Health

People Are Drinking Ayahuasca to Treat Physical Illnesses

Could the psychedelic be changing people's perceptions of pain?
May 22, 2018, 2:16pm
Jaime Razuri / Getty Images

Abigail, a 39-year-old environmental regulator in Texas who chose not to disclose her last name for professional reasons, had tried nearly every possible treatment for her interstitial cystitis—a condition characterized by bladder pain and frequent urination—when she came across a podcast by a woman who successfully treated a seemingly incurable connective tissue disease with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink made from the Amazonian Banisteriopsis caapi vine. After everything from acupuncture to invasive procedures such as bladder instillations had done little for Abigail, she found hope in this woman’s story and signed up for a nine-day ayahuasca retreat.

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During her first two ayahuasca ceremonies—where people drank the substance and shamans chanted for them—Abigail didn’t feel any difference in her bladder, but she did feel a lot of emotions she’d been repressing since childhood. Then, after the third and last ceremony, the pain in her bladder was gone for the first time in six years. She remained healthy for two days after returning home, and then the pain came back. But now, she just views it as a sign that she has more emotions to work through.

Similarly, Michael Straus, a 51-year-old innkeeper in California, tells me that after he participated in his first ayahuasca ceremony, his plaque psoriasis—an immune disease that covered his body in red lesions—was completely gone.

Zoe Helene, who offers "psychedelic feminism" grants for women to experience traditional ayahuasca retreats in the Peruvian Amazon through her company Cosmic Sister, and Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook who has researched plant medicines in 45 countries, both say they’ve witnessed lots of transformational healings in the ayahuasca medicine space.

Many people describe feeling like the ayahuasca is scanning their bodies for areas that need help during ceremony, Helene says. In fact, in traditional ceremonies, shamans drink ayahuasca under the belief that it’ll help them see what parts of participants’ bodies they need to heal, Kilham explains. He most commonly finds that people with conditions that have multiple causes (often ones that can be hard to pinpoint), such as sleep disorders, backaches, and chronic fatigue, benefit from ayahuasca.


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But while the basic mechanisms behind some of ayahuasca’s mental health benefits are at least partially understood, scientists are only beginning to examine how such physical healing is possible.

One explanation is that many physical problems stem from emotional ones that people address under ayahuasca. L.J. Standish, researcher and professor at the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, points out that certain health issues correlate with childhood traumas. One survey of 13,494 American adults, for example, found that the number of negative childhood events someone experienced—including sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug or alcohol addiction among family members—was linked to their chances of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.

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So could ayahuasca’s apparent ability to physically heal really be a testament to the mind-body connection? “Emotional healing can have effects on the rest of the body,” Standish explains. “I hear very similar reports from just about everybody: that their aches and pains seem to diminish, their chronic symptoms seem to change, and they are free of the effects of trauma.”

It’s possible that ayahuasca resets the brain’s default activity, which could break patterns leading to the perception of pain, explains James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. For this reason, ayahuasca may be particularly effective for centralized pain syndromes, which involve chronic pain caused by changes in the function or structure of brain or spinal cord cells.

“We know there are complex somatoform disorders [forms of mental illness that cause one or more bodily symptoms, including pain],” he says. “There are changes that occur emotionally that change the brain's nodal network activity that can produce a very profound physiological effect. It could be under the influence of ayahuasca that the central neural network system becomes evoked, and those physiological changes could be modified, even for a brief period of time.”

Along these lines, Abigail believes the ayahuasca healed her bladder by healing the emotions she was storing in it. “The emotional issues were and are the problem,” she says. “Before the retreat, I knew that was the issue, but I could never get there.” Straus feels the same way, explaining, “The condition, for me at least, has very specific emotional roots.”

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Ayahuasca may also directly affect parts of the body outside the brain. Standish points out that immune cells called T cells have receptors for serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters ayahuasca acts on. This effect on the immune system might explain why ayahuasca appears to reduce inflammation for some people with conditions like interstitial cystitis or plaque psoriasis.

Others find that, in their experiences, ayahuasca can decrease or even eliminate physical dependencies. Ryan McCormick, a 40-year-old business executive in New York City, says it made his body stop craving nicotine, leading him to quit smoking. Standish believes this may happen because addictions result from deficiencies in serotonin, which ayahuasca replenishes so that people no longer feel the need to rely on substances for it.

Though ayahuasca might have direct effects on the body, Giordano says it’s also possible that it changes people’s relationship to their pain. “It may very well be that what happens as a consequence of an ayahuasca trip is that individuals get what they feel is a more enlightened view, so they now see this as this is an opportunity for growth,” he explains.

This doesn’t mean that the more ayahuasca you drink, the better your health will be. Some people don’t see their health problems alleviated after drinking ayahuasca, and overdosing on it carries risks, including serotonin syndrome, extended trips, and flashbacks. And though there’s anecdotal evidence and plausible theories as to how ayahuasca may facilitate physical healing, there aren’t any studies to date on its effect on injuries or illnesses. Still, this area of study is “certainly enticing and in some cases promising,” Giordano tells me. “It should at least warrant further exploration and investigation.”

What scientists are discovering about the mind-body connection, in fact, reflects what ayahuasca-drinking cultures have believed all along: that, as Standish puts it, the body and the mind are one single thing. Helene agrees: “Humans like to put things in tidy little boxes, but nature doesn't do that."

“What happens in our brain affects everything that happens throughout our entire bodies,” Kilham says. “If our brain activity is harmonized, our physical bodies overall are appreciably more well.”

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