The first time I ever heard of ayahuasca was when I was travelling to Peru and my brother asked if I was going to use it. After looking it up, I dismissed it as one of my little brother’s cockamamie ideas (btw I love the word cockamamie).
But I’ve heard more about ayahuasca since then, and I’ve learned that a big proponent of it is Dr. Gabor Mate, a physician who lives in my corner of the world who’s written a number of different books including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. I decided it would be worth having a listen to what Dr. Mate had to say about the use of ayahuasca in treating addictions and trauma. I watched The Jungle Prescription, an episode of the CBC program The Nature of Things, and an interview on The Smart Couple with Jayson Gaddis.
At least 70 different tribes have been identified in the Amazon Basin that use ayahuasca as part of their traditional plant-based healing approaches. Ayahuasca produces an intense, dreamlike state that’s often accompanied by nausea. This allows buried memories, particularly emotional memories, to rise up and lead to a sense of emotional catharsis. This can allow for the processing of trauma memories, and it can be useful for those with addictions to uncover and address the trauma that underlies the substance abuse.
Ayahuasca has been studied by scientists at the Sant Pau Institute of Biomedical Research in Barcelona, and they haven’t found it to be addictive. Ayahuasca has been shown to activate the neocortex, amygdala, and insula (which bridges emotional impulses and decision-making processes). This hyperactivity allows for new overriding connections to be formed based on re-evaluating memories.
The Jungle Prescription focused on the use of ayahuasca at the Takiwasi Center, an addiction treatment program in Peru. The staff includes physicians, psychotherapists, and traditional healers. Sixty percent of participants in its 9-12 month program remain drug-free at 3 years post-treatment, a stunning success rate.
Dr. Mate emphasizes the importance of the traditional context rather than just the plant itself. Traditional shamans who lead the process have been through their own healing journeys using the plant, and are able to offer guidance and help participants set intentions for the ceremony and interpret what comes up for them. It is a healing approach that focuses not only on the whole person but on the community as well, and aim to heal on a deep, spiritual level. The ayahuasca is used to alter consciousness and open up what is hidden inside, facilitating insights and expansion of the mind. It can be difficult to know what to do with this without the guidance of an experienced healer.
One of the benefits of ayahuasca is that it can facilitate insights that otherwise might take a long time to arrive it. However, Dr. Mate cautions that this isn’t an appropriate choice for everybody, and it’s not necessarily a better choice than other forms of treatment. I actually found this quite reassuring, as I’m always a bit skeptical when people claim their way is the only way.
I would say that with what I’ve learned, I’ve shifted from being dubious to genuinely interested. The idea of using a hallucinogen is kind of scary, but the traditional context sounds highly supported. I’m not planning on a trip to the Amazon anytime soon, but with talk about the potential of things like LSD and psilocybin in relation to mental health, it will be interesting to see what future role hallucinogens may end up playing in mental health care.