Ayahuasca, the hallucinogen from deep in the Peruvian Amazon, has burst onto the world stage. From Iquitos, Peru to New York City, Westerners are drawn to the promise of this indigenous mixture as a cure for ills from depression to Alzheimer’s, and from cancer to Parkinson’s.
Recent Brazilian university research highlights ayahuasca’s potential in alleviating depression. Affecting 350 million people worldwide, depression is resistant to existing bio-chemical treatments in a third of its sufferers. As prescription drugs usually take about two weeks to kick in, ayahuasca’s fast-acting potential is receiving a lot of attention.
A study at the Brain Institute at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in early 2017 reported depression dropping from severe to mild in two-thirds of the 17 people who ingested ayahuasca. Another group received a placebo, and while they almost all expressed initial improvement (a common response in depressed patients), this fell off significantly a week later. None of the participants had ever taken ayahuasca or similar drugs before.
Dr. Fernanda Palhano-Fontes led the trial. “What most caught our attention,” she wrote in an email, “was that the majority of patients reported feelings of peace and tranquility two days after the ayahuasca session.” The next step, according to Dr. Palhano-Fontes, is to test whether repeated doses over a longer time interval prolong the positive results found by the research team.
How ayahuasa and psychoactive substances similar to it impact the brain is so far uncertain. But research on psilocybin at the University of London revealed that these drugs modify brain communication, effectively changing thought patterns in a more positive direction. “One of the characteristics of the depressed brain is that it gets stuck in a loop, and you get locked into repetitive and negative thoughts,” University of London researcher Paul Expert told the Huffington Post.
In the home of ayahuasca, the matriarchal Shipibo-Conibo culture, shamans have consumed the potent mixture for centuries to communicate with the supernatural world, either to ask for healing or to rain down harm on enemies. Meaning “vine of the souls,” and also called Yage, ayahuasca is prepared by boiling and soaking the woody bark and glossy leaves of two jungle plants. The active ingredient is DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), structurally analogous to serotonin, the brain neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in humans, and controls mood and anxiety. Serotonin is widely found in prescription anti-depressant drugs.
The Shipibo-Conibo live in dispersed communities strung along the Ucayali River. Known for their stunning geometric designs on textiles and pottery inspired by shamanic songs, many have moved closer to nearby cities, often to escape logging and drug trafficking. “Gas exploration and evangelical Christianity are the most recent threats,” said Mick Huerta, an author who lives among the Shipibo and is writing a book on ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is treated with deep reverence and respect. It is traditionally taken only by fully-initiated local shamans who isolate themselves, follow a specific diet and refrain from sexual relations. Serious Western ayahuasca practitioners tend to respect this traditional regime: a week before participating in an ayahuasca ceremony participants abstain from consuming meat, salt, sugar, coffee and alcohol.
Although it has its origins in the rainforest, ayahuasca use has spread over the past hundred years to rural, low-income and mestizo, or mixed-race, populations in parts of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. From there, in the 1970s, the reports of its healing properties disseminated it worldwide, a process that took off in the early 1990s.
Ayahuasaca’s current trendy status among Westerners has created a veritable cottage industry of somewhere between 30 and 100 ayahuasca centers around the steamy tropical town of Iquitos, Peru. “Iquitos is the Disneyland of Ayahuasca,” Huerta said. “The boom is changing both the people who come and the people providing the medicine. There is a valuing of indigenous culture and knowledge on the one hand, and people taking advantage of it on the other.”
Huerta explained that with the average daily wage standing at $3 for a 10-hour day, meaning that local indigenous people are very poor, the chance to make several hundred dollars off an ayahuasca ceremony has a strong pull. “They can feed a family for four months on what they make from one ceremony,” he explained.
The Iquitos centers are mostly in the hands of Westerners, with almost none of the necessary safety elements in place. Cases of sexual assaults and deaths have been reported. Genuine practitioners and researchers agree that ayahuasca should not be used by those on anti-depressants or who suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis or mania.
A second World Ayahuasca Conference was held last October in Rio Branco, in the Brazilian Amazon. “With the rapid globalization of ayahuasca use, dialogue about cultural recognition and the protection of traditional practices worldwide is now more important than ever” stated its advertising. However, indigenous participants wrote that they did not feel “included in the conference’s creation and organisation.” This highlights the ongoing gulf between middle class and mostly white people working to bring ayahuasca’s gifts to the world and impoverished Indigenous Peoples struggling to ensure that this dissemination strengthens their possibilities for survival.