Ayahuasca, serotonin and states of consciousness

Ayahuasca is unique in the world of psychoactive plants in that it requires the combination of two different plants to have its effect on the body, both the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a plant containing DMT (dimethyltryptamine) such as chacruna (Psychotria viridis).  The DMT is thought to produce the majority of the hallucinogenic effect of ayahuasca but cannot do so when consumed orally without the MAOI chemicals present in the ayahuasca vine.  The MAOI chemicals present in the ayahuasca vine allow the DMT to be orally active. However, recent research suggests that the psychoactive components of the ayahuasca vine, harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine, also have mild hallucinogenic properties. The DMT molecule is similar to the serotonin molecule.  In fact, all these molecules are quite similar to the serotonin molecule with only a few small variations separating them. These molecules all act to help increase the activity of serotonin, which is partially responsible for the altered state of consciousness that one experiences when under the influence of ayahuasca.

dmt molecule

structure of dmt, serotonin, harmaline, harmine and tetrahydrohamrine

Ayahuasca is also unique in the way that it affects users that are suffering from illnesses such as depression or anxiety. It works on both serotonin and dopamine at the same time.  This is not the case for many other psychedelic substances, which often work only on one such neurotransmitter. It activates serotonin. The serotonin can then prevent the part of our brain, the frontal cortex, which makes judgements and decisions from “passing judgement” on the experience one is having with ayahuasca. This allows one to be more open and accepting of the experience and to accept suggestions that may arise while processing difficult experiences in their past.

In addition to this serotonin activation, ayahuasca also activates dopamine. This dopamine action prevents the GABA neurotransmitter from repressing experiences that may have been traumatic. Thus past traumatic experiences come front and center in one’s consciousness and they can be consciously processed without judgement. This processing of past trauma is something that psychotherapists aim to achieve through therapy sessions and can often take years to accomplish.  Perhaps this is precisely because these two neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, are in their normal state in therapy and not in the highly active state created by ayahuasca. They may prevent the patient from accessing repressed memories that s/he needs to address in order to cure the illness at hand and also the patient may also easily pass judgement on such memories or experiences and thus not allow him/herself to fully process the trauma.

Such altered states of consciousness have often been portrayed by mainstream culture and conventional psychiatry as pathological. It follows that any substance that causes someone to go into a state of consciousness that is pathological cannot be beneficial for the health of that person, but rather detrimental. In a recent article, “Ayahuasca as Antidepressant? Psychedelics and Styles of Reasoning in Psychiatry” by Brian T. Anderson, the author suggests changing the nomenclature of these “altered states of consciousness” to “modified states of consciousness”. Modified states of consciousness are actually quite common and more accepted by conventional psychology.  Surgery, for instance, relies on placing the patient in a modified state of consciousness to achieve a desired procedural result. Hypnosis would be another health practice that puts patients into a modified state of consciousness. Indigenous peoples of many different parts of the world have used plants to “modify” states of consciousness in order to address certain psychological ills or other issues that presented themselves in the community. These methods of healing involving modified states of consciousness have stood the test of time. Indeed, they have been used for much longer than many of the common tools in modern psychology and psychiatry to treat illness.

Anderson also explains that “altered” states of consciousness are seen by conventional psychiatry as pathological because one cannot have mastery of self when under the spell of a substance that creates an altered state of consciousness. However, there are several examples that offer strong evidence to the contrary: shamanism and meditation. Shamans or curanderos as they are often called spend years, often in solitude and isolation or under the wing of a more experienced shaman ingesting ayahuasca with the specific intent of learning how to achieve mastery of self while in a modified state of consciousness. Such mastery is necessary for the shaman in order to be able to address the issues that arise when s/he is participating in ceremony with another person that is not a shaman and needs his/her help to address some illness or other issue. A shaman would not be effective at healing others if s/he was focused on processing their own trauma while under the influence of ayahuasca. Their wisdom comes specifically from being able to navigate the energetic and psychic worlds that present themselves in ayahuasca ceremonies.

Adherents of various styles of meditation often talk about entering into a different or “modified” state of consciousness where they are readily able to see the interconnectedness of all life. The primary focus of meditation, in many of its diverse styles, is to clear the mind, dissolve the personal ego and enter into a sort of objective void. Once again, the practitioner is achieving mastery of self by entering into a “modified” state of consciousness and learning how to control the distractions and issues that arise in this state of consciousness. In both meditation and ayahuasca ceremonies, the participant enters into a modified state of consciousness, learns how to navigate and control this state and by doing often derives great benefit in their normal state of consciousness. Much more research of the effects of ayahuasca and other plants that modify states of consciousness is needed to understand their full mechanisms of action and the re-branding of “altered” to “modified” states of consciousness provides a framework in which researchers can openly explore the benefits that plants and other medicines may provide to those suffering from depression and other illnesses.

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