The use of this Amazonian infusion is expanding throughout Europe along with spiritual currents while science advances in the study of its therapeutic uses for depressions and addictions
James V. began to consume more and more pasta base. He was about 47 years old and had been CEO of several companies. His business went downhill, he suffered a divorce and the problems began. He hung out with the wrong people and his life went down the drain slowly. Giovanna Valls (Paris, 1963) went, in a few years, from snorting a line of heroin at a party in Paris to slumming in the old district of Can Tunis in Barcelona while someone was pricking her arm. During her fall from grace, she lived miserably stealing in shopping centres, she contracted AIDS virus, tuberculosis and hepatitis. And, in 2004, while someone should most probably already begin engraving both names on some cemetery headstone in Barcelona, their lives crossed in a small town near the Amazon River Mapiá. Having exhausted all traditional means of rehabilitation, they decided to take part in an experimental treatment to address addictions through Ayahuasca. For 8 months they consumed it in a controlled environment with a group of natives and other patients from Spain. Many factors intervened but both saved their lives.
The writer Giovanna Valls at her home in Barcelona. / CONSUELO BAUTISTA
“It was the tool I needed after so many clinics and detoxifications”, says Giovanna Valls
Since then, Jaume and Giovanna, writer and sister of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, ritually and periodically take this visionary drug whose use has soared in recent years in the West – they are usually high sociocultural profiles- along with increasing spiritual currents like meditation. Ayahuasca is a kind of infusion resulting from a decoction of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis Caapi with other plants that can contain DMT, the chemical producing the visions. They have no effect separately, but together they induce altered states of consciousness that Amazon churches like Santo Daime use for religious or spiritual purposes.
However, beyond the ritualistic sphere -every weekend a ceremony can be found in Madrid or Barcelona- it unveils information places in the unconscious mind and the brain areas, which facilitate some psychiatric treatments such as addictions, depression and post-traumatic stress. The latest research, largely carried out in Spain, where its consumption falls into a legal vacuum, opened the way to scientific exploration of this substance.
Josep Maria Fabregas, addiction expert psychiatrist and director of the clinic CITA (Centre for Research and Treatment of Addiction), discovered the plant more than two decades ago during a stay in the Amazon jungle. And that led to major studies published in magazines such as Drug and Alcohol Dependence or Plos One about its therapeutic uses. “In Cita clinic we have never used the substance. But my personal studies in the Amazon enabled me to see applications for cases, which were unresponsive to conventional therapies. In a very basic way, we introduced the possibility for it to become a therapeutic option. The results encouraged us and ended up in creating a professional structure where those capacities could be used”, he says. Thus was created Ideaa (Institute for Applied Amazon Ethnopsychology), a kind of clinic / camp in the middle of the Amazon Basin, where about 150 patients -Valls wrote there Clinging to life (RBA, 2014), a book about her experience– spent seasons receiving an alternative therapy. “It was the tool I needed after so many clinics and detoxifications. It opened my brain wide open and made me see myself and enabled me to start with forgiveness”, says Valls in the garden of her home in Barcelona.
Vine used for the preparation of the Ayahuasca decoction.
Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and its consumption in Spain is in a legal vacuum
The results on other patients were “very encouraging”, according to Fabregas. But there is no precise data on success rates. Jaume Vidal recalls how 14 out of the 16 people who lived with him for three months 10 years ago, recovered a normal life away from addiction (one of them died and the other one he lost track of) “In psychiatry we’ve been using drugs for 60 years. Prozac has been in the market for 40 years, Valium 60… We keep on treating symptoms and being unable to change situations from the root. Visionary substances could be an option for that. Today, studies are being initiated in many countries for the implementation of these techniques as therapy.”
Jordi Riba, doctor in pharmacology and head of the Neuro-psycho-pharmacology group of the Research Institute of Sant Pau Hospital, spent 20 years studying Ayahuasca. He recently collaborated in a study published in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry in which this substance was administered to patients with depression cases unresponsive to conventional treatments. Traditional medicines take two or three weeks; in this case after a single dose and within a few hours, a significant improvement could already be seen and maintained up to 21 days. In the light of these results, they also started to use it in cases of PTSD and for rehabilitation of prisoners in Brazilian prisons.
Space where the rehabilitation camp Ideaa was.
Part of the explanation for these results is that the main alkaloid of this mixture enters the brain and binds to some proteins situated in certain neurons. This activates precise brain areas located on the border between the emotional and cognitive part. That would translate into the ability to retrieve memories with a high emotional content and to observe them with a certain distance. “We got a picture of brain activation in the frontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. These areas are responsible for emotional processing, for memory and for the interplay of emotional and cognitive information. During the effects, as we could see in the scanners before and after the sessions, there is an increase of information transfer between these areas”, says Riba.
Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug. According to the latest study by psychologist and doctor in pharmacology Jose Carlos Bouso, age of onset is around 35 years and they are not looking for new sensations, but rather for responses to trauma or poorly solved problems. But the effects of Ayahuasca are very powerful. It is impossible to take the substance without someone supervising the experience. So far, the few deaths that were registered were never caused by its effects, but by accidents resulting from having consumed in an unsafe environment. “In South America there were also some poisoning cases, but it is difficult to know exactly what was swallowed. There are also dangerous interactions with other drugs that people may be using. Reactions of fear and panic during the experience have been described. In addition, there is a certain increase in blood pressure and heart rate, so it isn’t recommended for people suffering from heart ailments to take it”, says Riba.
The pharmacologist Jordi Riba (left) and the psychiatrist Josep Maria Fábregas. / Consuelo Bautista
According to recent studies, it enables to retrieve memories with a high emotional content and to observe them from a distance
Outside of the scientific environment, the use of Ayahuasca has many legal ambiguities. The UN, through the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), doesn’t regulate it. However, it criminalizes DMT, one of the substances it contains. France is the only country where it is forbidden, though not for its effects but for its associations with sects. In countries like Brazil, USA and Holland, it is renowned for its religious use and in most countries, like Spain, it is in a situation of legal vacuum. Precisely, since 2009 there have been about 40 arrests by Spanish customs resulting from the interception of containers containing the substance. However, only one of those allegations led to conviction (subsequently reaching an agreement with the prosecutor to avoid going to prison). Most times, these were people who, wanting to lead a ceremony, had the police intervene and appear in their homes as if they were post office employees. Upon signing the package, they were arrested.
A ceremony -Catalonia is one of the epicentres in Spain- is a gathering of middle-aged people, often all dressed in white, gathering any weekend to take this infusion. There is usually a guide (many come specifically to officiate them) handling the ritual and some attendees who make sure everyone is well (so-called fiscales). Participants close their eyes and stay about 6 hours doing the job without talking to anyone. Benjamin De Loenen is the executive director of ICEERS, a foundation promoting research on plants with psychoactive properties of traditional use and its potential integration as therapeutic tools, “The use of Ayahuasca in Spain is about 25 years old, it’s not new. But it is now getting known. There is interest in doing work [so called sessions] of self-knowledge and more and more people are coming to these ceremonies. But these are still private groups in which people take part. There is little commercial phenomenon”. The breakthrough, however, is in the medical and pharmacological aspect. And above all, in the strange fact that an ancestral Amazon drug is entering twenty-first century Europe.
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