca had been legal in the context of religious ceremonies for six years. Still, contemporary use by the churches spanned much further back and Grob had access to individuals who had been drinking ayahuasca brews religiously for more than 30 years. Grob’s subjects consisted of 15 male volunteers who belonged to the religious movement Uni’ do Vegetal (UDV) and ingested ayahuasca approximately twice per month for at least 10 years. A control group consisted of 15 males of the same age, diet, and socio-economic status. Grob and his team used a combination of diagnostic interviews and personality testing. Grob’s findings point towards a correlation between ingesting ayahuasca and the reduction of psychiatric disorders:
Prior to membership in the UDV, eleven of the UDV subjects had diagnoses of alcohol misuse disorders, two had had past major depressive disorders, four had past histories of drug misuse (cocaine and amphetamines), eleven were addicted to tobacco, and three had past phobic anxiety disorders. Five of the subjects with a history of alcoholism also had histories of violent behavior associated with binge drinking. All of these pathological diagnoses had remitted following entry into the UDV. All of the UDV subjects interviewed reported the subjective impression that their use of hoasca tea within the context of the UDV had led to improved mental and physical health, and significant improvements in interpersonal, work, and family interactions.
Is Ayahuasca Legal?
In the United States, one of the ingredients in ayahuasca, DMT, is a controlled schedule 1 drug, but the brew itself is in somewhat of a “grey area” with some supporters claiming that although the plant contains DMT, Ayahuasca is not a hallucinogen. Others simply feel the use of the plant should qualify as a religious exemption. At the time of this writing there are no formally exempt churches in the US and those who wish to experience the brew are seeking out “ayahuasca retreats” in places like Costa Rica and Peru.
All in all, this brew has created hope in those who suffer from depression that does not respond to other known medications. As more people become aware of its effects, the desire to have it legalized in the United States will increase. Once experimental studies with large sample sizes repeatedly prove the efficacy of the brew, the government will be forced to face this treatment and consider legalizing it outside of religious uses. Research in Brazil is reinforcing the changing mindset regarding Ayahuasca and it’s likely safe to say that until it is legalized, people will continue to flock to healing centers to try the brew that is reported to help those who did not believe help existed for them.