Science Starting to Glimpse into the Therapeutic Benefits of Ayahuasca

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Featured image source: Photo by Jairo Galvis Henao.

The Grand Mother Healer

Among the growing global community of people who have at some point or another experienced the sacred medicine Ayahuasca, there is one thing about the experience that stands out in consciousness more than anything else – Its powerful healing effects that stretch way beyond what conventional medicine would define as curing or healing.

Ayahuasca goes by many names. People who have worked with the sacred medicine or have experienced first hand the miraculous ways it works as a healing modality, sometime call it affectionately ‘Mamahuasca’ or ‘Abuelita Curandera’ – the latter meaning Grand Mother Healer. In essence, it is revered as a powerful divine healer, a loving and nourishing motherly energy that reconnects us to the whole, that heals our deepest of wounds, that regenerates all systems of our body, that makes us see the light of our consciousness sometimes by meeting the darkest and scariest aspects of our being. Its path is truly mysterious, magical, personal yet impersonal, transcendental and universal. No words can ever do justice.

The experience with the medicine is in many ways multi-dimensional in that it works on so many path levels. There are visions, inner journeying, connection with archetypal fields of consciousness, introspection, purging, surrendering, understanding and a deep cleansing of our bio-energetic fields. Many fractal layers of the same wholeness – quantum, molecular, biological, energetic, consciousness – all unfolding and folding on themselves. This is the healing of the great mother.

Our young Science has yet no language, framework or paradigm to work with in order to understand the totality of the experience. Its mode of access is through the causal, material and local. Yet what is accessed through the experience is in many ways non-causal, non-material and non-local. This is one of the barriers that we face in understanding the healing journey and all the benefits that the sacred brew brings, from a scientific standpoint. Yet not all is lost. Science can still slice through that part of the whole and try to understand what is happening from a molecular and biological layer. It’s certainly not all there is but it can still shed a light and one which is familiar to the western psyche.

The Pharmacological Landscape of DMT

A recent review published in Frontiers of in Pharmacology (March, 2016) and titled “The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilisation”, has summarised what is currently known about Ayahuasca.

As those familiar with the medicine know, the Ayahuasca brew is made out of two ingredients: Dimethyltryptomine (DMT) found in the leaves of the plant Psychotria Viridis (a.k.a Chacruna) and the beta-carboline alkaloids – Harmine, tettrahydroharmine and Harmaline – from the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi (the Ayahuasca vine). The alkaloids act as inhibitors to enzymes known as monoamine oxidase (MAO) which would otherwise breakdown the DMT during digestion, disallowing it to enter the bloodstream and through the blood-brain barrier hence giving the psychoactive effect. [Try to imagine how this knowledge was gathered thousands of years ago if not through accessing fields of consciousness not open to the normal operations of the mind!].

DMT is what gives rise to visions and inner journeying. It is widely present through the plant and animal kingdom and our body produces it in very small quantities. What researchers have observed is that effectively DMT has a wider biological role. For example they have identified that DMT binds to certain molecular receptors giving rise to a wide array of therapeutic effects. One of these molecular receptors which has been identified as playing an important role is Sigma-1R.

It is till now known that one of the important roles of the Sigma-1R receptor is to manage intracellular stress and can be found in various tissue such as the brain, retina, liver, lung, heart, and immune system. Sigma-1R is a protein receptor known as a chaperone molecule in that it has the function to help other proteins fold correctly especially under stressful situations. When the Sigma-1R is dysfunctional, it was found to be strongly linked with many forms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, perinatal and traumatic brain injury, retinal dysfunction, frontal motor neuron degeneration, depression, psychostimulant addiction and many others.

In this respect, researchers are suggesting that DMT has a physiological role beyond being psychoactive (but then again this is something which is known and experienced first hand by whoever drank Ayahuasca!). According to researchers, DMT may have a protective effect – such as restoration of neurons and modulation of immunity – by acting on the Sigma-1R receptors.

Also, because Sigma-1R is known to be involved in regulating cellular stress that causes a wide range of diseases, it makes it the ideal molecular candidate for DMT in the Ayahuasca to ‘partner’ with, thus producing a host of therapeutic effects. Once again, this is something people who participated in Ayahuasca ceremonies know, felt and experienced. Many types of physical healing has been reported during and after such ceremonies.

Ayahuasca under the Brain Scanner:

Another important role of Ayahuasca in healing is breaking away recalcitrant patterns of behaviour. One of the hardest and strongest forms of behavioural patterning is addiction such as drug dependency and this is one of the therapies that has been mostly applied by the sacred medicine. Brain scanning technologies has been used to try to understand what goes on when Ayahuasca is ingested.

One of the first things to be observed is increased activation in areas of the brain that are involved in emotional processing. When under the effect of Ayahuasca, participants will experience closed-eye visions and inner experiences which take on an intensity that is sometimes stronger and more real than how reality is normally perceived through our senses. These visions, together with expanded communication between certain areas of the brain allow for the release of cognitive states that are associated with emotions and fears. Ayahuasca also allows a lot of very visual and introspective dream-like experiences intertwined with autobiographical memories and emotions thus eliciting insight by becoming aware and ‘illuminated’ of the many facets of the self. These facets of the self contain aspect of our life that we repressed, ignored or could not view within the proper perspective – such as self-destructive and addictive patterns of behaviour, wrongdoings, self-deception and lies.

Ayahuasca balances the neurotransmitters 5-HT and Dopamine and this has the effect of creating new neural connections which allow for the creation of new neural connections, new neuronal circuits and rewiring of the brain. As mentioned above this greatly facilitates users to process repressed memories, traumas, mediate addictive habits and support new and positive behaviours.

Furthermore, addiction patients reported several therapeutic effects such as reduced drug cravings, the triggering of Catharsis, increased self-esteem, introspection and awareness, increased body awareness, etc.

Structure of DMT molecule a.k.a The Spirit Molecule

Self-Discovery, Reflection and Forgiveness:

Ultimately all these Psychological and therapeutical benefits can be condensed into the idea of discovering, reflecting on and forgiving oneself. One thing that is often reported from Ayahuasca users is how it affects the feeling of Self-love, compassion and the feeling of being interconnected with everything. Being able to have insight on those aspects of the self that were previously repressed and hence could not be processed is a path to self-discovery. Processing and dealing with those traumas and emotions is a path of self-reflection and becoming more transparent. The letting go of those emotions and self-destructive patterns is ultimately an action of forgiveness which inevitable promotes self-love and openness to the wider ecology of Self.

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