As soon as we enter medical school, there are endless lists of drugs, symptoms and diseases that suddenly invade our understanding of human beings and nature. In this novel scenario, there is a high risk of limiting “truth” to information found in academic references. While this is often necessary and adequate, we should also strive to glean evidence from other sources in order to optimize treatment of patients. Science is built upon researching new evidence and potential cures, so we should not restrict our practice to what is already known. Rather, we should learn from the academic truths while attempting to broaden our knowledge and abandon complacency in diagnosis and treatment.
Many ground-breaking discoveries have emerged after scientists dared to explore beyond the boundaries of the knowledge in their respective time periods. Therefore, if we decide to rely on those who came before, we should prepare to engage in the first step of the scientific method, which is observation.
Prior to the arrival of European conquerors to North America, indigenous groups from the Amazon basin already performed mystic rituals aimed at curing mental illness and physical ailments. These ancient societies had individuals whose roles incorporated aspects of healing. They included those who were proficient in handling these healing ceremonies and ensuring that they were treating members of their community. These healers were in charge of preparing an orally-ingested concoction for the events.
Some of these potions contained entheogens, which are psychoactive substances that induce what some may consider a spiritual experience aimed at mental and spiritual development. Sometimes, this concoction also contained ayahuasca, and was formed from a mixture of psychotria viridis — which contains the main entheogenic ingredients of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) — and banisteriopsis caapi, a natural source of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This powerful mixture was regarded as the gateway to deep emotions, inner thoughts and feelings and even the road to enlightenment. In addition, many testimonies described the intense aesthetic states of mind achieved after ingestion of this magical compound and its unbelievable cathartic properties.
Ayahuasca contains DMT, which is manufactured naturally in human brains, and there is evidence that ayahuasca could have positive effects on patients. DMT administration to healthy volunteers shows that this compound might be useful in reducing anxiety symptoms. Long-term ayahuasca users do not exhibit symptoms of psychiatric disorders or neurocognitive problems, but instead show improved cognitive function, increased well-being and spirituality and reduced psychopathology, including symptoms of anxiety and depression. Animal and human studies suggest that ayahuasca and its alkaloids can produce anxiolytic and anti-depressive effects, which are likely mediated by agonistic mechanism of 5-HT1A/2A/2C receptors. For example, adolescents who regularly consume ayahuasca show less signs of anxiety. Additionally, the use of ayahuasca increased assertiveness, joy of life and liveliness among the members of the Brazilian syncretic churches.
Victims of abuse and recovered addicts frequently mention that ayahuasca ingestion helped them to recover memories of traumatic events that they were then able to process and work through thus providing a basis for restructuring their personal lives. Additionally, cross-sectional and longitudinal case-control studies showed that ritual and religious ayahuasca users presented fewer alcohol-related problems than control groups. On magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), long-term use of ayahuasca has been shown to produce measurable changes in the brain such as differences in midline brain structures.
Ayahuasca can also help cure symptoms of depression. While commercial anti-depressants typically take a minimum of two to four weeks to have a therapeutic effect; ayahuasca is rapidly-acting. A single dose of ayahuasca administered to six volunteers with a current depressive episode significantly reduced depressive symptoms from baseline one, seven and twenty-one days after administration. Psychotic episodes associated with ayahuasca intake are rare and appear to be associated with individuals’ premorbid psychiatric conditions, concurrent use of other psychoactive substances and lack of trained supervision. Before ayahuasca or DMT is administered in a controlled setting, a thorough medication and drug use history should be gathered in order to reduce the occurrence of psychotic experiences.
In light of these results, this traditional medicine ritual deserves our attention. Ayahuasca and DMT may help us find the uncover cures to medical issues. Because DMT is produced by the human brain and released during the sleep cycle, exogenous administration of ayahuasca could lead to new approaches to studying normal and abnormal brain functions. Should this come to fruition, it would give researchers a radically different method of studying psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.
One could legitimately disregard these stories as mere pseudoscience or as nothing more than psychedelic fairy tales. However, it serves us, as critical thinkers and future scientists, to investigate these accounts for potential validity. We cannot lose the opportunities to widen our scientific background. Once we expand our options and begin looking at new methods of studying and treating disease instead of limiting ourselves to conventional pharmaceutical drugs, we can discover new ways to further medical progress.