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Ayahuasca as an Addiction Treatment: Shamanic Visions to Cure Your Addiction?

Traditionally used in shamanistic ceremonies in the Amazon basin, ayahuasca is now also used to help people overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Ayahuasca is concocted from a mixture of boiled banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves from the chacruna or chaliponga shrubs. Boiling this combination of vines and leaves together produces as brew containing the potent hallucinogenic substance, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that is able to cross into the blood brain barrier to produce psychoactive effects.1

What Does Ayahuasca Feel Like?

Ayahuasca induces a visionary state of consciousness. For a few hours after you take ayahuasca you experience rapid thinking and hallucinations which are multi sensory in nature (not just visual). Most people will experience a purging at some stage, either intense vomiting or diarrhea, but this purging is considered to be a spiritual cleansing and a necessary part of the ritual journey.  Although ayahuasca can induce feelings of ecstasy, it can also induce feelings of terror and hopelessness and a genuine fear of imminent death. Ayahuasca unlocks the experience of all emotions, both those we consider to be positive and negative - although in an ayahuasca experience, no emotional experience is value-judged, as they are all teachable and important parts of the experience.

Ayahuasca deadens sensations in the body and some people find it brings a heaviness to their movements. Although the drug induces very potent hallucinations, it does not impair cognition and you are fully alert in the moment.

Because of the intensity of the experience and the physical side effects, ayahuasca is not something that is likely to be abused for recreational purposes.

The Philosophy Behind Ayahuasca as Addiction Treatment

Although traditional cultures had used ayahuasca as a healing agent for thousands of years and had been using it to treat cocaine and alcohol addictions long before the modern world took notice, it wasn’t until a French doctor, Dr. Jacques Mabit, spent years in Peru the early 80s studying plant medicines as an apprentice shaman that the outside world really became aware of this hallucinogen’s potential.

Dr Mabit is the founder of the Takiwasi addiction treatment center in Peru and a trained ayahuasca healer who has participated in the treatment of literally thousands of patients with debilitating addictions to drugs and alcohol. The philosophy of his treatment is based on a study of the traditional uses of ayahuasca, his personal experiences with the drug as a consumer and as a shaman healer and his decades of experience working with addicts at his treatment center in the jungles of Peru.

Dr. Mabit believes that addiction arises as people search for meaning in a modern world that has been stripped of meaningful ritual and sacredness; where many no longer feel a sense of belonging or participation in the spiritual or transcendent realm of life.

Traditional people will often use psychoactive substances like ayahuasca as tools to gain access to the spiritual realm. What they find there during periods of altered consciousness makes sense through the lenses of a shared cultural framework and so what they take away from such experiences is recognized as real and important and lessons learned there can be integrated to good effect in ongoing life.

In modern society, most of us lack this cultural framework that would help us to understand and integrate transcendent experiences of altered consciousness. However, it is part of the human condition for all of us to seek out this transcendence and so we try, through various ways, to achieve states of altered consciousness that will bring us what we want. We search for happiness from without, rather than from within, and hoping to find it we take drugs and alcohol, gamble, have too much sex and eat very poorly among other things.

So, according to Dr. Mabit, it is not the seeking of altered consciousness that is the problem - since this is something all humans are want to do as they explore the spiritual realm - it is that we use the altered consciousness we create for ourselves so poorly that it offers us nothing lasting, and so the only thing we can do is strive to repeat and repeat and repeat again what we hope will bring us happiness. Unfortunately however, in doing so, we most often bring ourselves pain - such as drug or alcohol addiction.

But the answer cannot be total sobriety or abstinence from all psychoactive substances as this closes an avenue of access to ‘the otherworld’ or the spiritual plane. According to Dr. Mabit, then, the answer lies in the controlled and guided use of a substance like ayahuasca, which has little risk of abuse and which helps people find their own personally valid spiritual understanding as it also helps to open up and heal past wounds and roadblocks to growth and recovery.2

How Does Ayahuasca Cure Addiction and Why Does it Work?

How Does It Work?

  • Ayahuasca opens the door to the vast unconscious experience, inducing rapidly transforming visions and repressed memories that are experienced, not solely as visual hallucinations, but as experiences that integrate all 5 senses and which are processed at the cortical level of the brain as well as in deeper parts of the ancient mind.
  • With the synthesization of your physical being, your perceptions and your thoughts comes a very novel way of experiencing your reality. When you approach a problem you’re dealing with from this new vantage point (and while experiencing greatly accelerated thinking processes) you can often discover for yourself a unique and personal solution to your challenges that matches your needs and wants exactly. 
  • Working with a therapist after ayahuasca experiences helps you to further process and learn from the richness of material you’ve just ’discovered' from within your own unconscious mind.  Working with these new insights, you and a therapeutic helper can continue the forward progress by taking any self discovery and working to apply it so that it serves you well in the modern world you’ll return to.3

*People receiving addiction treatment with ayahuasca will typically take the drug on many occasions, over a period of months.

*According to Dr. Mabit, it is not only the drugs within the brew which are curative -  the rituals, honed on 1000’s of years of traditional practice, also exert enormous influence over outcomes. Taking the drug in a different or falsified environment would not result in the same positive results.

Why Does It Work?

According to the clinical team at the Takiwasi Addiction Treatment Center in Peru, the benefits of ayahuasca as an addiction treatment medication are as follows:4

  • Ayahuasca opens the door to another world that is normally invisible to humans. Once this door opens, information from this other world becomes available through dream-like visions.
  • The drug provides a non verbal experience, where information in transferred through all senses. This can help those who are not strong in verbal communication or language come to a strong awareness of their own mind.
  • The problems of life become images and visionary scenes for viewing in the subconscious. Looking at problems from this new perspective often results in the finding of novel solutions or alternatives.
  • The drug affects our deep selves, and is equally relevant to anyone, no matter what cultural or religious framework they choose to interpret it through.
  • Ayahuasca visions can reduce the power and influence of some traumatic memories which lie buried and hidden in our unconscious but nevertheless affect our day-to-day lives.
  • Ayahuasca aids mental health. It increases intelligence and concentration, decreases anxiety, improves self esteem and helps us to resolve and relinquish past conflicts. The ayahuasca experience opens people up to much more productive psychotherapy.

The psychoactive chemical DMT in ayahuasca is considered to be a schedule 1 controlled substance by the United Nations. The sale and use of DMT is illegal in most countries of the world.

In some countries, religious groups have fought and won for the right to use ayahuasca as a ritual aid on the grounds of religious freedom. Ayahuasca is not widely approved for use as an addiction treatment medication. In a recent case (2011), a Canadian doctor who had been treating patients with the medication publicized his good results and was consequently threatened with prosecution and ordered to desist from using the herbal medicine.5

Ayahuasca is used legally as an addiction treatment medication in Peru.

Ayahuasca – Medical Concerns and Other Risks to Consider

While ayahuasca proponents have long pointed to the thousands of years of continuous safe human use as validation enough of the safety of the herbal medicine, a literature review study appearing in the journal ‘Addiction’ in 2006 took a more clinical approach to develop risk and safety conclusions that are based on established scientific criteria.

They found that:6

  • The ayahuasca LD50 (the dose it would take to kill 50% of the people who ingested it) was approximately 20 times greater than the average dose given in ceremonial preparations. The ayahuasca LD50 is similar to the LD50 of other hallucinogens, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms).
  • There is no evidence that regular use of ayahuasca results in any dependence or abuse.
  • Using ayahuasca concurrently with other serotogenic substances, such as SSRI antidepressants, increases the risk of an adverse experience
  • Ayahuasca can produce transient psychotic episodes or adverse psychological reactions (bad trips) but these tend to dissipate  naturally a few hours later
  • There is evidence that chronic use of ayahuasca within certain spiritual or social contexts can result in psychological benefits

Other Risks

Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrrill in their book 'A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy' take a broader look at the practice of westerners traveling to economically deprived parts of South America for spiritual journeys and point to risks that go beyond the strictly medical. They say that an increasing number of American drug tourists and spiritual seekers are visiting countries like Peru to try ayahuasca and are being tricked or even abused by those only pretending to be shamans and experts.

Other ayahuasca researchers, such as psychologist Stephen Trichter, acknowledge the power and potential of the ayahuasca experience for spiritual and psychological growth, but say that caution must be used when transferring an intense hallucinogenic experience from one culture onto an audience for that experience from a vastly different social and cultural framework.

Trichter says that some people, such as those with certain mental health disorders or those at risk for certain mental health disorders should be very wary of using this ‘potent hallucinogenic.’ He says the ayahuasca experience can bring to immediate consciousness past traumas that can cause overwhelming mental and emotional stress, especially to already emotionally vulnerable people – in some cases, doing more harm than good.

Because of this, he recommends that ideally people coming from abroad and using ayahuasca for therapeutic reasons should take the medication in a context that bridges the gap between the traditional shamanic powers of drug and the need to incorporate awareness gained through the experience into a modern-world framework - for example by working with a team that employs both a traditional shaman as an expert to deliver the medication and a trained therapist who can help a client to interpret and gain from any awareness and awakenings unearthed through the process.7

For safety it seems paramount that anyone considering using ayahuasca:

  • Become very knowledgeable about the hallucinogen, specifically: its traditional uses, its effects, risks to health and safety, legal issues and its possible benefits
  • Comply with recommended dietary and medication restrictions for a period prior to using the drug. There are a number of foods, prescription and even over the counter medications that must be avoided for some time before using ayahuasca.
  • Ensure that you are entrusting yourself to a team that has your best interest in mind and legitimate expertise in the use of ayahuasca

Foods and Drugs to Avoid (Ayahuasca Is an MAOI)

Ayahuasca contains the potent hallucinogen DMT. Under normal circumstances, orally consuming a DMT containing solution would produce no effects, as the DMT would be destroyed in the stomach and intestines, but ayahuasca contains other compounds called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) which protect the DMT and allow its absorption into the brain.

MAOIs can be very dangerous if combined with a number of common medications and foods.

Drugs to avoid with any type of MAOI include:

  • SSRIs
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Opiates
  • Decongestants and allergy pills
  • Cold medications
  • Asthma inhalers
  • Some hypertension medications
  • Dopamine
  • Levodopa
  • Ecstasy
  • Pseudoephedrine and ephedrine
  • Others (not a complete list)

Some medications, such as SSRI antidepressants like Prozac require several weeks or even months to clear from the body before an MAOI can be used safely, and because combining an MAOI and an SSRI can be fatal, it is quite important that you take the possibility of negative drug interactions seriously and check to make sure that anything you use, or have recently used, is compatible with MAOIs.

Eating foods high in the amino acid tyramine can cause hypertension, brain hemorrhage and other dangerous side effects while on an MAOI. Foods to avoid with any type of MAOI include:8

  • Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, dried sausages and pickles
  • Cheeses
  • Liver
  • Wine, sherry, cognac, vermouth, beer and ale
  • Smoked meats
  • Chicken and fish
  • Meat tenderizers and extracts
  • Chocolate
  • Yeast extract Avocado
  • Caffeine
  • Raspberry jam
  • Nuts and dried fruits
  • Soy bean products
  • Others (not a complete list)

Where to Get Ayahuasca Treatment

Ayahuasca addiction treatment is legal in Peru. At the Takiwasi Addiction Treatment Center, recovering addicts spend an average of 9 months in residence at a cost of approximately $1000 per month (the center is a nonprofit).

The first period of treatment involves using plant based purging agents to accomplish physical detoxification and a reduction of withdrawal symptoms.

The second period of treatment involves the weekly use of ayahuasca and periodic times of solitude in the jungle under the influence of other psychoactive plants. During this second period, the lessons of each progressive ayahuasca experience get worked out with a therapist between sessions and what’s learned gets put into practice through daily communal living with other members of the treatment center.

A study done on graduates of the program (2 years post treatment) found that:9

  1. Of those that left treatment before completion, about half reported either having been cured of their addictions, or of having experienced substantial improvements
  2. Of those that stayed until ‘graduation’  67% reported either having been cured or having experienced substantial improvements.

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