Ayahuasca: Inside the celebrity-loved psychedelic

It’s set to be researched as a treatment for alcohol dependence and depression in a study led by the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health with Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, Swinburne University and Western Sydney University later this year.

Author and Byron Bay resident has taken ayahuasca “countless” times.

The research builds on the positive findings of last year Global Ayahuasca Project, an observational study of about 10,000 ayahuasca drinkers conducted by researchers from Australia, Brazil, Spain, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

More than 80 per cent of ayahuasca drinkers said they gained important insights about their personality, behaviors, morals, relationship patterns and physical health.

Associate Professor Daniel Perkins led that study and is the co-founder of the University of Melbourne’s Medicinal Psychedelics Research Network.

“People have experiences with ayahuasca where it often like a type of life review involving deep reflection on important events, relationships and situations from childhood to the present day. It’s accelerated processing that can be like 10 years of psychotherapy in one night, ”says Perkins.

According to a 2021 research paper, published in the International Journal of Neuropyschopharamcology, consuming ayahuasca temporarily reorders the way our brain receives information by disrupting our neural hierarchy. This means that we can process life events in a new way, gain clarity or alternative perspectives.

Western Sydney University professor Jerome Sarris and University of Melbourne associate professor Daniel Perkins are co-directors of the University of Melbourne's Medicinal Psychedelics Research Network.

Western Sydney University professor Jerome Sarris and University of Melbourne associate professor Daniel Perkins are co-directors of the University of Melbourne’s Medicinal Psychedelics Research Network.Credit:Joe Armao

Author Sarah McLeod, who lives north of Byron Bay, has taken ayahuasca “countless” times and says that the outer-body experience of drinking it helped her deal with the repressed memory of a childhood sexual assault.

“For my early adult years, my sense of self was completely obliterated,” she says. “To stand and face that trauma was an incredibly intense experience, but also incredibly liberating … because I was able to then transcend the pain.”

Another study, published in 2021 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that about three-quarters of people with depression or anxiety reported improved or resolved symptoms after consuming ayahuasca. Scientists noted that it can reduce the levels of C-reactive proteins in the brain, which is a marker of treatment-resistant depressive disorder.

A small group – under 5 per cent – reported a worsening of symptoms.

Andrew “Orion” Marks facilitates trips to ayahausca retreats.

Andrew “Orion” Marks facilitates trips to ayahausca retreats. Credit:Photo Nick Moir 29 April 2022

While studies are encouraging, there’s a long way to go before ayahuasca can become a viable medical treatment. In Australia, biomedical studies go through three phases of multiple trials. Ayahuasca is about to begin phase two of its first trial.

Andrew “Orion” Marks, from NSW’s Central Coast, worked in the Australian army before becoming interested 14 years ago in shamanism, the spiritual healing tradition of indigenous cultures in Eastern Europe and Asia.

As a shaman, Marks facilitates trips to the Amazon to a center with healers who have been practicing with ayahuasca for more than 30 years. Marks does not believe ayahuasca is a cure-all but that it can have a place in supporting people with addiction and trauma.

Because of the intensity of the psychedelic, Marks says he only uses retreats with experienced ayahuasca practitioners.

Andrew “Orion” Marks, shaman.

Andrew “Orion” Marks, shaman.Credit:Photo Nick Moir 29 April 2022

“If you’re going to have a dark night of the soul, you need to have a highly skilled [ayahuasca healer] to travel with you, ”he says.

But for those who want to take the psychedelic on home soil, some have turned to the “underground” scene in Australia.

Clinical psychologist Stephen Bright, an advocate of harm reduction and evidence-based approaches to drug and alcohol laws, says he is concerned about the narrative that surrounds ayahuasca in the media. He warns that the glamor and benefits described by celebrities at luxury South American retreats are unlikely to be mirrored in unregulated local settings.

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“There’s no quality control. [The facilitators of the ayahuasca sessions] do not have to have undergone any particular training, and they’re less likely to call for help [if something goes wrong]because they’re essentially breaking the law, ”Bright says.

Eternity Hausen, the founder of online mental health service Enlighten Mental Health, echoes Bright’s sentiment about the dangers in Australia.

“Clients come to [Enlighten after taking ayahuasca], thinking that they were going to go on a healing experience with a self-appointed shaman or underground person, ”she says. “One girl in particular was screaming and screaming so much that the police and the ambulance were called … and [the facilitator of the ayahuasca ceremony] did not do anything. ”

To prevent these negative experiences for patients, Enlighten provides harm reduction sessions so patients have a clear understanding of what taking specific psychedelics – including ayahuasca – may look like, as well as assess the risks. Ayahuasca can be fatal if taken with particular medications.

After consumption, Enlighten provides integration support for its patients to explore and process their experience. Without this, Hausen says that the intensity of the psychedelic can be emotionally destabilizing.

While ayahuasca’s future is promising, Bright has a sage reminder to those who are looking for a “miracle cure” and the celebrities that tout its benefits.

“I honestly do not think psychedelics are going to save the world – we need to do that as people.”

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