Could Ayahuasca Help Curb Suicidal Thoughts? The First Clinical Trial Investigates

A pot of ayahuasca brewing in rural Peru. Apollo/Flickr CC BY 2.0

A first of its kind study has investigated whether suicidal thoughts could be quelled by taking ayahuasca, a reality-twisting brew used in shamanic rituals and rites across the Amazon.

While it’s still very early days for the research, the findings show promise. The researchers conclude that ayahuasca may "show potential as an intervention for suicidality." The full study is set to be published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology soon, but a provisional manuscript of the paper can currently be found online.

Ayahuasca is a bitter brown liquid brewed by boiling the leaves of a plant called chacruna (Psychotria viridis) with the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). the chacruna plant contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychoactive chemical that’s found in many plants and is naturally produced by the human body. However, DMT is typically destroyed by enzymes in the gut. To overcome this hurdle, the ayahuasca vine is added as it contains inhibitors that block the enzymes and allow the DMT to reach the brain, resulting in a profound psychedelic trip. 

These psychedelic effects have been utilized by indigenous people in South America for centuries to contact the spiritual world, but they have recently caught the interest of people seeking spiritual enlightenment and therapeutic effects. A growing body of academic research is showing that ayahuasca could be used alongside other treatments to address anxiety and depression. It’s also shown real promise as a tool for people to overcome cocaine and opiate addictions.

Nevertheless, its effects on suicidality have never been assessed with a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial before.

For the new study, an international team of researchers led by Ryerson University in Canada gave 14 people with treatment-resistant depression a single dose of ayahuasca while another 15 individuals were given a placebo. After one day, two days, and sevens days, they were asked to report how suicidal they felt using a questionnaire. 

The researchers describe their results as “mixed,” but go on to explain how the study shows that the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca appear to extend to suicidality.

“Within the ayahuasca group, we found large effect sizes for decreases in suicidality at all time points,” the study authors write. “Furthermore, these results are in line with past research indicating that the administration of ayahuasca is associated with improvement in mental health concerns associated with suicidality.”

As the researchers note, there are some drawbacks to the study. For one, it’s a very small group of participants and the data was self-reported. The perceived therapeutic effects could also be attributed to the “the afterglow” effect that many users experience in the days following a trip, as the investigation followed up on the individuals a week later. 

Nevertheless, as an increasing number of studies are showing, the link between ayahuasca, well-being, and mental health is a fertile field for future research. 

“Overall, these results suggest that the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca may extend to suicidality and that investigation of the impact on ayahuasca on suicidality using a larger sample is warranted.”

Editor's note: This article originally mixed-up the roles of the ayahuasca vine and chacruna by saying the ayahuasca vine contains DMT and chacruna contains the inhibiting agent. It has been changed for accuracy. 

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