Does Ayahuasca Have a Role in Mental Health?

Does ayahuasca have a role in mental health? - graphic of ayahuasca leaves in a pot

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 his 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’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, on the CBC’s The Nature of Things, and an interview on The Smart Couple with Jayson Gaddis.

How ayahuasca may help

At least 70 different tribes in the Amazon Basin 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 doesn’t appear to be addictive. Its effects include activating 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.

Traditional uses

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.

The approach focuses not only on the whole person, but on the community as well. The aim is to heal on a deep, spiritual level. The ayahuasca is used to alter consciousness and open up what’s 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.

The role ayahuasca may play

One benefit of ayahuasca is that it can facilitate insights that otherwise might take a long time to uncover. However, Dr. Mate cautions that this isn’t an appropriate choice for everybody, and it’s not necessarily better than other forms of treatment. I actually found this 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.

You may also be interested in the post Cannabis & Mental Illness: What Does the Research Say?

12 thoughts on “Does Ayahuasca Have a Role in Mental Health?”

  1. Revenge of Eve

    I can totally see how this can help with past traumas. There were times when I would use LSD that others would warn of a “bad trip”, I now wonder if it were their past traumas resurfacing and without assistance they were unable to recognize what was going on. I never experienced that. My days of LSD were full of laughter and mind puzzles. I don’t see how it would assist with addictions but I would be willing to give a go for both purposes with assistance. I no longer use hallucinogens recreationally.

  2. I’ve been curious myself. The few times I’ve used psilocybin mushrooms I’ve found that my mind remains clear for 3-4 months. I was actually able to come off my meds during that time. However it’s illegal nature made it more difficult to find. I know someone who went through a whole ritual with Ayahuasca and she claims she is a new person. We lost touch and I can’t help wondering how long the effects last.

  3. Shaun Groenesteyn

    Ayahuasca is doing magical things for mental health. Great article…really enjoyed reading it.

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