By Olivia Baccellieri
In recent years, North America has faced a significant drug epidemic. Opiates have flooded various populations through increases in prescriptions and illicit drug use, and approximately 52,000 opiate-related overdose deaths occurring across North America in 2018 (Fischer, Pang, & Jones, 2020). Soaring drug prevalence has left physicians flummoxed with how to best treat patients with an opioid or other drug addictions. Some treatment methods may prove unsuccessful in meeting this demand because of costs not being covered by insurance, side effects, or other factors making treatment inaccessible to various users in need of medical and psychological assistance. Despite this troubling trend of rising drug use and fledgling recovery rates, a promising, yet potentially controversial treatment method has emerged: microdosing with ayahuasca, a psychedelic substance with deep ties to various indigenous cultures.
Ayahuasca is derived from various Amazonian plants, and is often consumed as a tea. Ayahuasca contains n-dimethyltryptamine, referred to as DMT, and is the key ingredient for medicinal purposes. When consumed, DMT acts rather quickly within the human body to produce significant side effects such as dizziness, vomiting, rapid eye movement, increased heart rate, and culminates in vivid visual hallucinations. Argento et al. (2019) sought to determine if microdosing with ayahuasca possesses any particular benefits for those suffering from drug addictions. Microdosing involves consuming an extremely low quantity of a substance over a period of time, to ultimately produce changes in one’s mental or physical behaviors (Buser & Lassiter, 2019). Microdosing with psychedelic substances, including LSD, “magic mushrooms”, and ayahuasca has been associated with increases in productivity and creativity, while simultaneously decreasing levels of depression, anxiety and irritability (Buser & Lassiter, 2019).
Argento et al. (2019) specifically examined the use of ayahuasca in treating drug addictions within a Shipibo indigineous community in Canada. These researchers worked with Shipibo and Canadian ayahuascaqueros, or people specializing in administering ayahuasca and other natural medicines. Twelve Shipibo individuals who presented with various substance abuse issues were included in this study, and participated in ayahuasca “retreats” over four-day periods. During these retreats, the participants consumed 50-100mL glasses containing the substance. Following the retreats, Argento et al. recorded the reactions of the participants, and noted a wide success of the treatment. The participants provided an average score of 7.95 out of a 10-point scale of satisfaction with the ayahuasca, with 10 being the highest level of satisfaction. Eight of the twelve individuals reported complete discontinuance of at least one substance they were addicted to prior to the retreat. One of the individuals in this study described how ayahuasca got them “deep into myself … it was a mind-bending experience, whereas other treatments only scraped the surface” (Argento et al., 2019).
Although this study had a relatively small sample size, the results indicate a potentially promising future for the inclusion of ayahuasca and other psychedelics in the treatment of drug addictions or other psychological issues. Additional research suggests that psychedelics may be used for treating alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin addictions (Argento et al., 2019). This is primarily due to the awe-inspiring and “mystical-type” experiences produced by psychedelics, which may ultimately lead to a change in how one views themself, and a deeper desire to change beyond their current state. Critics of psychedelics may be skeptical of their use in a clinical setting due to other associations with drug use. However, if psychedelics are administered in a careful and professional manner, they hold a strong potential to aid in a variety of issues. Although psychedelics such as ayahuasca fall outside the norm of typical treatments, they present a promising avenue for future research, and should be further explored in today’s climate of overwhelming drug use and under-treatment.
Argento, E., Capler, R., Thomas, G., Lucas, P., & Tupper, K. W. (2019). Exploring ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: A qualitative analysis of preliminary findings among an Indigenous community in Canada. Drug and Alcohol Review, 38(7), 781–789. https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.12985
Buser, T. J., Lassiter, P. S., & Brown-Rice, K. (Eds.). (2019). Annual review of addictions and offender counseling (Vol. IV). Wipf and Stock.
Fischer, B., Pang, M., & Jones, W. (2020). The opioid mortality epidemic in North America: Do we understand the supply side dynamics of this unprecedented crisis? Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 15(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13011-020-0256-8