Treatment for Depression and Alcoholism Discovered in Psychedelic Plant-Based Drug Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is one of the most potent hallucinogenic drugs in the world. It might also be the key to a breakthrough treatment for alcoholism and depression.

Like other drugs that serve traditional purposes in various cultures, such as peyote, piri piri or ibogaine, ayahuasca is naturally occurring and plant based. In South America, it's usually consumed as a brew made from the Psychotria viridis bush and the stems of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which contain the hallucinogenic compound DMT.

Recent mental health research has seen a surge in promising studies on treatments derived from recreational drugs, including marijuana, LSD and mushrooms. Now, researchers have set their sights on ayahuasca.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and University College London used the Global Drug Survey to gather data from nearly 100,000 people all over the world. The researchers found that when it came to the Personal Wellbeing Index (which measures factors like community ties and satisfaction in careers and relationships), ayahuasca users outperformed other respondents for the entire previous year. A paper detailing the findings was published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Several observational studies have examined the long-term effects of regular ayahuasca use in the religious context," Celia Morgan, the paper's senior author and a professor of psychopharmacology at University of Exeter, said in a press release. "In this work, long-term ayahuasca use has not been found to impact on cognitive ability, produce addiction or worsen mental health problems.... In fact, some of these observational studies suggest that ayahuasca use is associated with less problematic alcohol and drug use, and better mental health and cognitive functioning."

In the largest survey of ayahuasca users ever completed, researchers found their rates of alcoholism were lower—and their general wellbeing higher—than even those using LSD or mushrooms.

In South America, ayahuasca is usually consumed as a brew. It’s one of the most potent hallucinogenic drugs in the world. Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

The researchers did find that ayahuasca users did show a higher incidence of mental illness diagnoses. This prevalence may be attributed to those users being from countries in which ayahuasca doesn't play a cultural role. The survey data are probably representing users who sought out the drug specifically because they were already struggling with illness or addiction.

What we'll need in order to develop ayahuasca's potential into a usable treatment are more studies to compare. Because few people use it (just 527 of the survey respondents used ayahuasca, compared to more than 18,000 for LSD or mushrooms), the body of research on ayahuasca as a medical treatment is pretty thin. And, of course, just because someone who uses ayahuasca reports greater well-being than someone who does not doesn't necessarily mean that ayahuasca is what accounts for the positive feeling. Still, what research we do have strongly suggests that such a treatment is worth pursuing.

"These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol-use disorders," lead author Will Lawn, a research associate at University College London, stated in the press release. "Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca's potential as a psychiatric medicine, and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment."

A typical ayahuasca trip lasts somewhere between four to six hours and is known for vivid, colorful hallucinations and inducing a state of lucid dreaming. After it's over, users regularly report feeling a sense of calm that centers them and makes them better able to function in their daily life; the sensation often lingers for about a week.