The combination of mysticism and science is magic.
Psychedelics, psychoactive “drugs” or entheogens like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms are re-emerging and taking the spotlight…A lot of people are talking about the experience! And yes, the experience can be profound, truly healing and life changing… With the rising popularity and my own personal profound experiences, the sciencegeek within me decided to take a look at the compounds through a scientific lens.
In the context of Amazonian traditional healing practice, ayahuasca is considered as a master cure for all illness. But why is this?
Let’s take a look at the active compounds: mostly indole alkaloids (beta- carboline alkaloids and DMT in ayahuasca and psilocybin in magic mushrooms). The overall biochemical effect is on the serotonin receptor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced throughout the brain and GI tract. It is derived from L-tryptophan, a dietary essential amino acid. Deficiencies have been linked to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, suicide and addiction.
The primary goal of modern antidepressant medication is to increase serotonergic activity (like MAO inhibitors and SSRIs). On the molecular level the effect of this mystic medicine (wether it’s ayahuasca or magic mushrooms) and the Western medication may be similar, it increases serotonergic activity, but the lack of the “profound psychedelic” experience makes the outcome different. These sacred and mystic plant medicine help encourage health and wellness on another level, a whole-istic level. It can also give you a different view on what life & death is (there are a few studies on anxiety on cancer patients with fear of dying).
For me, the experience can be compared with a kind of intense meditation and/or mindfulness practice. It makes me take a look at certain aspects of (my) life through another lens and gives me perspective. Plus the experience of feeling whole, one and in unity with all, is where I found my “healing” or understanding (I don’t like to use the word “healing” as this implies there must be something wrong with me that needs to be fixed).
It feels like having a lot of sessions of psychotherapy (with yourself as the therapist) and of course there is the biochemical effect on the molecular level, only in one or a few sessions (talking about saving on health care…).
So yes the symptoms may be “gone” or “under control” with Western medicine, but you’re not looking at the underlying cause.
Yes, you can take anti-depressants and feel “better”, it’s more a quick fix or rather suppression instead of going to the roots. There is no “AHA YES, DAMN NOW I UNDERSTAND MY SHIT” moment. The part where you understand, can be the life-changing aspect, and is perhaps the most important one. And by understanding, you recreate a new neurological pathway, followed by behavioural change.
Aside from the active compounds of a natural product, other minor compounds may contribute and modify the main effects in an unique way.
So is it a coincidence that our neuronal receptors match with such a wide variety of psychoactive alkaloids found in nature? Perhaps there might be some intelligent design in nature…