Depression is a complex disorder that affects more than 264 million people worldwide. Although antidepressant medications exist, they can cause dependence and harmful side effects.
However, lately, psychiatric researchers have become interested in psychedelics. That’s because psychedelics like ayahuasca may be able to help a wide range of mental illnesses.
That’s why researchers have turned to psychedelic ayahuasca to see if it can help people with depression. Continue reading below as we take an in-depth look at ayahuasca and its potentially revolutionary medical potential.
By definition, depression is a medical illness that has a negative impact on how you feel, think, and act. At its core, depression makes one feel a deep sadness and a loss of interest in things that were once enjoyed.
This deep sadness can then lead to emotional and physical problems which disrupt everyday life. That makes it difficult to function at work and school and causes problems with social activities or relationships.
Although we all come down with the blues at some point, depression is typically long-lasting or can come in episodes. During these episodes, people feel depressive symptoms nearly every day for most of the day.
However, depression can range in symptoms from mild to severe. When depression is severe, it’s usually called major depressive disorder (MDD) or clinical depression.
At its very worst, depression can lead to suicide. It’s estimated that 60% of all people who commit suicide have major depression.
How is Depression Treated?
Depression is normally treated with psychotherapy, antidepressants, or both. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy, and it is effective for mild depression.
The goal of psychotherapy is to try to change one’s thoughts and behaviors by recognizing negative thoughts and behaviors. Psychotherapy can last a few weeks or can be long-term.
However, the most common way to treat depression is by using antidepressant medication. Since brain chemistry may contribute to depression, antidepressants try to rebalance brain chemistry.
The problem is, antidepressants have a lot of issues of their own, and sometimes people with major depression don’t find any help from them.
Why Aren’t Antidepressants Effective?
That’s not to say that antidepressants don’t work. They do, but antidepressants only cover up the problem and don’t get to the cause of it.
That can help people get out of a depressive episode, which is great. However, the problem is that once a person stops taking antidepressants, they can easily relapse.
That means that people on antidepressants like SSRIs (selective serotonin uptake inhibitors) must take them for a long period of time. That means that people with depression often become dependent on these medications.
On top of that, SSRIs can’t easily be quit because stopping them can cause withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can bring depression and anxiety back and lead to feelings of intense illness.
However, antidepressants shouldn’t be looked at as a cure. That’s because these medications should be used at the same time as psychotherapy to develop coping mechanisms.
Unfortunately, many people who are prescribed SSRIs don’t seek out any therapy.
Ayahuasca and Depression
Now that we know a little bit about how depression is normally treated, we can take a look at how ayahuasca can help depression. First, we need to understand what ayahuasca is.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a traditional brew used for healing and spiritual purposes by indigenous people living in the Amazon Basin. It’s typically made of two plants—the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis).
The mixture is hallucinogenic due to the DMT that’s naturally present in the chacruna leaf. Once consumed, ayahuasca causes perceptual, emotional, and psychological changes that last around four hours.
During the trip, many people will see and feel things that aren’t there and have intense introspective experiences. It’s during these reflective experiences that people gain the most benefit from ayahuasca.
How Does Ayahuasca Help With Depression?
Researchers began to catch on to ayahuasca because of its long historical use by tribes in South America. For centuries, ayahuasca has been used for healing or spiritual purposes.
Those purposes might be one and the same because finding a deep, or spiritual, meaning from ayahuasca is what leads to mental health benefits.
However, to put these theories to the test, researchers have been conducting trials to see if ayahuasca really does reduce depression.
In 2015, researchers in Brazil performed a small open trial to see if ayahuasca helped with depression. They gave 17 patients with recurring depression ayahuasca and then followed up with them for the next month.
They found that after just one ayahuasca session, all participants had reductions in depressive symptoms. Not only that, but the effects lasted at least 21 days after the psychedelic trip.
However, this clinical trial was small, and there was no placebo group that didn’t take any ayahuasca. The placebo group is important because the placebo effect can cause people to report benefits even if they took nothing.
That’s why a new study was designed to put an end to any doubts about ayahuasca’s effectiveness.
In 2018, the first-ever clinical trial looked at ayahuasca use and people with major depressive disorder who find no relief with typical antidepressants. Twenty-nine patients were recruited and were either given ayahuasca or a placebo.
After one week, the researchers found that 64% of the participants who had the ayahuasca felt that their depression had eased.
Ayahuasca Therapy May Be the Future
Although more studies will need to be performed, ayahuasca is looking like a great tool in the fight against depression. On top of that, it seems like it will be able to replace or reduce the reliance on antidepressants.
After all, we’ve seen that just one session of ayahuasca use is enough to reduce depression, while antidepressants can take months of use. Furthermore, ayahuasca is safe, and antidepressants have a whole range of side effects as well as potential dependence and withdrawal.
Unfortunately, ayahuasca is still a banned substance in most countries. Although ayahuasca is gaining attention all over the world, we likely won’t see the law change for many years to come.
However, if these early trials are any indication, then the future of ayahuasca looks bright.