The Ayahuasca Effect
By Kirby Surprise Psy.D
The world’s most powerful antidepressant and psychotherapeutic agent may be a natural herbal tea.
As many as 40 million Americans will suffer from some form of depression during their lifetimes. For some depression will be a mercifully short episode in their lives, for millions it becomes a chronic experience of emotional pain that devastates all areas of their lives. Depression is notoriously difficult to treat, especially in its chronic form. Talk therapy is often ineffective, and anti-depressive medications sometimes have unwanted side effects. Medications such as Webutrin, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft often leave the client with sexual dysfunction, agitation, sleeplessness and alterations in their personalities. These medications can and do save lives, but for some the side effects make them less than satisfactory answers to long term clinical depression.Ayahuasca is a tea made from a combination of legally available plants that produces a profound alteration in consciousness. It has been used for thousands of years by South American shamans, and is currently used as a sacrament in at least two Christian based religions in with world wide memberships. It is noted for the power of the experience it produces, and the tendency for it to facilitate positive personal change in those that consume it. It is non-addictive, non-toxic, and in its classical forms, produces no physical or psychological harm to the users. The primary drug involved is N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural substance that is in the bodies of all mammals, and one of the most powerful hallucinogens known. DMT is extracted from any one of the plant that contain it by brewing it in water that has been made slightly acidic, in effect making tea. Once the tea is made it is considered illegal in most western countries because it contains DMT, which was made illegal as a manufactured hallucinogen before it was known it existed in natural form in the plants used to make ayahuasca.
Normally the DMT in the tea would be destroyed in the digestive system by a chemical called mono amine oxidase, rendering the tea completely inactive. With the addition of a second plant containing a mono amine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), either in the tea with the first DMT containing plant or taken separately, The DMT survives the digestive process and reaches the brain where it alters the persons state of consciousness.
The most common anecdotal reports from use of the tea are of profound psychological and spiritual healing, accompanied by personal insight and integration. It is often reported that the tea breaks even profound depressive episodes in a single use. This positive psychological benefit is what I call the “Ayahuasca Effect.” That is, to produce an intense and positive integrative experience with lasting beneficial effects from use of the tea, with no side effects common to pharmaceutical antidepressants. The following one such personal encounter with ayahuasca;
“Sometime during graduate school, while holding two jobs and trying to raise a family, I fell into a major depression. It was the kind of illness that one could fight through to lead a normal life, but it sapped the joy and light from every experience. My wife and I fought often, the world seemed a dark and difficult place.
There should have been the relative leisure of just work and family to enjoy, but the depression hung like a dark resentful fog on every day, coloring it with hopelessness and undeserved despair. In order to keep working I sought medical help, which came in the form of anti-depressant medications. After two years of trying different medications, Zoloft was the final choice. I was told to reconcile myself to having to take this medication every day for the rest of my life. I was grateful for having a chemical floor under my feet, it saved my life, both figuratively and literally, but there were side effects. The medication left me sleepless and mildly agitated much of the time, feeling like a constant infusion of caffeine. It made sex difficult, which played hell with my self-esteem, and it did not make me able to experience happiness or joy. I had been to years of talk therapy, taken the drugs western medicine had to offer, followed the known treatment courses, they had not restored me to wholeness.
Finally, even with the medication, the illness was winning. My ability to make a meaningful connection with my wife was gone, my work was an endless parade of despair, my attitude was permanently dark and agitated. This was not who I wanted to be, not the life I had worked hard to live.
I decided I was not going to be healed by taking the advice of others, I would have to do it from within, I would look for a miracle, I would go back to the study of shamanism and find a way to heal myself. After months of research on shamanic cultures and their use of native plants I learned about ayahuasca, an herbal tea made from plants native to the Amazon basin. I read everything on the web, the books, the articles I could find, and went to an Ayahuasca conference with experts from many fields from all over the world.
What I learned was that studies had been done on members of the UDV, one of the religions that use the tea as a sacrament, which indicated ayahuasca was a powerful anti-depressant which treated the cause of the condition rather than the symptom. In short, most depression is caused by problems with the way the brain processes serotonin, which could be called the “mood” neurotransmitter. Prescription antidepressants work by various means to keep serotonin in the synapses longer. Ayahuasca contains DMT, which bonds to the 5-htp receptor sites, the same sites as serotonin. The DMT bonds at a higher rate, and the body adapts to this by increasing the number of 5-htp receptor sites, making better use of natural serotonin levels.
The UDV studies stated regular drinkers of the tea were less depressed, more social and more organized than the control groups, and that there were no physical or mental side effects to long term use in healthy individuals. Ayahuasca seemed to be an anti-depressant that treated the cause, had a better psychological outcome, and no side effects. The final factor in my decision was some of the people who I met at the conference. Many of them were long term drinkers of the tea from countries where it has been legalized. I found them to be some of the most grounded, sane, kind, and generally healthy people I had ever met.
I took the tea at 9:10 P.M. on a Friday night. The setting was a workshop I set up as a meditative space separate from the house. An altar was created, candles lit, the area smudged and cleansed. The meditation and prayer was for relief from depression, and to help me become a better person.
The nausea and lethargy often caused by the tea persisted for two hours, but there were no other noticeable effects. By midnight I believed the session a general failure. I went into the house, ate the dinner I had left in the fridge, having fasted since before lunch, and went to bed with my wife after talking briefly about the lack of significant results. Shortly after that I went to the bathroom and had an episode of explosive diarrhea that expelled the tea. It had passed all the way through my digestive tract with no real effect, and I thought that was the end of the experience.
I laid down next to my wife, who objected to the whole doing ayahuasca to treat depression concept, who I was in marriage counseling with. Despite loving each other, we had not really gotten along for several years. She went to sleep, and I lay there wondering what had gone wrong with the ayahuasca and my life.
Then, in the darkness of my inner vision, colors, in long wispy lines, like gentle rainbow vapors, began to appear. The lines moved in and out of themselves, and appeared to be lined with gear teeth moving in impossible ways. I know now that these were the classic visions of DNA reported by other drinkers. The colors became gradually brighter and the visions more intense and beautiful as I realized this was going to be far more than just some residual effect. The images became ever more beautiful and intense, surpassing any of the comparatively graceless visuals of other drugs, and I realized my body was slipping into sensations of ecstasy more sublime than anything I have ever experienced. As the experience grew ever more powerful the beauty of it became absolutely overpowering. I begged for more, became ever more immersed in indescribable gratitude and utter joy such as I had never even hoped to know. Tears began falling silently, and I remembered again asking to be relieved of my long depression and to receive help to be a better person. The euphoria was so complete it was as if I had been granted heaven itself, washing away the long years of darkness I had groped through. I was astonished that the brain was capable of experiencing such wondrous and complex imagery, of knowing such utter joy. In the midst of this my ability to think was amazingly intact. As the intensity became ever more overwhelming I realized I was losing awareness of my body altogether, into a more shamanic dimension. I mentally called for more and more, and the ecstasy and gratitude that followed seemed infinite.
Then the lessons came. They came from a hidden presence of relentless gentility I had experienced before, only now the presence had a new power and depth. I saw what could be called entities of immense beauty, but knew not to mistake images of things for the reality of something existing outside my drugged brain. Telepathically they said that I had spent most of my life running away from my own pain, manipulating, defending, sleeping, doing anything but experience the natural pain of being a human being. The gratitude I was feeling was indescribable, it filled my entire being, as the ecstasy also became absolute suffering at the same time, and I was infinitely grateful for both. The light became sacredness, pain, ecstasy and beauty as one. I found myself weeping, feeling all these emotions at once, as if I had been emotionally dead for years, and was now suddenly able to feel again. Great warm, wide rivers of tears flowed in gratitude, release and realization that I had been so cold and angry inside for so long, and was now alive and able to feel again.
The weight of how I had treated my wife during the years of depression, , flooded over me, and I sobbed heavily for not cherishing and being grateful for her all those years. This had woken her, and I told her how very sorry I was for the way I had treated her. She told me I was hallucinating, and that it was just the drug, that I didn’t really mean it. I told her I knew I was hallucinating but that it was opening my emotional centers, that this was the idea behind doing it. I tried to lie quietly through the rest of the experience so as not to worry her. I was so grateful to her that I would not dare to burden her with some request for forgiveness, I put her through enough already. We lay together quietly for the next two hours while the rest of the experience ran its course, gradually tapering off, giving ecstasy, pain and insight. Finally, when I was relatively down, we embraced and held each other until we slept. The experience lasted a bit over four hours, and felt like an eternity.
The next day I was grateful for my life for the fist time in years , for my marriage, for my family. I enjoyed parts of my life I considered a burden. Working became easier, and enjoying simple pleasures seemed natural, instead of almost impossible. The experience of not being depressed and just about perpetually irritated, of being emotionally normal again, was beyond anything I hoped for. “
Although the personal mind set and setting of the experience undoubtedly has a profound effect on the person’s experience, the “ayahuasca effect” is based not on the placebo effect, but on the neurochemistry and anatomy of the brain as it interacts with the tea. Although it is not possible to do the research needed to determine the exact cause of the “Ayahuasca effect” because of legal and practical limitations, it is possible to make an educated guess at the mechanism. This is an explanatory fiction, a story that fit’s the facts as they now appear. Let’s look at what is probably happening in the brain when a person ingests ayahuasca.
There are about a hundred billion neurons in the brain, each of these connects to as many as two hundred thousand other neurons. The cell axonal bodies of a neuron can be more than a yard long for each cell. Each neuron sends signals by generating an all or nothing pulse along the axon, which eventually branches out into thousands of dendrites that end in presynaptic membranes that release neurotransmitters that are received by receptor sites on the postsynaptic membranes of the receiving cells. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages from one cell to another, ayahuasca helps serotonin act more effectively. Substances that help a neurotransmitter act more effectively are called agonists.
There are only two major neurotransmitters in the body, glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is the “turn on” signal to the neuron, GABA is the “turn off” signal. They are essentially + and – chemical signals that pass from neuron to neuron. Each cell receives thousand of these on and off signals from thousands of other cells. When the cell has gotten enough + signals above the – signals, the cell fires and passes the electrical potential to the next cell through the axon, the “cable” it uses to connect with other cells.
On and off signals, Glutamate and GABA, that is the basis of all neural activity. The natural state of the brain is not to be at rest, it is to be at full-bore, flat out, run away seizure, neurological electrical storm. GABA provides the brakes to the natural push for maximum chaotic activity.
To get more subtlety out of the system, and to produce ordered activity, there are other neurotransmitters that modulate GABA, fine tuning it up or down, to regulate the intensity of neural activity. Many of these modulating neurotransmitter receptor sites are more concentrated in some areas of the brain than others, thus some affect different areas specific functions of the brain more than others. Serotonin and dopamine are modulating neurotransmitters, they affect GABA, in most instances inhibiting it, therefore lessening the number of “off” signals it gives neurons. Serotonin therefore, in general, takes off the brakes from neural activity and lets the neurons fire more rapidly.
When someone takes ayahuasca they are taking four chemicals, harmine, harmaline, tetrehydroharmine, and DMT, all of which are serotonin agonists, substances that assist serotonin, attach to serotonin receptors, or otherwise increase its effectiveness at removing the GABA braking system. The result is neurological activity goes up in areas of the brain that use serotonin as a modulator. The altered state of consciousness that results is because of this increased activity.
Herein also lies the reason different hallucinogens produce different types of effects on consciousness. There are many types of neurotransmitter receptor sites. Each is a gateway that when fit with the right chemical keys, opens a passage into the cell through which sodium flows to change the cells electrical balance. Each receptor type and subtype asks for a different key, or set of keys to unlock it. So, one type may want just a GABA and a serotonin molecule, while another might want those, a dopamine, six other amino acids and god knows what else in a specific order before it activates.
All of these receptor sites are distributed unevenly in the brain, therefore there effect on he GABA system in each part of the brain is highly variable. The exact “flavor” of a substance depends on what combination of brain areas are having their neural activity raised by having the GABA braking system inhibited.
Ayahuasca is both a serotonin and dopamine agonist at the same time. The other visionary substances are generally one or the other, ayahuasca is both at the same time. It activates more areas of the brain at once by Affecting GABA through more than one modulating neurotransmitter. The result is more of the brain becomes activated in a better balance than if just one or the other of the modulating neurotransmitters was activated by another single channel GABA inhibiting hallucinogen. In fact, PET scans show neurological activity during ayahuasca experiences raised up to 90% above normal over a wide area of the brain.
Here is the oversimplified short form of what ayahuasca does neurologically, which leads to the explanation of its work as a psychotherapeutic agent and the cause of the “Ayahuasca effect.”
After taking the tea the areas of your brain with the most serotonin and dopamine receptors become uninhibited by GABA and their nuro activity goes up drastically. Think about the word uninhibited fir a moment. What do you normally think of when you say that about someone in a psychological sense? It has connotations of being less in control, freer in actions, of not thinking as much before acting. Being uninhibited in this way, and in the neurological sense, is the exact same phenomena.
The frontal cortex of the brain is where most of what you think of as “you” is located. That is, the parts of the personality that makes the executive decisions on what to do in the world, both internal and external, with the thoughts, information and sensation we are presented with. This area of the brain is heavily wired with axons that run directly from the cells that produce serotonin in the brain stem. The prefrontal cortex’s major GABA inhibitor and modulator is serotonin. Ayahuasca therefore dis-inhibits this area of the brain responsible for judgment and decisions. A decision about anything is made by inhibiting the neural patterns of all other possibilities until the one neural pattern remains. If that area of the brain is disinhibited and neural activity remains high, judgments and evaluations become more difficult to make.
In short, you tend to just accept the information and experience you are having without as much filtration and evaluation. It’s a hypnotic state that renders you more open to suggestion and less likely to critically evaluate the experience and information being received by the frontal cortex.
But there is more to the story than just frontal lobe suggestibility. The effects caused by the tea’s actions on dopamine also play an important role in its potential action as a therapeutic agent. Dopamine modulates GABA in much the same way that serotonin does. Two systems in the brain that use dopamine heavily for GABA regulation are the middle brain limbic system and areas of the brain that control fine motor functions that allow us to control smooth motor motions. The limbic system is a central controller and processor of both emotion and memory. In fact, it appears that emotion and the limbic system are key in forming most lasting memories.
One theory of trauma and repression states that when the brain can not assimilate an experience because it is too foreign to its schema, it’s sense of the way things should be, it represses that experience by sending chemical signals that tell the brain not to use those neural pathways. It stores the experience in pieces all over the brain, but does not complete the integration into memory. Since the instructions not to process, not to be neurologically active, can only be given as GABA signals to keep neurons in the “off” state, this repression of neurological signals must be maintained by modulating neurotransmitters . The presence of elevated levels of dopamine during the ayahuasca experience inhibit GABA in the limbic system, increasing activity there and overriding nurochemical processes that would limit the processing of experiences.
This means that the increase in neural activity in those areas of the brain tends to bring up repressed experiences and start the process of re-integrating them. As these memories and experiences are being once again brought into current processing memory in the mid brain they encounter a brain state profoundly different than the previous state that they were not processed during initially. For one thing, the elevated serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex have disinhibited executive functioning due to the increase in overall neural activity. The part of the personality that would previously have passed judgment on the incoming experience is no longer as able to perform it’s limiting function. The re-emerging experiences are no longer filtered, no longer repressed out of ongoing processing. So, the higher levels of dopamine cause GABA inhibition and therefore higher activity in the limbic and midbrain systems that bring unprocessed experiences back into activity. Higher serotonin levels cause GABA inhibition and therefore higher activity levels in the prefrontal cortex that hinder the experience being re-repressed.
It is significant that ayahuasca acts on more than one modulating neurotransmitter, that it increases neural activity in a more even and coordinated way than other hallucinogens. Because of this there is far less disturbance of the intricate processing and transfers of information between different areas of the brain. The rising tide of neural activity raises all boats, brain systems as it were. The result is all systems continue to function together in much the same way they normally would. The person hallucinates and has a disinhibited thought process, but that process remains internally coherent without serious delusional processes or breakdown of the personality. Thought and cognition of the internal and external environments remains essentially intact. With other hallucinogens the imbalances brought about by less even regulation of the GABA system produce conditions where some areas of the brain are out of processing sync with others, resulting in more common instances of delusional thinking and loss of touch with reality, which rarely occurs with ayahuasca.
The condition brought in the brain by the tea is therefore ideal for the recalling of repressed experiences and emotions into conscious processing, lessening the chances the experiences will be re-repressed by executive functioning, and having the neural resources available to complete the processing and integration of those experiences.
Even with these advantages for personal integration brought about by high levels of the modulating neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine affecting the GABA system, there is yet another significant advantage ayahuasca gives to this psychotherapeutic process.
One reason experiences remain repressed is people become behaviorally conditioned to avoiding re-experiencing them. If the brain starts to re-integrate an anxiety producing memory the person naturally begins to experience some symptomatic form of anxiety. This often is experienced as sensations within the body such as tension in the muscles, sensations in the gut, changes in breathing, ect. The person literally “feels” anxious. If they then withdraw from the anxiety, by whatever means, they cease to process the experience and send it back to memory storage. The lessening of anxiety is experienced as a reward, it feels good to not be anxious. The person can become behaviorally self-conditioned by this reward effect not to integrate the past experience that causes the anxiety.
Ayahuasca offers a way to break this cycle. All sensations, therefore all anxiety, ultimately are brain states. Dopamine is the primary modulator of activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. Almost all addictive drugs act to produce dopamine-like substances that turn on the reward and pleasure centers. Ayahuasca is a dopamine agonist that increases activity in the pleasure centers. The result is a lessening of the ability to respond with physical sensations of anxiety during the same period that the brain in it’s GABA inhibited higher activity level is trying to process and integrate stored experiences. The higher activity levels in the pleasure centers help eliminate the anxiety that caused the person to become behaviorally conditioned . Ayahuasca interrupts the anxiety feedback loop and lessens the chance that the person will enter into the same avoidant conditioned response again. This is in contrast to addictive substances such as the opiates which lessen anxiety by affecting dopamine, but lower serotonin and decrease the brains ability to process and integrate experience, leaving the user worse off than before in terms of their ability to cope with experiences.
There is one last neurotransmitter to add to this mix, acetocholine. ACH is the neurotransmitter the nerves use to tell the muscles to contract. It is the transmitter that allows us to move voluntarily. The increased dopamine and serotonin levels of the ayahuasca effect also cross-regulate ACH. This means the levels of ACH go down. The less ACH available, the harder it is to voluntarily make the muscles move. The result is often a profound lethargy during the ayahuasca experience at the same time the anesthetic effect of dopamine is in play. The result is the person has a lessened ability to create anxiety feedback in the musculature because it is less able to respond. This further interrupts the conditioned anxiety feedback systems that can condition the person to not integrate experiences.
So, with all of this said, lets run through the ayahuasca effect from beginning to end to complete this explanatory fiction. Soon after the tea is ingested the harmine, harmaline and tetrehydroharmine cause monoamine oxidase inhibition in the digestive tract, allowing the DMT, harmine, harmaline and tetrehydroharmine to pass into the blood stream and eventually into the brain. Once there all four act as serotonin agonists to increase the effect of serotonin inhibition of the GABA systems in the brain. Dopamine is elevated as well.
GABA in the prefrontal cortex in inhibited, and as a result prefrontal cortex activity rises. The person’s thought processes become disinhibited, and the ability to judge and repress is inhibited as a direct result. At the same time elevated dopamine levels have inhibited GABA in the limbic and midbrain, causing increased neural activity in the areas of the brain responsible for integration of memory and experiencing emotion.
Experiences comes to conscious awareness because of the disinhabition in the limbic system, which then presents the experiences to the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex for a decision on whether or not to proceed with processing and integration. Normally this area of the brain would look at it’s self concept and view of the world and decide not to proceed because the experience was to discordant and produced unacceptable levels of anxiety as read from the somatic reactions from lower brain function. But now the prefrontal cortex is less able to limit those decisions because GABA has been inhibited, and the processing is not stopped.
In addition, the body is not getting the same somatic anxiety response because the elevated dopamine levels have the pleasure centers more active, and the musculature is somewhat unresponsive due to decreased levels of ACH. The result is the integration and processing goes forward this time, and the person experiences the full emotional experience without the somatic feedback and inhibition that previously stopped the process. Because the level of neurological activity is uniformly higher than normal, the experience is conscious rather than unconscious, allowing full memories to be integrated into present moment conscious experience. Because the person has elevated dopamine and ACH levels, they are not re-traumatized by the experience and the cycle of conditioned avoidance is interrupted. Both personal integration of experience and the making of the unconscious conscious are in this way achieved with the aid of the “ayahuasca effect.”
Anecdotal evidence from users of the tea treating depression suggest it can be effective in treating serotonin based depression, but it is not a magic bullet or cure-all. The tea tends to lift depression, but does not change the underlying personality. If the user was depressed because of trauma or had other personality issues before the depression, these issues will still be present if the tea lifts the depression. I have known people who were depressed with many somatic symptoms, took the tea, and had their aliments and depression replaced by anger. The anger was what the depression was keeping repressed, in some cases the anger was over incest or other traumatic abuses. The people were generally then able to move on into doing the work of healing and restructuring the way they think about their experiences. Ayahuasca gave them the opportunity and ability to do the work, but did not do it for them. My personal experience was the tea broke the cycle of depression and medications that prevented me from moving on to actual healing. Ayahuasca is potentially one of the most powerful antidepressant and psychotherapeutic therapies ever seen. At present the legal issues and lack of medical support and understanding around its use leave much of that potential unexplored. It is my hope that an understanding of the “ayahuasca effect” may someday allow direct research studies to be done of it’s effectiveness as an antidepressant treatment and tool of self awareness.