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A look at the psychoactive brew that brings users a spiritual payoff for their “work”

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The shaman, a North American who had trained in South America for more than a dozen years, took a seat at the front and led the group through a conversation about what to expect.

Stay with your breath, he advised. There’s no talking, no touching. Purging in any direction is a distinct possibility. The bucket is your friend.

He dimmed the lights, and after intoning a prayer, poured a foul-smelling brown liquid into a series of cups. One by one, all 18 visitors brought it to their lips and drank.

For 40 minutes, the yurt fell silent. Then the shaman began to sing.

Around the same time, the drink took effect. Some who consumed it cried, others belched, several fled for the outhouse. Many reached for their buckets and vomited.

For the next four to five hours, those in the room did what many call “the work.” Some took trips back into their childhood memories. Others had visions: of nature, of healers, of fireworks. Afterward, they would say that the tea offered an opportunity to look at their problems in a new light.

“It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” says Fred, a kind-eyed, gray-bearded man in his 50s.

Kim and her husband, Josh, have organized about 50 of these gatherings since the summer of 2010. In that time, they’ve seen hundreds of people have an experience like Fred’s.

All three asked that their real names not be used out of fear of the law. Though no one in the United States’ underground network has yet been prosecuted, the liquid falls into the category of Schedule I controlled substances.

The risks scare her, but the way Kim sees it, she doesn’t have a choice.

“My life is not my own anymore,” Kim says. “If that were to mean standing up in the face of legal action, I’d do it…. After seeing how much this helps people — truly heals people — I’d do anything.”

The psychoactive brew goes by many names.William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it Yage. In Brazil, it’s known as Hoasca. Other aliases include the Spirit Vine, the Vine of the Soul, and the Vine of the Dead.

Its most common name is ayahuasca. The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have brewed the plant concoction, and its naturally occurring dose of the hallucinogen DMT, for centuries.

In recent years, the West has caught on. The tea cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston flickWanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds; proponents include everyone from Sting to The Howard Stern Show‘s Robin Quivers. One ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, between 50 and 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone.

Some of the same doctors and researchers who have, in recent years, gotten FDA approval for breakthrough studies involving MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms are now turning their attention to ayahuasca. Preliminary work suggests the brew could help treat depression, chronic addiction, and fears of mortality.

People with less-defined diagnoses, but a hunger for something missing, say ayahuasca offers something ineffable: compassion, connectedness, spirituality.

“Ayahuasca is penetrating American society, and its highly successful people, way more than any other psychedelic,” says Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research association based in Santa Cruz, California. “The number of people who have had incredible experiences with ayahuasca, if they could all surface in the public sphere at the same time, it would be absolutely astonishing.”

In a greenhouse at the University of MinnesotaDennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate), and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room’s rafters.

McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.

“This is nothing,” he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. “Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger.”

McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the ’60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimson weed, but never ayahuasca: There was none.

“It was this rare, legendary thing,” McKenna remembers.

The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultesfollowed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn’t much more than that.

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The government’s “war on drugs” policies severely limit research on psychedelics. Before scientists can complete any federally sanctioned studies, they have to jump through an expensive tangle of hoops and red tape. Restrictions aside, over the years researchers have collected a database of research showing that many psychedelics have an unprecedented potential to treat cancers, addictions and psychological traumas, among other things.

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Here are some of the coolest things scientists have discovered about psychedelics over the years.

1. LSD can mitigate end-of-life anxiety.

The results [3] of the first clinical study of the therapeutic use of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in humans in more than 40 years were published [4] in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in March. They show that LSD can promote statistically significant reductions in anxiety for people coming to terms with their own impending demise.

Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser and his colleagues conducted the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, sponsored by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). They tracked 12 people who were near the end of life as they attended LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions. In his report [5], Gasser concluded that the study subjects’ anxiety “went down and stayed down.”

2. Psilocybin, aka magic mushrooms, actually calms, rather than stimulates, certain brain functions.

The common conception is that psychedelics do something extra to cause their effects—increase activity, add hallucinations, promote awareness, etc. A study [6] that examined brain scans of people under the influence of psilocybin found that it reduces activity in certain areas of the brain. That reduction of activity leads to the drug’s effect on cognition and memory. Psychedelics, and psilocybin in particular, might actually be eliminating what could be called the extra “noise” in the brain.

3. The drug MDMA (aka ecstasy, orMolly) promotes release of the “love” hormone oxytocin, which could help treat severe anxieties like PTSD and social anxiety resulting from autism.

Before the federal government classified it as a Schedule I substance, therapists experimented with MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxyrnethimphetarnine) beginning in the 1970s to help reduce moderate depression and anxiety among their adult patients. After widespread recreational use in the rave scene caught the attention of authorities, MDMA was criminalized in 1985. However, research primarily supported by the MAPS has continued to turn up positive results for the drug’s potential therapeutic use. Various clinical trials [7] and statistical research have confirmed that MDMA can successfully treat post-traumatic stress in military veterans and others. One example [8] is the clinical trial led by Michael Mithoefer, which used MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat chronic PTSD.

A 2009 study offers a plausible explanation for MDMA’s effectiveness treating PTSD. The double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study of 15 healthy individuals confirmed that MDMA causes the brain to release oxytocin, which is the human hormone linked to feelings of love and compassion.

MAPS recently received government approval to launch a new study [9] examining MDMA’s potential for treating social anxiety in autistic adults. Based on the known effects of MDMA [10], as well as individual reports, this exploratory study [11] will focus on enhancing functional skills and quality of life in autistic adults [12] with social anxiety [13].

4. Psilocybin could kill smoking addiction.  

Psychiatry professor Matthew Johnson, who works at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, presented the preliminary results [14] of a pilot feasibility study looking at the ability of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction at the 2013 Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland, Calif. For the study, five cigarette-addicted participants underwent placebo-controlled psilocybin treatment with a psychiatrist. All five completely quit smoking after their first psilocybin session. At all followup visits, which occurred up to one year later for the first four participants, it was biologically confirmed that the participants had abstained from cigarettes.

5. Ayahuasca can treat drug addictionand possibly much more.

Ayahuasca is a brew prepared with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, originally used for spiritual and healing purposes in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. The vine is usually mixed with leaves containing the psychedelic compound DMT.

Gabor Mate, a medical doctor from Vancouver who is a prominent ayahuasca researcher, contends [15] that therapy assisted by psychedelics, and ayahuasca in particular, can untangle complex, unconscious psychological stresses. He claims these stresses underlie and contribute to all chronic medical conditions, from cancer and addiction to depression and multiple sclerosis.

The results [16] of the first North American observational study on the safety and long-term effectiveness of ayahuasca treatment for addiction and dependence were published in June 2013 in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews. All of the participants in the study reported positive and lasting changes, and the study found statistically significant improvements “for scales assessing hopefulness, empowerment, mindfulness, and quality of life meaning and outlook subscales. Self-reported alcohol, tobacco and cocaine use declined, although cannabis and opiate use did not.” The reported reductions in problematic cocaine use were also statistically significant.

6. DMT occurs naturally in the human body, and taking it could simulate death.

The drug DMT [17] (diemethyltryptamine), which causes hallucinogenic experiences, is made up of a chemical compound that already occurs within the human body endogenously [18] (as well as in a number of plants). This means our brains are naturally set up to process the drug because it has receptors that exist specifically to do so. Cannabis is another illegal drug that occurs endogenously[19].

Some research [20] based on near-death experiences points to the fact that the brain releases DMT during death. Some researchers have also conjectured that DMT is released during other intense experiences, including orgasm.

Famous Doctor Changes His Stance on the Value of Medical Marijuana

If you’ve watched TV or surfed the web lately, you’ve probably seen, or at least heard about, Dr Sanjay Gupta’s now famous CNN documentary “Weed” where he not only revealed new & very compelling evidence in favour of medical marijuana but apologized for his formerly negative opinion about said herb.

While this only confirms what most fans of alternative healing and psychedelic medicine already know, it is a breath of fresh air to hear someone from the so-called “straight” world agree. According to related chatter on the web, the rapidly expanding MMJ community isn’t the only group that welcomed this opinion – so did doctors and other health care professionals who were looking for a trusted opinion to help them answer their patients’ questions.

Whether you’re for or against medical marijuana, you can’t help but be moved by the most interesting part of Dr. Gupta’s film – a 5-year-old girl, Charlotte Figi, who suffers from a debilitating form of epilepsy (Dravat Syndrome) that caused her to have 300 grand mal seizures a month. Traditional doctors had treated her with a number of addictive & toxic drugs without success, many capable of killing the child if either the dosage was too high or they were given in the wrong combination.

Medical marijuana high in CBD & low in THC administered in drop form quickly reduced Charlotte’s seizures from hundreds per month to only 3 or 4 a month, dramatically increasing her quality of life without a single side effect. Although many have criticized Dr Gupta & CNN’s take on MMJ, the ability to quickly take Charlotte from non-functional to a normal child after Western medicine failed is pretty hard to deny.

While “Weed” has definitely spawned a lot of buzz both for & against MMJ, Dr Gupta is not the first medical professional to come out in support of medical marijuana. Here are a few more research studies that show there are very real benefits to this healing herb:

National Cancer Institute – This group has found that CBD (just one of the cannabinoids in marijuana) inhibits the growth of certain tumors and can kill some forms of cancer cells.
National Institute of Health – CBD was found to inhibit psychotic symptoms in both animal and human studies. The researchers hope that it may one day be a safer option for schizophrenic patients.
American Journal of Medicine – Marijuana could help treat diabetes, a disease that has nearly reached epidemic levels.

All you have to do is search the web or turn on the TV to hear more accounts of safe, alternative options for practically every health problem under the sun, but that’s nothing new to the medical marijuana community. If this coverage has changed your mind, maybe it’s time to give MMJ a try.

If you’re in a legal area and want to take a DIY approach, check out Gorilla Seed Bank. I was impressed by their wide selection, free seeds, low prices and international delivery. Among their many brands, you’ll find CBD Crew, a breeder that specializes in high CBD cannabis seeds.

The use of LSD, magic mushrooms, or peyote does not increase a person’s risk of developing mental health problems, according to an analysis of information from more than 130,000 randomly chosen people, including 22,000 people who had used psychedelics at least once.

Researcher Teri Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Neuroscience, used data from a US national health survey to see what association there was, if any, between psychedelic drug use and mental health problems.

The authors found no link between the use of psychedelic drugs and a range of mental health problems. Instead they found some significant associations between the use of psychedelic drugs and fewer mental health problems.

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The results are published in the journal PLOS ONE and are freely available online after 19 August.

Symptoms and mental health treatment considered

The researchers relied on data from the 2001-2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in which participants were asked about mental health treatment and symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions over the past year. The specific symptoms examined were general psychological distress, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and psychosis.

Armed with this information, Krebs and Johansen were able to examine if there were any associations between psychedelic use and general or specific mental health problems. They found none.

“After adjusting for other risk factors, lifetime use of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline or peyote, or past year use of LSD was not associated with a higher rate of mental health problems or receiving mental health treatment,” says Johansen.

Could psychedelics be healthy for you?

The researchers found that lifetime use of psilocybin or mescaline and past year use of LSD were associated with lower rates of serious psychological distress. Lifetime use of LSD was also significantly associated with a lower rate of outpatient mental health treatment and psychiatric medicine prescription.

The design of the study makes it impossible to determine exactly why the researchers found what they found.

“We cannot exclude the possibility that use of psychedelics might have a negative effect on mental health for some individuals or groups, perhaps counterbalanced at a population level by a positive effect on mental health in others,” they wrote.

Nevertheless, “recent clinical trials have also failed to find any evidence of any lasting harmful effects of psychedelics,” the researchers said, which supports the robustness of the PLOS ONE findings.

In fact, says Krebs, “many people report deeply meaningful experiences and lasting beneficial effects from using psychedelics.”

“Other studies have found no evidence of health or social problems among people who had used psychedelics hundreds of times in legally-protected religious ceremonies,” adds Johansen.

What’s the bottom line on psychedelic use?

Psychedelics are different than most other recreational drugs. Experts agree that psychedelics do not cause addiction or compulsive use, and they are not known to harm the brain.

When evaluating psychedelics, as with any activity, it is important to take an objective view of all the evidence and avoid being biased by anecdotal stories either of harm or benefit, the researchers say.

“Everything has some potential for negative effects, but psychedelic use is overall considered to pose a very low risk to the individual and to society,” Johansen says, “Psychedelics can elicit temporary feelings of anxiety and confusion, but accidents leading to serious injury are extremely rare.”

“Early speculation that psychedelics might lead to mental health problems was based on a small number of case reports and did not take into account either the widespread use of psychedelics or the not infrequent rate of mental health problems in the general population,” Krebs explains.

“Over the past 50 years tens of millions of people have used psychedelics and there just is not much evidence of long-term problems,” she concludes.

The article will be available at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063972 after 5 p.m. on 19 August.

Both researchers were supported by the Research Council of Norway.

http://www.ntnu.edu/news/2013-news/lsd-survey

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