Could Ayahuasca Shape the Future of Mental Health Treatment?

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The Healing Potential of Ayahuasca: Could Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies Shape The Future of Mental Health Treatment?

Clinicians at the helm of psychedelic research explore the therapeutic benefits of Ayahuasca and its treatment potential for mental health conditions. In interview with the Professionally Psychedelics podcast, researchers Dr. Simon Ruffell and WaiFung Tsang discuss the cultural significance of Ayahuasca, the lack of effective mental health treatments in the UK, and what Ayahuasca treatments might look like in the Western paradigm.

Could Ayahuasca Fill the Mental Health Treatment Gap?

Ayahuasca is a plant-derived psychoactive brew used as a spiritual medicine among indigenous communities of the Amazon basin. Its usage dates back over a thousand years and is traditionally administered to patients by a shaman or curandero — experienced healers — in Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Dr. Ruffell was moved to investigate the therapeutic benefits of Ayahuasca as a result of “the lack of effective medical treatments that we had for our patients.” Researcher Tsang describes a similar experience of bearing witness to the “revolving door phenomenon” in mental health treatment centres in the UK. Both a lack of accessibility in the NHS and the limited efficacy of talking therapies result in a treatment gap for conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and addiction.

Although the therapeutic effects of Ayahuasca have been benefitting indigenous users of the plant since time immemorial, the Western medical model requires empirical evidence for treatments to be implemented. Anecdotal and personal experiences demonstrating the powerful healing properties of Ayahuasca in treatment centres in South America, led Ruffell and Tsang to study the therapeutic value of this ancient plant medicine through a scientific lens. Ruffell explains that their aim is not to replace psychiatric medications, but to find “novel ways of treating mental health problems in the typical Western academic structure.”

Legitimising Ayahuasca in Modern Medicine

Driven in their pursuit to develop alternative treatments, Ruffell and Tsang self-funded their first empirical study of Ayahuasca. By conducting observational research at an Ayahuasca treatment centre in Iquitos, Peru, Ruffell and Tsang were able to study the impacts of Ayahuasca on personality in Ayahuasca’s natural setting, with “as little impact as possible on the participants and their experience.” Ruffell and Tsang were rewarded for the encouraging results of this pioneering study with funding for more extensive Ayahuasca research from the UK’s Medical Research Council.

Funding from the MRC allowed Ruffell and Tsang to conduct controlled laboratory research into the effects of Ayahuasca on gene expression. Published in 2021, this was the “first ever DNA study in psychedelics,” explains Tsang. The broader aim of this research is to facilitate the integration of Ayahuasca into the Western medical framework in a safe and effective way. Ruffell delightedly informs Professionally Psychedelics that Ayahuasca is “very safe when used appropriately with appropriate people,” although he warns that this may not always be the case outside of medical settings where people – on occasion – unknowingly consume substances which are not actually Ayahuasca.

“There are so many parallels between the psychedelic experience and ceremony and what people go through in psychotherapy.”

— Ayahuasca Researcher Waifung Tsang

Ruffell’s primary reservation, as a Western medical practitioner, is that caution must be exercised when treating disorders that could lead to psychosis. This is because of the concentrations of DMT — an incredibly potent psychedelic — found in Ayahuasca. Although further study is required to determine which mental health disorders the plant will be most effective for, indigenous shamans have successfully treated “a wide variety of conditions using Ayahuasca.”

Honouring Ancient Ayahuasca Traditions

Both researchers stress the importance of developing therapies which respect and honour the deep-rooted, shamanic ceremonial history of Ayahuasca, without culturally appropriating the traditions. Ayahuasca could be incorporated into Western practice as a clinical compound or as an alternative treatment, synonymous with therapies like acupuncture.

Ruffell believes that tradition can be used to guide and inspire the administration of Ayahuasca in Western medical settings. He also admits that the nature of this sacred medicine means that this is “a little bit like trying to squeeze a square shape into a circular hole.” Tsang concurs that treatments should be administered within the safeguards of the traditions which have developed over millennia. The role that ceremony plays in helping people navigate these deep psychedelic experiences is a key aspect of the treatment. A natural consequence of this approach might be administering Ayahuasca treatments through psychedelic-assisted therapies which mirror the ceremony structure.

Psychedelic Assisted Therapy: The Future of Ayahuasca in the West

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is a practice that involves taking a psychedelic substance as part of a psychotherapeutic process. It is already used in the West with substances, such as psilocybin and MDMA. Ayahuasca shows promise to be a fitting substance for this setting, explains Tsang, because “there are so many parallels between the psychedelic experience and ceremony and what people go through in psychotherapy.”

Psychedelics lend themselves best to person-centered therapies like the psychodynamic approach, as well as compassion-based therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapies or counselling. This is a person-centered approach where patients consume psychedelics in a safe setting. Instructions for therapists facilitating psychedelic therapy are often minimal, with a “focus on the inner healing intelligence of the participants.” In this way, patients pave their own healing journey, prompted where necessary by their therapeutic guide.

When asked whether therapists would have to have used Ayahuasca themselves in order to effectively administer treatment, both researchers believe this isn’t strictly necessary. Therapists can familiarize themselves with the plant through research and even Virtual Reality (VR) experiences, which can promote a deep and practical understanding of Ayahuasca. Tsang elaborates that “insights and understandings that people gain from psychedelic experiences can equally be gained from life itself.”

This addresses the crux of what curanderos believe Ayahuasca to be: a teacher. In this way, shamans, patients, therapists and medical practitioners alike can learn from the wisdom that Ayahuasca has to offer. Ayahuasca is a plant that facilitates feelings of interconnection, compassion, empathy, togetherness and love. And access to these emotions — however they arise — can promote acceptance of the challenges we face in our lifetime.

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