Ayahuasca – Natural Medicine for Brain Disease, Cancer and Wellness
Daniel Gustafsson, Contributor
In south and central america, the native people within many tribes living in the Amazon rainforest have a long historical tradition of making and consuming a natural medicine/tea called ayahuasca. It is harvested and prepared mainly from a wild growing vine, it’s latin name being Banisteriopsis Caapi. Often, but not always, leaves from trees named Chacruna or Chaliponga (Psychotria Viridis and Diplopterys Cabrerana) are added to the tea, or in some regions Jurema tree bark (of the Leguminosae family and Mimosa species).
The rainforests of the earth are known to be an enormous resource and a necessity for upholding the ecosystem of the planet. It is estimated that a very great number of undiscovered plants of medicinal value, are yet to be explored within these forests. Many conventional pharmaceutical medicines originate from substances found in rainforest plants, or their synthesized variants. Ethnopharmacologists have long been aware that there is vast support for the medicinal value of ayahuasca in its use against a number of diseases, but until recently this has been limited to individual claims. Even if a great number of very in-depth and credible personal stories have been available, serious studies have been missing.
This, however, has come to change the last few years. Natural substances extracted from the ayahuasca plants have been found to possess unique restorative and strongly antioxidative properties on specific nerve cells in the brain and central nervous system – controlling neurotransmission, muscle/motor activity, memory and coordination. This gives probable cause to the theory that ayahuasca could be an effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Promising results as of date has also been obtained from studying the substance psilocybin, remarkably closely related from a molecular standpoint to the substances found in ayahuasca, naturally occurring in certain species of medicinal mushrooms consumed by the indigenous people where ayahuasca is also used.
According to Dr. Juan Ramos, head of the neurological disease department at the South Florida university, USA, initial studies show that these substances stimulate the development of new cells in the areas of the brain controlling the above mentioned functions. If this could prove to be an eventual cure through complete restoration of damaged or destroyed cells remains to be seen, but initial results indicate this could potentially be the case. There is also a growing interest in exploring the cell regenerative properties of these plants within spinal chord injury research. Cancer researchers have also shown interest in B. Caapi, as its different alkaloids has shown to be effective against the growth of cancer cells.
Eduardo E. Schenberg, Federal University of Sao Paulo:
”There are enough available evidence that the active substances in ayahuasca, especially dimethyltryptamine and harmine, has the positive effect of preventing cancer cells in cultures used for cancer research, and that these substances affect the biochemical processes that are crucial to the treatment of cancer in-vitro as well as in-vivo. The reports available about people with experience from ayahuasca in the treatment of cancer should be taken seriously. The hypothesis is that the combination of (beta-carboline) alkaloids and dimethyltryptamine present in ayahuasca blocks the transportation of nutrients to tumours, lessens the dividing process of cancer cells, and changes the unbalanced mutation-causing metabolism in cancer cells.”
What has previously been somewhat controversial about ayahuasca, is that the plants in question used to be thought of simply as hallucinogens by western science. In other words, these medicinal plants of great importance, were neglected by the scientific community and thought of simply as if they were natural drugs. A more correct term for these plants, with respect to the indigenous culture in which ayahuasca is a part of, would be ”entheogens” – which means plants used in a context sacred to the native people, inducing spiritual experiences. In several countries, such as Peru, ayahuasca is fully legal and accepted as a complement to conventional medicine, and these last 10 years, western countries has to an increasing degree changed their former unfounded and faulty attitude towards entheogens such as ayahuasca, as more and more studies of entheogenic plants have been completed with positive outcome.
Along with several other similar harmala-alkaloids that can be found in B. Caapi, harmaline is a mono amino oxidase inhibitor. Mono amino oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme in the body that breaks down signal substances (such as serotonin). The inhibition of MAO allows the signal substance to remain in the synapse for a longer period of time. Many anti-depressants work in a similar way, as they stimulate receptors in a targeted area. However, the alkaloids present in ayahuasca should not be compared to antidepressants, as they are not the same though they both have the ability to affect the same receptors. A comparison is that Caapi alkaloids and antidepressants have the same type of delivery system, but different contents. The biochemical properties of plants used in ayahuasca, and the effects they cause on a multitude of bodily functions remain unique to these plants alone.
Ayahuasca in itself is proven to be unharmful, as its compounds are non-toxic, though temporary side effects such as nausea and vertigo are common. However, combining certain medical drugs with MAO-inhibitors (such as the ones found in ayahuasca) is very dangerous, even lethal in some cases. This means that in order to safely consume ayahuasca, one must not combine it with any contraindicated medicinal drugs, and those suffering from diabetes, epilepsy or high blood pressure are adviced to refrain from this treatment. The more or less uncomfortable side effects from ayahuasca, are greatly dose-dependent, and a smaller amount consumed for medicinal purpose can thus mean few, if any, side effects experienced.
When searching for information about ayahuasca, a few negative articles can be found, emotionally angled (understandably so), since they tell stories of unfortunate tourists who on their own, or having been duped into doing so, drink something entirely else than ayahuasca – for instance the toxic plant datura – with serious outcome to their health (including death in a few known cases). This leads to fear and misinformation, and is not only tragic for the diseased and their families, but also for the natural medicine community that is trying to promote the safe and responsible use of natural medicine for health benefits, and treatment of diseases that regular medical care fails to provide options for. Sensationalistic headlines making unfounded claims, written by people without any knowledge about ethnobotanical medicine, will definitely not help neither ALS patients or others seeking viable treatment options for their condition. In several countries, including Peru, Brazil and Costa Rica, established retreats offer ayahuasca treatment where the right plants are harvested (sometimes even organically grown on the property) and prepared by experienced botanists.
One of the earliest studies on B. Caapi was done in the 1920’s, and involved patients with Parkinsons’s disease. The patients experienced great symptom relief in early trials, but unfortunately the research was discontinued due to lack of profit potential – as substances already present in natural plants could not be applicable for any patent useful to pharma companies.
Ayahuasca as an alternative therapy is likely to gain further attention in coming years, but is already well established. Should the discoveries eventually lead to a therapeutic pharmaceutical drug, derived from these plants, to be produced, it lies many years ahead from now. The process from studies, through trials, to eventual launch of an approved drug made for use in the medical care system, is slow due to obvious reasons. The real interesting fact is that ayahuasca in its natural form is something that is available now, today, for those who live with a diagnose lacking options for other treatment. For those who want and can partake in alternative treatment using ayahuasca, there is, while not in any way guaranteed, the real possibility for improvement. As in many other cases, the invidual results will vary, and there should be an emphasis on not overly stirring people’s hope up when questions and work remain. There is also the importance of emphasizing and thereby minimizing the risks involved concerning contraindicative medications. But awaiting further studies, this information should be worth the attention of anyone suffering from a debilitating progressive disease such as ALS.
My personal connection to this, was the passing of a close friends’ mother due to ALS a few years ago. The course of her disease was rapid, and unfortunately several of the now available studies, had not yet been published at the time. This led me into investigating the connection between any available natural medicine and the treatment of neurological disease.
B. Caapi is legally obtainable in most countries/states much in the same way as other known herbal remedies, such as Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng. However, just like with these potent natural supplements, it is up to the consumer to use and combine these in an informed and responsible way. Natural medicines should always be treated with respect, just like conventional medicinal drugs.
The substance known as dimethyltryptamine, found in plants traditionally added to ayahuasca, is however regulated by law in some countries as a scheduled substance. (Questionably so, due to its medicinal value in multiple areas). It is these secondary added plants and this particular substance that induces an altered state of consciousness, a many times misunderstood and stigmatized phenomenon. A description of this altered state is that it is dreamlike, that it stimulates memory and the ability to think abstract, and that it has self-therapeutic qualities. Even though dimethyltryptamine is naturally occuring in the human body, thought to be produced in small amounts by the pineal gland in the brain during the dream phases of sleep, it remains an illegal substance in some western countries since the 1960’s, when lawmakers prematurely criminalized many substances suspected of having any effect on the mind, including natural ones, due to the widespread moral panic at the time – regardless of the fact that many of them, including dimethyltryptamine, has never been proven unhealthy in any way, and has in fact been used by indigenous people, in the form extracted from plants, to successfully treat disease for centuries.
Although, several european countries has redefined their policy regarding many formerly frowned upon medicinal plants in recent years, much due to an increasing awareness and access to new and unbiased information regarding these plants, as well as up-to-date research. In Scandinavia, Sami native Urbi Svonni from Sapmi, Sweden, was recently aquitted from all charges in the court of law, for having brought Peruvian medicinal cactus into the country. The court established that natural plant material alone cannot be defined as a scheduled substance, and that the therapeutic work Svonni was doing, which included Echinopsis Pachanoi cactus, was indeed not a criminal act, but served the purpose to help and heal people. Another similar case with the same outcome involved ayahuasca additive plants. Cacti from the Echinopsis and Lophophora species are known for their soothing and restorative effects on the central nervous system, and are used as such in ethnobotanical medicine.
To be precise, the definition of Ayahuasca is any tea made from either the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi alone, or from B. Caapi + additional plants containing dimethyltryptamine. A tea made from B. Caapi alone does not have what is sometimes referred to as ”visionary” qualities, as it is only the addition of dimethyltryptamine from the additive plants mentioned, or actually the combination from the mao-inhibiting alkaloids in B. Caapi together with dimethyltryptamine-containing plants that induces a state of mind formerly mislabeled ”hallucinogenic”. It needs to be clarified though, that this word brings up negative associations in many people, and is thus feared and misunderstood. Unlike what some people tend to think, one does not hallucinate things appearing out of thin air after having consumed ayahuasca, but rather there are sequences of inner dreamlike visions taking place while resting, while still awake and fully conscious, provided a significant amount of tea has been consumed. It is actually quite undramatic, aside from the side effect of vomiting which does affect some people.
And herein lies the essence that is many times misunderstood: One does not have to take a great amount of ayahuasca for experiencing strictly its medicinal effects – without the abstractions and visionary effects some people are wary of. (Or the nausea/vomiting for that matter). Also, several of the medicinal health benefits can be obtained by using B. Caapi alone – without any additive plants, thereby ensuring no peculiar visionary effects experienced at all, should this be desired. It should be noted though, that the synergistic effect between the two plants used simultaneously will bring the best medicinal and bodily response. Exaggerations regarding ayahuasca is what made these medicinal plants overlooked for many years in the west to begin with, but its reputation has been steadily revised as more people with experience from these plants in a medicinal context have come forward, claiming the true medicinal value of ayahuasca relevant to medical conditions of different types – the field of neurological disease being the latest. Ayahuasca has already been effectively used for symptom relief from Multiple Sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, by a growing number of people in Europe since at least 2006. ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease all share a lot of common ground, being that they all involve nerve cell degeneration of some kind. It is thus likely that any type of natural broad spectrum medicine able to affect the process of nerve cell recreation, and that also has substantially antioxidative and cell protective properties, could prevent and slow the progression of neurological disease in general.
Whatever wild or strange stories about ayahuasca that may occasionally be found circulating, they stem mostly from people who went to live with native tribes during the late 80’s and early 90’s, taking part in traditional ceremonial use of ayahuasca – consuming exceptionally generous or concentrated amounts of the medicine, enfolding themselves in deep cleansing experiences not necessarily easily endured. This medicine, like any other, should most definitely be well respected, but not subjected to exaggeration or downright misrepresentation – causing people to dismiss what they are simply uneducated about. The vivid and fascinating visions induced by strong tea often seem to have a theme rooted in nature, as depicted quite beautifully by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009). They arise from the simple fact that the alkaloids and tryptamines dissolved in the tea, combine to affect receptors that in turn stimulate the processing of memory relating to images and words – noticeably of relevance to Alzheimer’s research.
Ayahuasca is proven to be non-addictive, and is even used to aid people in breaking their drug dependencies, as ayahuasca has a detoxifying and documented effect of ridding the user of drugrelated abstinence issues.
The MAO-inhibition does, among other things, ensure that the uptake of dimethyltryptamine can occur in the body, as it is otherwise (without MAO-inhibition) broken down in the stomach, unable to cause any effect. Dimethyltryptamine is molecularly near identical with the above mentioned psilocybin in dr. Ramos research. It is theorized that the unique combination of various harmala-alkaloids from B. Caapi, and dimethyltryptamine from additional plant sources used in ayahuasca, work on a cellular level to repair and restore nerve cells, stimulate and enhance motor neuron transmission, and to protect remaining nerve cells and other cells from degenerative damage. This is without doubt valuable from both a neuromedical standpoint, as well as from a cancer research perspective.
As the non regulated B. Caapi alone has proven to have very positive abilities, potentially effective against neuro and cancer diseases, it is thus something real that may be a valuable alternative treatment option. For someone who experiences positive results to whatever degree, but does not live in a state or country where the use of plants containing dimethyltryptamine is permitted, there is then the possibility to travel to one of the many countries (or states) which by law allows the use of added secondary plants with their combined medicinal properties for evalution of full ayahuasca treatment. In Europe, Spain is one of several countries where ayahuasca is becoming established as an alternative therapy, and Spain is also the chosen location for an international conference 2014, where ethnopharmacologists, psychologists and researchers from all over the world gather around the topics of ayahuasca and other entheogens.
Among others, Ede Frecska, M.D., Ph.D, University of Debrecen, lectures on the possibilities of recreating braincells and regulating the immune defense system through this plant-based medicine and others. This event is held by ICEERS – International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service, and can be followed, here.
Furthermore, besides their ability to aid and enhance the process of nerve cellular repair and the protection against cell oxidation, many of these entheogenic plants (and fungi), including ayahuasca, do possess psychotherapeutical qualities as well. Coping with degenerative illness is obviously stressful to patients, and a great deal of emotional relief, personal insight, and ability to better cope with one’s personal situation is achievable through the single or repeated experience of entheogenic medicinal plants/mushrooms in a comfortable and supportive environment, according to renowned John Hopkin’s medical university.
The fact that many of these medicinal plants are becoming revived as they recieve scientific approval, is great news in many ways. Sustainability and environmental issues comes to mind, and so far the outlook is positive. Many organic farms have developed in south and central america, cultivating ayahuasca plants for both local use and for export, providing work and income for people in rural areas otherwise struggling with poverty. This also serves as a way for many locals to reconnect with their cultural past, as ayahuasca is declared a national heritage in Peru among other places.
It used to be that this formerly unknown plant medicine was completely overlooked, but as we have begun to understand its potential, neglect has been replaced with knowledge, and the scientific groundwork on this matter is becoming firm. People should not be led into thinking this is some kind of natural miracle cure, but if anything it could provide a longterm aid in the restorement of body and mind function in people with certain neurological conditions. Together as a community we can all help to inform people in an unbiased, ethical and safe way about any viable alternative treatment options.
There is currently an ongoing community-based international Pilot Project involving people diagnosed with ALS, and the use and evaluation of this plant medicine, the gathering of results being processed at this point. To follow this project, or if you are interested in becoming a participant, use the above link.
Ayahuasca has been used for a very long time historically, and only recently for treatment of the conditions brought up in this article. Any substantial improvement would be likely to reveal itself long-term at first. Initial updates from people taking part in the ALS pilot project report a few things in common; the feeling of a somewhat wider range of movement, tension relief in muscles and slightly improved grip in affected limbs, though it should be noted that none of these had lost all of their muscle control prior to treatment, and that whether or not this effect will prove to be permanent is not known at this moment.
Summary of Key Points:
This article is the culmination of six years work, having studied ethnobotanical medicine and the field of neurodisease, making connections between the two in the search for something viable in terms of an alternative treatment option for ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and similar neurodegenerative conditions.
Ayahuasca could effectively be used in treatment of ALS and other motor neuron diseases based on the fact that studies suggest uniquely antioxidative effects that seem to protect brain/nerve cells, targeting motor neurons through a unique biochemical transport system, and that it and other moleculary similar substances, also naturally occuring, stimulate neurogenesis – the development of new brain/nerve cells. In studies it has been found to reduce symptoms in Parkinsons’s patients – all neurodegenerative diseases share common ground, thus making it likely that something that improves condition A could also be beneficial to nearly related condition B. Also based on credible personal accounts from people having used ayahuasca for symptom relief from their multiple sclerosis (once again – the common ground of neurodegenerative diseases), documented in books about ayahuasca, and from descriptions of early stage minor improvement by those with various types of ALS now participating in the treatment project, already having used this medicine for a period of time.
Ayahuasca and other entheogens can and will gain the credibility and amends they truly deserve, and bring new possibilities to many out there living with diseases that lack conventional options for treatment. Meanwhile, these medicinal plants remain available for the personal evaluation of the individual who chooses to explore the option. In relation to the medical conditions brought up in this article, these plants may have the future role as a powerful tool for the reversal of the progression of ALS and related diseases. Hopefully, you found this information interesting. Share it, should you find it an important topic.
About the Author
Daniel Gustafsson is a Swedish freelance writer on the topics of ethnobotanical medicine and entheogens. He is the founder of theayahuasca natural ALS treatment project, documenting people diagnosed with motor neuron disease using ayahuasca and other entheogens as alternative treatment. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and please visit his website
(Ayahuasca and neurological disease)
(Ayahuasca harmala-alkaloids and Alzheimer’s disease study)
(B. Caapi and Parkinson’s disease)
(Study proving ayahuasca safe from a health point of view, and to not have any longterm side effects)
(Ayahuasca cancer research)
(Dr. Juan Ramos profile)
(Psilocybin brain research)
(Study proving regular intake of ayahuasca leading to increased longterm wellbeing and general mental health)
(ICEERS – International center for ethnobotanical education research and service)
(Canadian studies of ayahuasca as treatment for drug/alcohol abuse)
(John Hopkin’s university studies on the the therapeutical benefits of psilocybin medicinal mushrooms)
(Echinopsis and Lophophora cactus central nervous system study)
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