Can Ayahuasca Help Those With Severe Depression?

By Bryan Le 07/09/18

Those suffering from severe, untreatable depression may find relief from the psychedelic drug ayahuasca.

Psychoactive ayahuasca drink, mimosa hostilis powder and bark from above on dark surface.

A new study suggests that ayahuasca might be able to help people suffering from treatment-resistant depression.

The study is among the first of its kind investigating ayahuasca as a treatment for depression, testing 30 subjects in a randomized and placebo-controlled environment.

Such results could be significant, as some forms of depression do not respond to known drug treatments, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew derived from Amazonian plants. It’s been used for therapeutic and medicinal purposes for centuries by people living in the Amazonian regions in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. By boiling the vine banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub psychotria viridis together, the psychoactive compound DMT is extracted.

According to CNN, researchers at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte found 218 depression patients and selected 29 of those with treatment-resistant depression.

Some of the subjects were given the real thing while others were given a convincing placebo, a concoction made of water, yeast, citric acid, and caramel coloring to look brown and taste as sour and bitter as the real thing. As an extra touch, zinc sulphate was added to simulate the nausea and vomiting that often comes with ayahuasca.

Participants took their respective drinks in a hospital room made to look like a living room. In anticipation of the psychedelic effects that can last up to four hours, researchers prepared two playlists for participants, one instrumental and the other in the Portuguese language.

The day after the experiment, 50% of all the patients reported better moods and a reduction in anxiety. After a week, 64% of patients who took the real ayahuasca reported they still felt a reduction in their depression. In comparison, only 27% of the participants who took the placebo still felt better.

Using ayahuasca as a treatment for depression has been explored before, but without proper controls, such as a placebo group. This is a problem because placebos can result in a reduction in depression in 45% of patients, which researchers believe can muddy results and make it hard to find out what’s actually helping.

In the case of this study, participants who experienced more intense hallucinations from the ayahuasca seemed to have a greater reduction in depression, but the researchers warn against calling it a cure, as no single treatment works for everyone.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter