Fueled by advanced medical and scientific research, the Amazonian brew ayahuasca has become increasingly popular in Western societies in recent years. For many of the older generation of ayahuasca drinkers across North America and Europe, this is good news and something of a relief. The old guard of ayahuasca drinkers in the West has seen decades of negative and false stereotypes in the news. Today, mainstream society is regularly sharing information about the medical benefits of the brew.
Although this information is helping to liberate ayahuasca, there are also serious dangers involved in converting the brew to scientific thinking and medical systems. Ayahuasca is at risk of being squeezed into the category of “evidence-based medicine”—scientifically standardized to guarantee its quality, safety, and efficacy—and seen through a Western lens with small to no regard for the indigenous knowledge behind this ancient Amazonian herbal remedy. It is clear to me that this approach can generate adverse effects on human health and the environment and may dilute the great potential of this medicine.
A key solution to our planetary crisis must involve protecting and incorporating indigenous knowledge.
As a pharmaceutical chemist who has spent more than 20 years around medicinal plants research and more recently also within ayahuasca drinking communities in the San Martin region in the Peruvian Amazonia, I suggest we can benefit greatly from thinking about ayahuasca beyond the medical paradigm. It’s time to take seriously the claims of indigenous elders and others who acknowledge the sentience of plant life and the deep human connection with the natural world. A key solution to our planetary crisis must involve protecting and incorporating indigenous knowledge. It can help us realize how our personal ayahuasca healing is also a kind of planetary healing. Below I outline several reasons why ayahuasca should be treated as much more than simply a personal “medicine.”
What’s in Ayahuasca?
For any herbal medicine developed within the scientific domain, the standardization of the quality parameters, which consequently affect its safety and efficacy, must firstly ensure the correct identification of the plant material used to prepare an herbal product. However, if we look at the ethnographic reports on the content of the ayahuasca brew, beyond the two basic plant species Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, there are actually dozens of plants that are commonly added to the mixture, and all those mixtures still fall under the name ayahuasca. Even Dennis McKenna recently affirmed, “Every shaman practically has his own brew.”
Then what does ayahuasca refer to? Furthermore, the term ayahuasca is just one of the many names used in the jungle to define something that is actually quite difficult to define. At this stage, it is therefore only possible to affirm that the first step toward the development of an evidence-based medicine from ayahuasca is based on an assumption: ayahuasca defined as the combination between the vine B. caapi and the leaves of P. viridis is just a generalization. This proves that we might be moving toward the development of a new drug without a thorough understanding of the original herbal medicine, and this could be a matter of concern.
How Is Ayahuasca Prepared?
One of the first reports describing the preparation of ayahuasca, dating back to 1972, indicates the amount and the part of plant used, the amount of water, and the cooking time. In this way, the authors described a process similar to the preparation of a cup of tea, which technically is a decoction. Following this description, further studies have focused on assessing how the amount and parts of the plant used changes the quality of the final product. Interestingly, plant samples taken from different environments and at different times of the day have shown different amounts of the major alkaloids considered responsible for the overall biological activity of the brew, DMT and beta-carbolines. Another study evaluates the effect of the cooking time, and in both cases significant differences were observed.
These findings are all useful information but pose further questions that might be difficult to answer: which is the standard reference? Is it the product that contains the major amount of these alkaloids? Who decides that and why? What about the many other phytochemicals extracted from both plants? If we evaluate a traditional medicinal plant product from this chemical perspective, we don’t have any standard to refer to. From this perspective, ayahuasca becomes a mixture of chemicals, but nobody can say which is the right mixture. Moreover, synthetic chemists could easily prepare a new pill with those major alkaloids without the need to deal with the complexity of a natural mixture. If this is the scientific belief, why not?
In the Amazonian jungle, different ethnic groups have different recipes to prepare ayahuasca, but scientists rely on a need to standardize a processing method to prepare the medicine. They need to chemically standardize an ayahuasca extract in order to assess the biological activity, because for them the concept of active principles is linked to the content of chemicals. By looking at ayahuasca from this perspective, we fall completely under the existing dominant biomedical and scientific paradigm, and everything looks very nice and simple.
In going back to the field, however, it is possible to observe many other steps during the preparation of the ayahuasca tea. Those steps, from the local perspective, are considered relevant for the quality, safety, and efficacy of the medicine. Should we still consider indigenous peoples as primitive cultures or could it be worthwhile to pay attention to what they believe to be the “best practices” to manufacture herbal medicines? If science wants to stick with its current biomedical principles, it would be better to create the umpteenth synthetic pill rather than stressing the environment and marginalizing indigenous knowledge.
Considering the Magic of the Jungle
The mantra in modern herbal drug development is to “Standardize plant materials and processing methods to manufacture standardized medicines,” although this may be beneficial only for a standardized society. Nice and simple, but perhaps too simple! In fact, in going back to the field in the Amazon to observe how local people prepare this famous tea, we realize that the preparation includes a lot of strange procedures, so strange that in most of the cases we cannot understand what they are doing. We usually refer to these practices as rituals or magic.
However, pharmaceutical scientists like me are not priests, shamans, or magicians. We are just pharmacists, and, from our perspective, every step toward the preparation of a medicine must be considered part of a pharmaceutical recipe. This is a truly ethnopharmaceutical approach, and as a scientist I feel myself obliged to take note of all the procedures performed by the healers during the preparation of ayahuasca, whether understandable or not.
Recent scientific discoveries draw attention to plant bio-acoustics as a newly emerging field of plant communication.
Local healers may fast before collection, then blow tobacco smoke to the plant and even to the cup of tea. They sing sacred songs called icaros, avoid using perfumes or having sex during the days of the preparation. They even call the plant by its name, asking for help to prepare a good medicine. In this regard, knowing the name of a living being may be useful, if the help of that being is considered necessary. Domestic animals respond to their names, so this is not a matter of speaking specific languages. Is it somewhat similar for the plant kingdom? Recent scientific discoveries draw attention to plant bio-acoustics as a newly emerging field of plant communication and how this can even be related to the traditional herbal practices of “calling the plant’s spirits” as we usually describe this kind of shamanic performance.
The steps that local people consider relevant to prepare a good quality medicine may be quite important and some day may even become scientifically understandable. Describing the processing method for ayahuasca as the preparation of a simple cup of tea implies making a further assumption for the second step toward developing an evidence-based medicine. Taking distance from the well-established uses of this type of traditional herbal medicines could not only limit the understanding of the overall potential of the remedy but also generate new concerns, especially in term of safety, not only for humans but also for the environment. Changing the procedures to prepare a traditional herbal medicine could be risky and should be evaluated carefully. From a broader perspective, we may reflect on how stripping tobacco and coca plants of their traditional use and adapting them to Western society has led to a less safe use of these plants. In this sense, it might be wise to change our way of appropriating these plants to a more culturally sensitive way.
Following an indigenous approach, thus recording the full preparation method of the ayahuasca brew, the conclusion is that traditionally, the active principle is linked to the degree of relationship between the person that is preparing and administering the plant and the plant itself. In a scientific context, however, the active principle is related to the content of chemicals. Such a conclusion triggers further considerations.
Could Ayahuasca Help the Human-Environment Relationship?
At this stage, we have a big decision to make. Do we consider the plant as a box of chemicals or as a living organism? It is important to decide, because if we think that a plant is a being that is alive, then we could accept the possibility of interacting with a living organism as is commonly taken for granted by indigenous cultures. But if we try to interpret Amazonian herbal medicine by following our lab-based standardization approach, we are actually leaving out a big part of traditional knowledge related to the recipe and, more in general, on how to manage natural resources. We also risk losing certain therapeutic potentials of ayahuasca. If the active principle is measured in term of relationship, this great medicine could be extremely useful in restoring the human-environment relationship, and that’s why ayahuasca could become a medicine for planetary health, not only for human diseases.
In Europe, we have applied for centuries a standardization approach to our beloved psychoactive vine, the grapevine, and this has led to monocultures everywhere. Is this where we want to go by developing an evidence-based medicine from ayahuasca? I really hope not. I don’t want to see monocultured lines of ayahuasca vines in the middle of jungle. Contrary to the current trend, I want a world with more environmental biodiversity and multicultural societies, and probably the only way to get to that is through healthy relationships between humans and the natural world.
Getting connected with other beings around us is very relevant for health in general, as well as, probably, regaining awareness of being surrounded by sacred lives. This can be achieved through feelings, leaving aside rational thinking and planning. The ayahuasca experience opens the heart sometimes by shutting down the rational side and changing the ordinary state of consciousness. This can help us feel the sacredness of life on Earth, and when we feel more for all living beings, we tend to take care of them, and even to fight more for protecting them. Monotheism tends to identify sacredness somewhere far in the sky, while within animism the sacred is mostly on Earth, and this is probably the way indigenous people work to preserve and stay in equilibrium with the environment.
In modern society, our felt connection with nature has been dramatically reduced, with the consequence that everything can look like an inanimate resource, and destruction and exploitation are simpler and therefore largely widespread. For decades scientists have been releasing evidence about climate change and the importance of biodiversity. Despite that, every day the Amazon rainforest is being cut down more and more, and this is a clear case where an evidence-based approach is simply not achieving its goal. In fact, this scientific approach tends to objectivize animals, plants, and other nature beings, and in so doing it hinders our ability to bridge a connection with the living non-human world. Therefore, the state of awareness and reality it constructs is unlikely to easily give rise to radical reactions to stop deforestation or other environmental disasters.
So why should evidence-based approach be applied to integrate the ayahuasca medicine into the modern context? In the process of developing new drugs from traditional herbal medicines, instead of following the directives of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), we should listen to the voice of the jungle and the indigenous cultures and their ancient practices. In approaching traditional knowledge, many scientists are like teenagers who rebel against the wisdom of elders. Modern science is a young tradition approaching an older one. Sometimes, however, once the adolescent grows up, he or she may start to appreciate such wisdom, then cool down the rebel fire, sit close to the elders, and start to listen to the story of life. For human and planetary health, I hope to witness this moment, which I believe would constitute a real turning point in history.
Post-Materialistic Approach in Herbal Pharmacy
Would it not be useful to discuss with non-human beings how to manage our common home that we call nature?
I think that ayahuasca can bring us something new, and I am not referring to new molecules. The research strategy of looking for new chemical scaffolds in a medicinal plant, when we are actually in front of living organisms able to teach us knowledge, sounds much like a sort of “old fashioned pharmacy.” We can learn much from the Amazonian heritage of accessing real knowledge through a relation to plants, and this applies not only to ayahuasca. Many other medicinal plants from the Amazon can actually teach us something. The concept of plant as a teacher has been present in the scientific literature at least since the 1980s, thanks to the work of the anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna. More recently, Jeremy Narby also gave his beautiful contribution on the topic of ayahuasca and nature intelligence. Nowadays, there are even biologists like Stefano Mancuso and Monica Gagliano who are speaking of plant neurobiology and plant intelligence. It seems that the animist dimension of traditional cultures and the modern scientific way of interpreting certain laboratory data are achieving points of agreement.
So, if we, as humans, are supposed to be intelligent too, we should be able to understand the relevance to learning how to speak and get connected with non-humans, with other beings that are living with us on this planet. Consider the etymology of the word “ecology,” which can be understood as “environmental discourse.” From this perspective, would it not be useful to discuss with non-human beings how to manage our common home that we call nature? Moreover, this could truly represent a new approach to explore within the sphere of herbal medicine: not looking for chemicals but for friends. They can teach us about the correct way to prepare and use herbal remedies as many indigenous cultures around the globe affirm, although generally ignored by science; and maybe we could even learn something useful about environmental actions and how to improve our sustainable development strategies.
We should at least be open to consider these possibilities, investing in new research plans rather than obstinately going ahead with the current scientific paradigm based entirely on materialistic evidence, at least with respect to climate change and biodiversity protection. New approaches in anthropology and ethnography that focus on multi-species relations are opening up useful roads toward a better understanding of the relevance of the more-than-human dimension. Hopefully, this could have an impact for future herbal pharmaceutical and environmental science as well. A paradigm shift toward a post-materialistic world should be on the radar of the next generation of scientists. That’s one more reason why I’m inspired to work in collaboration with the Takiwasi Center for Traditional Amazonian Medicine in Peru, a perfect gateway for scientists to discover important jungle traditions.