Ayahuasca: a treatment for depression and addiction, can ayahuasca help you

Over the course of my life, I’ve cultivated quite an intimate relationship with both addiction as well as depression. 

For whatever reason, be it karma, genetic predisposition, the environment I grew up in, I seem to have been born with, or perhaps acquired, what I call an “addictive personality”. 

I struggled with depression on and off throughout my late teens and early twenties and also found myself grappling with cocaine addiction, addiction to stimulants, alcoholism, obsessive compulsive disorder and an extremely disordered and addictive relationship with food, primarily in the form of binge eating disorder and bulimia. I had chronic obsessive thoughts about my body weight, food, what I should or shouldn’t be eating, how much I shouldn’t be eating and then eating too much and wishing I hadn’t. 

I’ve been on quite a healing journey these past 15 years of my life. At the very core of my quest for my own healing was a strong determination to help others who we’re struggling like I was. I felt so alone in my struggle; so  utterly disconnected. 

I started reading books from spiritual teachers, particularly by Pema Chödrön who I still consider to be one of my most cherished Dharma teachers in my life, who opened a doorway of light within my heart to seek out my healing by coming out of my dark, isolated cocoon and reach out to connect with other human beings in a heartfelt way.  

I hit a rock bottom moment in my life that I talk about in the introduction to my book “Unhooked A Holistic Approach to Ending Your Struggle with Food”. I was sobbing on the bathroom floor, miserable and depressed and I just wanted the pain and suffering of being alive to be over. 

I had my first out-of-body experience where I saw myself as the observer in my life, and had full clarity and insight that this didn’t have to be my life, and that I could choose the life I actually wanted to be living. It was like snapping out of a trance of delusion that I was helplessly stuck living that way for the rest of my life. 

In that moment, I gave up everything I knew to be true, I gave away everything I owned, I packed a backpack and I left the home I knew, the people, friends and family I knew and I walked away in search of new, happier and more fulfilled life. 

This solo journey took me all over the world on a quest to heal my relationship to food, my body, stimulants and other addictive drugs as well as overconsumption of alcohol, and to discover what the purpose of my life really was and what it could be like to live a life with meaning, purpose and a true-felt sense of happiness. 

I took a very integrative approach to my healing. I studied spiritual teachings, I went back to school and studied nutrition, I became a certified yoga teacher, I started a health coaching business, ran health retreats for almost 10 years and taught myself how to heal my relationship to my body by primarily reconnecting with nature. 

But there was so much more to my healing story, perhaps the most important contributing factor that helped me heal my depression and addictive tendencies, as well as massively upgrade my entire life that I wasn’t able to write about in my published books or on social media for fear of my personal safety. 

My First Ayahuasca Ceremony 

A very magically aligned and synchronous unfolding of events brought me to sit in my first ayahuasca ceremony on the Big Island of Hawaii, almost 10 years ago. That night changed the course of my entire life. 

I’ve had lots of experience with psychedelics before this, but there was a very resonant quality to this jungle medicine that I intuitively knew was going to be playing a foundational role in my healing journey. 

Over the next 10 years, ayahuasca has radically upgraded my entire life, in every possible way. It has been one of the foundations of helping me heal my relationship with addictive behaviors. Interestingly enough, I was completely unaware of any research surrounding ayahuasca and addiction or depression. Recently, so much more research is being conducted in this area and it’s no surprise that what they are discovering has completely confirmed all of my direct experience. 

Over the last 10 years, depression has been virtually non-existent in my life. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, more fit, strong and flexible, have more loving relationships, and have accomplished so many of my life goals.

Now of course I’m not saying that it’s only as a result of drinking ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is not a magic cure, but it is an incredible healing aid when consumed with intention in a safe, held space and most importantly, when you’re willing to do the work on a day to day basis to implement the teachings and guidance you receive during your journeys. Ayahuasca integration into your daily life is foundational to making lasting change. 

What the Research Says about Ayahuasca, Addiction & Depression

Research into the healing benefits of ayahuasca are finally hitting the main stream. In British Columbia, Dr. Gabor Maté is treating his patients struggling with hard core drug addictions using ayahuasca-assisted therapy as a primary method of treatment, combined with Western psychotherapeutic techniques. 

He’s teamed up with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), to conduct preliminary studies and have found that ayahuasca-assisted therapy can help reduce problematic substance use as well as addictions, compulsive behavior, and self-harming thought patterns.

Here’s what MAPS says about the healing benefits of Ayahuasca on their website: 

In recent decades, international researchers have been exploring the effects of ayahuasca on brain function as well as the potential use of ayahuasca-assisted therapy as a treatment for substance abuse and other disorders. Although preliminary, current research suggests that when administered in therapeutic settings, ayahuasca may help reduce problematic substance use by helping promote personal or spiritual insights or self-knowledge.

How Does Ayahuasca Help Treat Addiction, Depression, Anxiety and PTSD

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and gastrointestinal tract, from L-tryptophan, an essential dietary amino acid.

Deficiencies in tryptophan and serotonin  are linked to a variety of pathologies and mental disorders including alcoholism, suicidal ideation, intractable depression, PTSD and anxiety, loss of sexual interest, low moods, among other disorders. 

It turns our that long term users of ayahuasca have an up-regulation of the serotonin transporter and ironically enough, ayahuasca is now being shown to help cure many of these ailments.

According to the Global Ayahuasca Project, “Data from the Takiwasi centre in Peru, which has been using ayahuasca in combination with conventional psychotherapeutic methods for over 20 years, provides evidence of a positive treatment outcome in around two-thirds of patients (Mabit 2001).”

Another research paper by NCBI states: “Because of its role in nervous system signaling, DMT may be a useful experimental tool in exploring how brain works, and may also be a useful clinical tool for treatment of anxiety and psychosis.” 

Traditional Methods for Treating Depression 

The current mainstream approach to treat depression is to use pharmaceutical drugs that mask symptoms and dull pain, without encouraging people to look at the root causes of the underlying imbalance.  

Essentially, we’re a pill popping society and we’re not looking at their own shit. Most people are looking for a quick-fix, magic-bullet cure without wanting to put the effort into healing underlying dysfunctional thought or behavioral patterns or revisit underlying trauma. 

On a physiological level, the primary goal of common antidepressants which are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), is to help increase serotonergic activity in the brain. Unfortunately, the majority of these pharmaceutical drugs have numerous unpleasant side effects like weight gain, insomnia, fatigue, loss of sex-drive, to name a few. 

The use of antidepressants in the US is continuing to climb and is currently at an all time high. According to a recent article published in Time Magazine, 13% of the population is on antidepressants.  

How Ayahuasca Can Help 

Serotonin is metabolized and “deactivated” in the body by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). I talk a bit more about MAO’s in my article What is Ayahuasca? that is worth checking out if you want to learn more about this. 

When we drink ayahuasca, the active compound in the vine (one of 2 primary plant ingredients in the making of the brew) is an MAO inhibitor, (MAOI). As a result, levels of serotonin in the brain begin to increase since it’s no longer being broken down by the MAO enzyme and it’s production continues unabated. 

According to Dennis McKenna, ethnopharmacologist and research pharmacognosist who lectures and writes extensively on the topic of Ayahuasca “This action alone can have noticeable psychoactive effects as the brain becomes hyper activated by its own neurotransmitter.”

Research is also starting to point to the effects that DMT, (contained in the leaves, which is the other primary plant found in the ayahuasca brew) affects the serotonin neurotransmission particularly through 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. It seems that DMT behaves as an agonist at this receptor, which means they activate serotonin receptors in a manner similar to that of serotonin. 

Treatment Resistant Depression

Despite the surge in consumption of antidepressants, effectiveness of the drug remains low, with a high remission rate. Treatment Resistant Depression is becoming more common which means people are not “responding adequately” to treatment with antidepressant drugs. This leaves an interesting and inviting door open for people to try alternative, natural and plant based methods like ayahuasca for treating depression as well as addiction. 

According to an article published in Frontiers of Psychology, about 30% of depression patients are resistant to currently available antidepressant medications.

This article explores the effects of ayahuasca as an alternative way to treat depression and states: 

“Recent evidence from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) supports the rapid antidepressant effects of the psychedelic ayahuasca in treatment-resistant depression.”

Another research paper by NCIB states:

One intriguing result of ayahuasca use appears to be improved mental health and a reduction in recidivism to alternate (alcohol, cocaine) drug use.

Ayahuasca As a Holistic Approach to Treating Depression & Addiction 

Drinking ayahuasca in a ceremonial context offers quite the contrast to the pharmaceutical approach. It’s a much more holistic method for treating depression and addiction and encourages people to make changes in their lives to support long-lasting positive behavioral patterns that support mental health and overall wellbeing. 

Ayahuasca better helps us understand ourselves. Many people say one night of drinking ayahuasca is similar to 10 years of therapy. What “she” (the spirit of ayahuasca is commonly referred to as female) shows us in our journeys can help us immensely in our lives. 

This medicine opens up our subconscious mind to allow us to perceive underlying traumas, or old behavioral patterns that no longer serve us in our highest. 

The spirit of ayahuasca is constantly showing us how to heal deeply rooted pain, forgive ourselves, forgive others and heal from our stored emotional traumas that we all have. This medicine allows us to approach our “problems” in life with much more of a subjective awareness, where we can approach our healing from a new level of thought and a new level of mind with more self-compassion and self-awareness. 

Here’s a few interesting snippets from various research articles: 

According to a research paper by NCBI: 

Ayahuasca use induces a transient modified state of consciousness characterized by introspection, visions, enhanced emotions and recollection of personal memories….findings indicating that ayahuasca intake increases certain mindfulness facets related to acceptance and to the ability to take a detached view of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Based on the available evidence, we conclude that ayahuasca shows promise as a therapeutic tool by enhancing self-acceptance and allowing safe exposure to emotional events. We postulate that ayahuasca could be of use in the treatment of impulse-related, personality and substance use disorders and also in the handling of trauma.

According to the MAPS website: 

A growing body of evidence suggests that ayahuasca may be useful to treat substance use disorders, anxiety and depression. Our results suggest that this form of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for stress and addiction was correlated with statistically significant improvements in mindfulness, empowerment, hopefulness and quality of life-outlook and quality of life-meaning. It may also have contributed to statistically significant reductions in cocaine use. The findings of this research on ayahuasca-assisted treatment for addictions, although preliminary, corroborate those of previous studies showing salutogenic effects of ceremonial ayahuasca drinking.

If you want to further research the benefits of treating depression with ayahuasca, check out: The Theraputic Potentials of Ayahuasca in the Treatment of Depression 

The Risks of Drinking Ayahuasca on Antidepressants

It is incredibly dangerous to drink ayahuasca while taking antidepressant drugs and can cause many very dangerous and unpleasant side effects including death. Drinking ayahuasca while taking antidepressants can cause “Serotonin Syndrome” which floods the brain with too much serotonin. It’s advised to stop taking antidepressants at least 6-8 weeks before participating in an ayahuasca ceremony.

It’s Already Happening

The use of ayahuasca to help treat addiction and depression amongst many other pathologies is already happening, and happening quite successfully. I’m meeting so many people all of the time who are experiencing profound levels of healing with ayahuasca. Even this past week, I sat in a a series of ceremonies with a woman who’s primary reason for drinking the medicine was to help her quit smoking cigarettes. It was so inspiring to hear her talk in integration about how much she felt like it was working and how ayahuasca was helping her kick the long-standing habit she was finally ready to let go of in her life. 

I have no doubt how much ayahuasca has helped me on my own healing journey with depression as well as addiction. I am so incredibly grateful every single day of my life for having aligned with this sacred plant medicine that’s been used in indigenous cultures for hundreds, potentially thousands of years for such a wide range of healing purposes. 

Please contact me if you have any questions about how ayahuasca might be able to help you treat any kind of old unhealthy behavioral pattern you’re ready to let go of. Please be careful when choosing which ceremony to be present in. If it’s your first time drinking ayahuasca, check out my article 20 questions to ask the shaman before sitting in their ceremony

It is my deepest wish that we all become free from self-induced suffering in our lives and live with freedom, love and joy in our hearts.

Live Free, Laura D