A hallucinogenic brew created in the villages of the Amazon jungle might soon join a growing wave of psychedelic drugs being repurposed for mental health treatments.
Called ayahuasca or “the vine of the soul,” the Amazon drug is created by brewing leaves and vines from plants that contain hallucinogens.
It has been used for centuries by shaman healers in South America, according to researchers.
In a recent study published in Nature, researchers examined how people who use ayahuasca report their overall well-being.
They then compared the results to people who use different hallucinogens or none at all.
The researchers from University College London, University of Exeter, University of Sao Paolo, and other institutions, examined data on almost 97,000 people who took part in a global survey on drug use.
In recent years, doctors have studied hallucinogenic drugs like ecstasy, ketamine, and LSD to see if they could be repurposed from recreational drugs to medical treatments for mental health disorders.
Some studies have found positive effects of using hallucinogens like ketamine to help patients with depression or PTSD.
What researchers learned
In this study, the vast majority of respondents (about 78,000) took drugs but not hallucinogens.
Another 18,000 reported using “classic” psychedelic drugs like LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Another 527 reported being users of ayahuasca.
The researchers found ayahuasca users reported high levels of well-being.
“Self-rated psychological well-being was better in ayahuasca users than either classic psychedelic users or other respondents in the survey,” the researchers wrote. “This finding fits with previous studies that have found beneficial effects of ayahuasca use on subjective well-being”
Users of ayahuasca also reported less desire to continue to use the drug and less problematic drinking habits compared to users of other psychedelic drugs.
Researchers said this indicates the drug may have potential to help with substance abuse issues.
“These findings suggest that ayahuasca has a very low abuse potential, which speaks to its safety as an emerging treatment for depression, anxiety, and drug addiction,” the authors wrote.
They did note that more study is needed to verify ayahuasca’s beneficial effects.
Drug has ‘great potential’
Dr. Philip E. Wolfson, a California-based psychiatrist, has been studying the effects of MDMA (ecstasy) and ketamine on patients with different disorders, including PTSD.
He said there’s a great deal of “hopefulness” about the drug in the medical community.
“It’s widely accepted among those of us who practice that ayahuasca has a great potential,” he told Healthline.
However, Wolfson said that this study shows that the drug should be studied as a potential treatment more than it proves that it can be used to treat depression or substance abuse.
He said further study is needed to understand the drug’s effects on users.
“The problem is that the number of ayahuasca users is small and stretched across many countries, and it’s relatively compartmentalized in terms of who those users are,” he said.
Shifting views on hallucinogens
Dr. Matthew Lorber, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said there has been a significant shift in recent years in how the medical community views hallucinogenic drugs and that this study is a continuation of these changing views.
“I think 15 years ago, if someone would have suggested that they are going to study ecstasy for therapy, it would have just raised eyebrows and people would have considered that a fringe person,” Lorber told Healthline.
Experiments where severely depressed patients were given ketamine and started to recover after a few sessions helped to change some of the attitudes around these drugs, Lorber said.
“It was studied here in Manhattan at Mount Sinai, and the results were amazing,” he said. “Ketamine was the first drug that really, really picked up steam.”
Lorber said today even some insurance companies will cover ketamine treatments for depression.
As a result, Lorber said it makes sense that researchers are going to investigate if ayahuasca could be another option for treating these mental health disorders.
Lorber said there needs to be more study to find out if using ayahuasca actually helps treat the “underlying anxiety and depression” that can increase the risk of substance abuse.
“Of course, we need to be very cautious,” Lorber said. But it’s “exciting for me to see the possibilities for new treatment modalities.”