Weaning off of antidepressant medications after taking them for many years is very challenging, both physically and emotionally. I knew that if I wanted to benefit fully from an ayahuasca ceremony I had to clear all traces of SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitors) drugs from my body. However, this was difficult because I had become dependent on them to function in everyday existence. Those that have used these drugs can attest to their power and the surprising nature of their strong withdrawal symptoms and side effects. It is important not to consume ayahuasca if you are taking any drug that affects your serotonin levels because combining the two can cause serotonin syndrome, a very serious and potentially fatal condition. Ayahuasca also contains several compounds that are MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitor). MAOI drugs have very strong negative interactions with a wide variety of medications. It is important to understand the potential interactions before participating in a ceremony. It is also a good idea to stop taking serotonin medications before consuming ayahuasca because they may negate or lessen the effects of ayahuasca. The serotonin medications and ayahuasca work on serotonin in different ways. Serotonin medications inhibit serotonin reuptake, which results in more serotonin available to nourish its receptors. This translates into you having a better mood, sleep and digestion among other things. In my experience with serotonin drugs, their effect decreases over time because the body and mind become habitualized to the medication. I noticed this after taking the drugs for several years. I also realized that they were not effective if I was stressed out, anxious, or depressed. It was as if my body prevented them from working when I was feeling a lot of stress. This reinforces the idea that many of our illnesses have important psychosomatic components. We must allow medicines to work.
Some research suggests that ayahuasca may be more effective at repairing problems with serotonin. SSRI medications increase the body’s supply of serotonin, but ayahuasca may actually create more serotonin receptor sites. Various people at the University of Kuopio in Finland carried out a study on serotonin in ayahuasca drinkers in 1994.[i] The researchers found that those who consumed ayahuasca had an increased number of uptake sites for serotonin compared to the control group. This means that the people who drank ayahuasca had more of the molecule binding to receptor sites. Ayahuasca may be the only substance that can increase the number of uptake sites for serotonin. This study may have very significant implications for those struggling with depression and other related mental illnesses. To find out more about this relationship, check out Ayahuasca and Depression: The Clarity of Darkness.
I have created an analogy to highlight the difference between the two. One person is happy and healthy. He has many serotonin receptor sites equivalent to a jug that holds a gallon of liquid. When this person’s serotonin cycle is functioning properly, liquid (serotonin) is poured into the jug without spilling over. The result is that he feels good. As time passes and his serotonin pathways become compromised due to the stresses of life, the jug becomes smaller. Now it can only hold two quarts of liquid. This person begins to take serotonin medications that fill the small jug with more liquid but the jug cannot hold all the liquid and it overflows. Ayahuasca expands the jug into its original size of one gallon and every time liquid is poured into the jug it will not overflow and will be used efficiently. After taking serotonin medications for many years, I can personally say they do not work as effectively as when I began taking them. Other people may have different experiences and I encourage them to share so that we will better understand this growing dis-ease.