Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Ayahuasca and DMT: The Spirit Medicine

This article first appeared as a side bar to my Scientific Shamanism article in New Dawn Special Issue Volume 10, Number 5, August 2016. © Brett Lothian.

Ayahuasca and DMT: The Spirit Medicine

For millennia the Amazonian Shaman have utilised Ayahuasca for diagnosing and treating illness, many Shaman even claim that their traditional knowledge and the often ingenious innovations of their people are a direct result of using Ayahuasca, to contact the ancestors and the spirit world for information and solutions to their problems. Such as in the case of Curare, the poison concoction  used traditionally in the Amazon on blow darts and poison arrows, that often contains over forty different plants. The odds of making such an effective combination with so many different plants, through trial and error (as in the west) is unfathomable in the gigantic green ocean of plants that the Amazon jungle contains and is statistically speaking, virtually impossible to have achieved. And yet, here it is, thanks to the use of Ayahuasca. Traditionally in the cultures that utilise Ayahuasca, it is regarded as the teacher par excellence and with good reason. Whilst the science of Anthropology has known about the use of Ayahuasca for decades, it has only been recently that any scientific studies have been conducted to research the possible applications of this wonderful medicine in the west.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea that traditionally is made from Banisteriopsis caapi (the Ayahuasca vine) and Psychotria viridis, commonly known as Chacruna. The Ayahuasca vine contains N,N Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and the mono amine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahydroharmine which allow DMT to be orally active. Mono amine oxidase is an enzyme that destroys DMT in the stomach and thusly needs to be inhibited for the Ayahuasca to be effective as a drink. Chacruna contains DMT once again and is used to increase the potency of the brew. The addition of Chacruna is not strictly necessary, but is the common practice throughout its traditional use. Other admixture plants are also utilised traditionally for various reasons in the brew and recipes can vary quite a bit from tribe to tribe and Shaman to Shaman, with the Ayahuasca vine and Chacruna being the staples. Neo Shaman and psychedelic explorers have in modern times began to utilise other plants such as Syrian rue and various Acacia species in making what are known as Ayahuasca analogs, which have the same chemical components and effects of traditional Ayahuasca. The number of potential plant combinations that can be utilised in this way are almost never ending and make the attempted prohibition of Ayahuasca, laughably ridiculous and quite simply impossible to ever achieve in reality. DMT is one of the most common compounds ever found in nature, it is literally everywhere, on every continent except Antarctica, including within our own bodies. The fact that our own bodies produce DMT, technically makes all of us illegal drug labs and drug smugglers, under the current laws.
Psychotria viridis or "Chacruna"
DMT does not necessarily need to be combined with a MAOI to be effective however (as in the traditional Ayahuasca brew), research has shown that it can be taken effectively as a suppository, vaporised, smoked, given intravenously and even insufflated as in the traditional practice among many Amazonian tribes of using hollow tubes to forcibly blow Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina) and Cebil (Anadenanthera colubrina) seed snuff, up each others nostrils. There are numerous different forms of DMT found in nature, such a 5-MeO DMT (the active ingredient of Yopo), Bufotenin (the active ingredient of psychedelic toads) and even Psilocybin (the active ingredient in Magic mushrooms) which have different and yet similar and comparable effects.  Whilst these different forms of DMT and other various Shamanic plant medicines such as Peyote, San Pedro, Iboga etc, have all been utilised traditionally for the same purposes, for eons around the world, the new studies being conducted on the cutting edge of psychedelic research have finally started to show that all psychedelics so far tested (even LSD and MDMA), are relatively safe, non habit forming and are by far the most effective mental health medicines ever discovered, or more correctly, re-discovered by modern science. After all, Shamanism was most likely the first science our people ever learned, many thousands of years ago, up and until today. Thankfully modern science has began to realise that the accumulated plant knowledge passed down through the ages by our Shaman, cannot be matched by our modern botanists or replaced, and has the ability to solve many of our modern health issues.

Which brings us to the modern research into Ayahuasca and DMT. Dr Rick Strassman began the new research into DMT in the early nineties by studying the effects of DMT given intravenously and wrote about his findings in the book, DMT: The spirit molecule, which is well worth reading. Numerous studies have been conducted since then but have largely not taken the form of clinical trials and rely on anecdotal evidence, but there findings are very promising to say the least, especially in the areas of drug addiction, treating depression and other mental health issues. A study by the Department of Neuro sciences and Behaviour, Ribeirão Preto Medical School at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, was the first designed specifically to assess clinical efficacy of ayahuasca for medical disorders, and involved three female participants with a clinical diagnosis of recurring depressive disorder and current mild/severe depressive episode without psychotic symptoms. Subjects received an oral dose of 3ml/kg of ayahuasca. After a single ayahuasca dose, depressive symptoms were significantly decreased from 40 minutes after intake until day 14, when symptoms began to reach baseline levels. They are now conducting larger studies that they hope will shore up their findings.
Banisteriposis caapi the "Ayahuasca Vine"
A team of scientists at Debrecen University believe that DMT may play a vital role in enabling brain cells to survive for longer periods when oxygen is cut off. Though the team admits that their hypothesis is based on indirect evidence, lead researcher Ede Frecska believes that there are enough clues to suggest that this may well be the function of DMT in the body. For instance, DMT is among the few internally-produced compounds that bind to the sigma-1 receptor, which is believed to play a protective role during a type of cellular stress, called oxidative stress, that can arise from a lack of oxygen. Additionally, the fact that the brain has an active uptake method which enables the transport of DMT through the blood-brain barrier suggests that the organ must require it for something. The team has therefore postulated that the role of DMT may be to protect cells from oxidative stress, thereby prolonging the period of time they can survive in the absence of oxygen and preventing brain damage. If this hypothesis is confirmed, the researchers believe it could have significant practical applications, enabling survivors of strokes and heart attacks to recover with minimal risk of losing their mental capacities. Having now secured funding for the trial via a crowd funding campaign, the team intends to investigate the effect of DMT on oxidative stress in neural tissue cultures, with the hope of one day progressing to human trials. However, the fact that DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration – implying a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value – may well present a barrier to research using live subjects. This is in spite of an array of evidence previously put forward by Frecska that the molecule may play a vital role in immunoregulation. For instance, he suggests that DMT may help to coordinate the immune responses that fight cancer. This is based on the fact that the molecule's synthesis requires an enzyme called indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase (IMNT), which is produced by the IMNT gene, the expression of which has been found to prevent the recurrence of malignant lung and prostate cancers.  
Whilst many of the studies that have been conducted so far are merely anecdotal, and/or rely on a small sample size, the ongoing research will hopefully lead to a greater understanding and irrefutable proof of Ayahuasca and DMT’s medical applications. Because this is what we need if we are ever going to see a change in our ridiculous and socially destructive drug laws. We have to be able to prove without a shadow of a doubt what the indigenous Shaman from all around the world have been saying for millenia, that Ayahuasca and DMT are medicines, and that they save lives. This has been the case with the Cannabis law reform that is spreading throughout the world. An ever increasing number of countries around the world, now allow people to utilise Cannabis for medicinal reasons, despite the decades of misinformation, scare tactics and blatant lies of the “War on Drugs,” which has for so long told us that Cannabis is merely a dangerous drug of dependance. That fraudulent representation of a harmless plant and life saving medicine, can no longer be upheld as the science has proven it to be wrong, over and over again, at the cost how many people their lives?  How many people had to and still have to die needlessly all around the world because of our government’s ignorance? Far too many I would suggest. Although the tide is slowly turning on the medicinal Cannabis front, the illegalisation of Ayahuasca and DMT (and all the other Shamanic plant medicines) is largely left unchallenged in most countries around the world and if it is being challenged, it is being challenged on the wrong grounds to ever really be effective. The average hard working citizen, let alone our governments, is never going to be swayed by the religious protestations of a few long haired hippies, or the anecdotal evidence of people travelling to the Amazon or self medicating at home. They are far too easily dismissed as “druggies” and will never be taken seriously in the mainstream. We have to do the science, report the science and generate a movement of serious people that is based on hard scientific facts. No average Joe, politician or law maker can argue with irrefutable proof, and once we have that behind us, the whole world will change for the better. 
 *Please note as this article was word restricted and originally a side bar piece, there are no references.
By Brett Lothian. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Scientific Shamanism: Shamanic plant medicine meets new science

This article first appeared in the New Dawn Special Issue Volume 10, Number 5, August 2016.
© Brett Lothian.
Scientific Shamanism
Shamanic plant medicine meets new science.

In our modern age, all of us have been touched in one way or another by mental illness, either directly or indirectly. Depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress,  and an ever growing list of psychotic disorders and addictions are today rampant in our modern industrialised world. Most likely as a direct result of our  “keeping up with the Kardashians” lifestyle and ultra competitive, capitalist “greed is good” world. Whilst we may never be able to go back to more simpler times, what we can do is learn from the societies who still live a simpler life. Especially in the area of mental health, where we enter the mystical realm of the Shaman and shamanic plant medicine. After the false start of the 1950‘s - 1970‘s psychedelic research, today cutting edge science has learned from the mistakes of the past and is once more entering the realm of the Shaman, this time (by necessity) in a far more measured and scientific way. The results of which will not only save lives, but show us a way that all of us can live happier, less stressful and healthier lives.

It is repeated time and again in the science of Anthropology that indigenous societies with little to no contact with modern civilisation simply do not have the same mental health issues that we do in our modern world. Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey,  conducted research in New Guinea, which he described as “an unusually good country in which to do epidemiologic research because census records for even most remote villages are remarkably good.” After examining these records, he found, “there was over a twentyfold difference in schizophrenia prevalence among districts; those with a higher prevalence were, in general, those with the most contact with western civilisation.” In reviewing other’s research, Torrey concluded: “Almost all observers who looked for psychosis or schizophrenia in technologically undeveloped areas of the world agreed that it was uncommon. The striking feature is the remarkable consensus that insanity (in the early studies) and schizophrenia (in later studies) were comparatively uncommon prior to contact with European-American civilisation.” Interestingly, in traditional cultures the people we would call “schizophrenic” or ‘insane” often become the Shaman or Medicine men that go on to heal and counsel their people.

Psilocybe pelliculosa a "Magic Mushroom"

Now, the reasons for our modern mental maladies are many (and worthy of an entire article in their own right), but the main reason seems to be the level of coercion (with the threat of violence) in our modern society versus those of the traditional. In other words, from cradle to the grave we are taught to fear, we are controlled by fear and have fear reinforced on a daily basis by our mainstream media. For many indigenous peoples, even the supposed majority rule that most western people call democracy, is problematically coercive, as it results in the minority feeling resentful. Roland Chrisjohn, member of the Oneida Nation of the Confederacy of the Haudenausaunee (Iroquois) and author of The Circle Game, points out that for his people, it is deemed valuable to spend whatever time necessary to achieve consensus so as to prevent such resentment. By the standards of western civilisation, this is highly inefficient. “Achieving consensus could take forever!” exclaimed an attendee of a talk given by Chrisjohn, who responded, “What else is there more important to do?”

Unfortunately, we in the modern world simply can not wait for such a consensus utopia to happen by itself, and simply have to accept that our modern world is exactly how the powers that be, want it to be. That is the entire point of having power to begin with. Our modern way of life is literally killing so many of us, and the natural world around us, whilst the one percent at the top get to live their lives of luxury, at our and the worlds expense. But what can we do about it? How can we achieve a happy consensus, instead of the coerced consensus that is imposed upon us, without the use of fear and the resulting resentment that is the root cause of so many mental problems? I think that it begins at home, not just in our recycling bins, but in our minds and gardens. We simply must break the shackles of fear if we are to be truly happy and mentally healthy. That is where the ancient methods of the Shaman and shamanic plant medicine comes in, and now with the backing of cutting edge science, it can no longer be denied.

Banisteriopsis caapi the "Ayahuasca Vine".

The modern research into the use of shamanic plant medicine and the modern psychedelic drugs such as LSD (which work the same way in the brain) for mental illness began in 1953 and was conducted until 1973 and the Richard Nixon led ‘War on drugs.’ Psychedelic drugs (often derived from shamanic plants) were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were almost always positive. But many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. This is not however what led to the illegalisation of shamanic plant medicine and the psychedelic drugs in general. The current legal standpoint came from the fear induced in the powers that be of the ‘flower power’ generation and their increasing unwillingness to fight in foreign wars for the benefit of the elite. Nothing could put more fear into the powers that be than an entire generation embracing peace, love and understanding through the use of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics, when the powers that be made their money (and therefore power), from war, fear and propaganda. In todays world of the ‘War on terror’ (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) we must remember that little has changed at the top. Luckily for us, the new breed of scientist has learned that instead of promulgating the “turn on, tune in and drop out” pontificating of Timothy Leary and the ‘acid gurus,’ what we need is undeniable facts, hard science and proven repeatable results. The acid gurus just went too far out there to be ever taken seriously in the mainstream.

Which brings us to the new dawn of psychedelic research and the return of shamanic plant medicine. Unfortunately the new science has had to deal with the fear and propaganda of the past, which has made real scientific research incredibly difficult. The simple fact is, most reputable scientific institutes simply do not want to go anywhere near ‘psychedelic research’ because of the stigma attached to it. But the main problem is there just isn’t the money for this kind of research that there is for others, because the big pharmaceutical companies have no interest in developing drugs that people can grow at home. People are never going to pay their hard earned money for a ‘drug’ when they can get the plant it was derived from for free. You just can’t patent nature and the vast majority of research is funded by and designed to benefit the big pharmaceutical industry, not the patient. We must remember that businesses are in the business of making money, otherwise they would be called charities.
Another problem with receiving funding for this kind of research is that it consistently has proven to be effective with limited doses and are non habit forming, which means that there is little to no scope for consistent reliance (or addiction) upon a ‘drug,’ and therefore once again, no money for the big pharmaceutical companies who have no interest in cures, only ‘treatments’ that have to be continued for a long period of time to be profitable, whether really effective or not. Take a look at the modern pharmaceutical ‘treatments’ for depression, which usually have to be taken for years at a time and say right on the box “May cause suicidal thoughts!" Once again, the powers that be have put their own profits, over the people.

Loppophora williamsii the "Peyote Cactus" in flower, grafted to Trichocereus spachianus.

Thankfully this has not stopped serious scientific researchers from making major breakthroughs in the field of psychedelic research, it merely delayed the inevitable. After almost thirty years since the last serious psychedelic research, Dr Rick Strassman began to investigate the effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital. DMT is a powerful psychedelic that is found in hundreds of plants from all around the world and every mammal (including ourselves) that has been studied. In nature it is literally everywhere and is the active ingredient in the Amazonian shamanic plant medicine Ayahuasca, which is gaining popularity around the world for its therapeutic benefits and is currently being reviewed by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration for religious use. Strassman refers to DMT as the "spirit molecule" because its effects include many features of religious experience, such as visions, voices, disembodied consciousness, powerful emotions, novel insights, and feelings of overwhelming significance. During the project's five years, Strassman administered approximately 400 doses of DMT to nearly five dozen human volunteers, with more than half of the volunteers reporting profound encounters with non-human intelligences whilst under the influence of DMT. His team published a companion article characterising the psychological effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale, the Hallucinogen Rating Scale, or HRS. The HRS has seen wide acceptance throughout the international research community as a sensitive and specific instrument for measuring the psychological effects of a wide variety of psychoactive substances, with over fifty articles documenting its use as of 2016.

The next major step was taken by Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences and his team at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who in 2006 conducted a double blind study evaluating the acute and longer term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin, (the active ingredient in the shamanic plant medicine commonly known as 'Magic mushrooms’) relative to a comparison compound administered under comfortable, supportive conditions. The researchers found that psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, easily changeable moods and increased measures of mystical experience. Seventy percent of the volunteers went on to say that they had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives. The volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in mental outlook, life satisfaction, attitude and behaviour consistent with changes rated by their community observers (the researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family).Griffiths believes the personality changes found in this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many. The fact that Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (which is widely regarded as the premier medical centre in America) was now conducting psychedelic research, literally opened the flood gates to new and exciting research into shamanic plant medicine and the new psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA (the active ingredient in the street drug ‘Ecstacy’).

This was followed by Dr Charles Grob at U.C.L.A., who for a Phase I pilot study, assessed the safety, dosing, and efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and existential stress in terminal cancer patients. The Phase II trials, concluded at both Johns Hopkins and N.Y.U., involved higher doses and larger groups. In both phases of the study, the researchers found after receiving just a single dose of psilocybin, the subjects involved experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months, with no clinically adverse effects being noted. The subjects involved were reported as saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ These people who had been palpably scared of death, lost their fear of it and were able to be at peace during such a difficult time. The fact that a substance given once can have such an effect for so long is unprecedented, there has literally never been a substance so effective in the field of psychiatry, but of course has long been the staple of the Shaman.

Trichocereus valida one the "San Pedro Cacti".

A Norwegian study in 2013 titled Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study by Teri S. Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen, showed that the use of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics had no negative effects on mental health and in life time users of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics a decrease in mental health issues. Rick Doblin and his team at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 2013 published a follow up to their 2011 study into the safety and effectiveness of MDMA (ecstacy) in treatment resistant post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients showing that it can be used safely and effectively against this debilitating disorder and that the positive effects are long term, without risk of addiction or the need for continued use of the substance. In 2014 the University of Zurich reported in a fascinating study that Psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain and positively effected mood. In 2015 the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health showed that the use of classic psychedelics like LSD, Psilocybin and Mescaline (the active ingredient in Peyote and San Pedro cacti) had a protective effect on mental health and in suicide prevention. Again in 2015 another Johns Hopkins study also showed that shamanic plant medicine and psychedelic use had a protective effect against mental illness and suicide. Another University of Alabama at Birmingham study this year showed that psychedelic use had an inhibitory effect on domestic violence and was useful in the treatment of problem behaviours. Many similar studies are currently ongoing and will be published in the years to come. *Please note, the findings mentioned above were achieved under strict clinical conditions and controls.

In most countries around the world the use of shamanic plant medicine such as Magic mushrooms, Ayahuasca, Peyote, San Pedro and Iboga and even the mere possession of psychedelics like LSD and MDMA are unfortunately illegal, thanks to the ridiculous and socially damaging ‘War on drugs,’ despite their proven therapeutic benefits. In the countries where the traditional use of shamanic plant medicine is still undertaken, their legal status is usually protected and has created an ever growing ‘psychedelic tourism’ market of spiritual seekers and people looking for alternative medicines that actually work. People from all over the world are flooding into countries like Peru and Bolivia looking to heal their post traumatic stress, anxiety and conquer depression and drug addictions. Unfortunately, not all of us can drop everything and run off to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca, but what we can do is garden (gardening itself has proven to be an anti depressant) freely purchase and grow the vast majority of these shamanic plant medicines in our own gardens, legally. We just aren’t allowed by law to ingest them or prepare them for ingestion. We are left in the unenviable position of the medical marijuana patients, having to break the law to save lives.

About the author: Brett Lothian is an Australian author, professional arborist, market gardener and ethnobotanist. He is the author of the Tricho Serious Ethnobotany blog and creator of the Trichocereus Cacti Appreciation group, the Peyote Appreciation group and the Ethnobotany Appreciation Society group on facebook.


How Societies with Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness by Bruce Levine.

The Trip Treatment: Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results by Michael Pollan.

Magic Mushrooms vs. the Fear of Death: by Anne Harding.

DMT: The spirit molecule by Dr Rick Strassman.

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance by Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R.

Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced Stage Cancer by  Charles S. Grob, MD; Alicia L. Danforth, MA; Gurpreet S. Chopra, MD; Marycie Hagerty, RN, BSN, MA; Charles R. McKay, MD; Adam L. Halberstadt, PhD; George R. Greer, MD.

Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study by Teri S. Krebs, Pål-Ørjan Johansen.

The safety and efficacy of {+/-}3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomised controlled pilot study by Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R.

Durability of improvement in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and absence of harmful effects or drug dependency after 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy: a prospective long-term follow-up study by Michael C Mithoefer, Mark T Wagner, Ann T Mithoefer, Lisa Jerome, Scott F Martin, Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Yvonne, Michel, Timothy D Brewerton, and Rick Doblin.

Psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain by University of Zurich.

Classic psychedelic use protective with regard to psychological distress and suicidality by SAGE Publications.

Psychedelic drug use could reduce psychological distress, suicidal thinking, study suggests by  Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Hallucinogen may protect against intimate partner violence, researcher suggests by University of Alabama at Birmingham.