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Ayahuasca: Can This Hallucinogen Get You Sober?

There’s no wrong way to get sober, and no wrong way to stay sober. Although everyone takes a different path to recovery, the tools that work seem to be the same for most people: self care, meditation, helping others, therapy, medication, and physical activity are some of the most popular. But for some people who seek relief from substance abuse, the path to recovery is truly the road less traveled. From physician administered doses of ketamine, to ashram retreats, some people go to the actual ends of the earth to break the cycle of their addiction.

What Is Ayahuasca and How Does It Work?

Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen, is a well known psychedelic drug that some people say has “cured” their addiction. Described as “life changing,” ayahuasca ceremonies are intense, day long experiences that involve mind altering hallucinations, vomiting, severe mood swings, and gastrointestinal purging.

Sound like fun? It isn’t meant to be. Ayahuasca is a sacred plant used in traditional shamanic ceremonies in South America. The drug is a tea made from several jungle plants that are high in DMT. The primary ingredient is the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). The tea also includes either chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana). The name “ayahuasca” means “vine with a soul” or “vine of the soul,” but some Peruvian tribes call the drug “kamarampi,” from the verb “kamarank,” which means “to vomit.” Diarrhea and vomiting during the psychedelic trip are supposed to purge negative emotions and deep seated fears.

People partaking in the ayahuasca ceremony spend days drinking the specially prepared tea, singing, and undergoing a vision quest with the aid of a shaman or guide. Participants describe the ordeal as gruelling, but when it’s over, they feel “reborn.”

How Does Ayahuasca Affect Active Addiction?

The negative side effects of ayahuasca, especially nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, will be familiar to many people who have experienced active addiction. Anyone who’s coped with opiate withdrawal knows what it’s like to lie in bed for days, sick and miserable. Unlike detox, though, ayahuasca provides a huge surge of DMT in the brain, with psychedelic visions and hallucinations. Forget trying this at home, or getting the dark, sludgy drink over the counter: ayahuasca is a Schedule I controlled substance.

Recent research funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has hinted that ayahuasca, among other psychedelic drugs, such as MDMA and psilocybin, can have a beneficial, long lasting effect on brain chemistry. The Hoasca Project, a 1993 study, tested ayahuasca on 15 subjects who attended a church in Brazil. According to Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist who was part of the Hoasca Project team, many of the men had struggled with alcoholism and depression prior to joining the church, and described the ayahuasca as “life saving.”

Follow-up bloodwork on a group of long term ayahuasca users indicated a higher level of serotonin transporters, the chemical that regulates moods. The ayahuasca had apparently reversed mood deficits, which correlate with depression and alcoholism. Although the research did not establish a direct connection, the correlation suggests that ayahuasca’s action on the user’s brain might lead to healing in mood centers.

Will Ayahuasca Help Me Get Sober?

It’s an often-repeated story that Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson took LSD in the later decades of his life. People in recovery take medication for mental conditions such as anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, mood disorders, and other issues. Why would ayahuasca be any different?

Simply put, ayahuasca is not meant to be taken recreationally, or taken alone. Nor does the psychedelic work in micro-doses, as an “escape” from daily reality. One member of AA who underwent an ayahuasca ceremony after almost 13 years sober said, “I drank alcohol to numb myself, to escape, to flee from my demons. I have drunk ayahuasca with the exact opposite aim: to confront them and exorcise them from my being. I appear to be getting my wish.” The intense hallucinations, coupled with the powerful physical effects of the drug, put ayahuasca in a category all its own. Although anecdotal evidence and some scientific research point to its benefits, the same sources also say that it is to be respected as a spiritual substance—not used lightly, or by the uninitiated.

Many people in recovery talk about the importance of spirituality to their sobriety. Some people use prayer and meditation, or a yoga practice, or connect with nature. Ayahuasca, with its mind altering properties, may fall into the “spiritual journey” category for some people. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.