Dr. Adèle Lafrance

Dr. Adèle Lafrance

Dr. Adele Lafrance is an Associate Professor at Laurentian University and Clinical Psychologist. She conducts research on the therapeutic value of psychedelics and supports clinicians in the provision of psychedelic-integration support.
Dr. Adèle Lafrance

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Anja Loizaga-Velder, Ph.D.

Anja Loizaga-Velder, Ph.D.

Anja Loizaga-Velder, PhD is clinical psychologist who has been investigating the therapeutic potential of the ritual use of psychedelic plants for twenty years. She is Director of Research and Psychotherapy at the Nierika Institute in Mexico.
Anja Loizaga-Velder, Ph.D.

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Jenna Fletcher, M.A.

Jenna Fletcher, M.A.

Jenna Fletcher is a psychotherapist in private practice in Ottawa, Canada. She has done research on ayahuasca-assisted therapy for eating disorders and comorbid mental health challenges.
Jenna Fletcher, M.A.

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Dr. Timothy D. Brewerton

Dr. Timothy D. Brewerton

Dr. Timothy Brewerton is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, certified in general, child-adolescent, forensic psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is an author on 150+ publications, including two books.
Dr. Timothy D. Brewerton

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    More and more people from around the globe are turning to ayahuasca, the Amazonian psychoactive tea, as a form of mental health treatment. Some are drawn to its natural and holistic properties, while others are seeking an alternative or adjunct to conventional treatments. A surge of research is now examining whether ayahuasca can be a safe, effective, and viable option for those suffering. So far, scientific studies have investigated its therapeutic potential in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse problems, depression, and complex grief with promising results.1 2 3 4 5 6 Preliminary research is also underway among other clinical populations, including eating disorders.7 Although we are in the early days of understanding the “how” of ayahuasca’s effect on the reduction and resolution of mental health symptoms, researchers studying various psychedelics are turning their attention to understanding the possible processes. This is being done through brain research, use of psychological instruments, and via interviews with those who have worked with ayahuasca and other psychedelics with therapeutic intent. What is emerging is a fascinating, integrated science of ayahuasca’s impact on mental health.

    What’s going on in the brain?

    A wealth of research supports the belief that abnormalities in the function of the neurotransmitter serotonin and its multiple receptor subtypes can contribute to a variety of psychiatric symptoms, including depressed mood, obsessive thoughts, and impulsivity.8 9 10 Neurotransmitters are chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. Neurotransmission initiates many processes, from feeling an emotion to digesting our dinner to processing issues of meaning. When a neurotransmitter system, such as that of serotonin, is out of balance, we can experience various symptoms of mental illness, such as depressed mood or a constant state of hypervigilance, or feeling “on guard.” Ayahuasca contains the potent psychedelic molecule Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is thought to modulate serotonergic neurotransmission by tightly binding to its 2A receptors in the brain. All major psychedelic substances are thought to operate via this mechanism.11 12 13 14 Stimulation of this specific serotonin receptor subtype may explain why some people experience improved mood and reduced anxiety and stress following ayahuasca drinking, although other neurotransmitters may also be involved.10 11 13 18

    What’s going on in the psyche?

    Ayahuasca has been shown to interact with brain systems that are central to psychological functions, such as interoception and emotional processing.7 20 21 Ayahuasca has also been found to reduce the activity of what some neuroscientists refer to as the Default Mode Network (DMN).22 The DMN has been linked to our “defaults” when interacting with the world.20 For example, traumatic memories—and the strong emotions that accompany them (like fear, resentment, and shame)—can serve as fuel for problematic relationship patterns as well as chronic mental health conditions. Recent research is suggesting that ayahuasca may allow for both the healing of deep-rooted trauma as well as the interruption of our “default mode” by bringing up old memories and their associated emotions for healthy processing.24 Research has also shown that ayahuasca seems to increase mindfulness,25 another state of mind thought to be related to mental health. Working with ayahuasca seems to enhance both self-awareness and the ability to detach from maladaptive thoughts and emotions in the day-to-day, potentially creating more space to respond to stressful situations or life events in healthier ways.

    What about the Spirit?

    Following a period of time when the study of science and spirituality were regarded as incompatible, researchers are now bringing forth scientific evidence for the importance of transpersonal experiences for psychological health and well-being.26 27 28 Psychedelics, including ayahuasca, are known to elicit powerful spiritual experiences that can lead to lasting psychological and behavioral change.29 7 31 32 33 34 35 The value of these experiences are comparable to the positive effects of other spiritual practices,36 with some scholars theorizing that these experiences bring profound personal meaning as well as trust in one’s ability to deal with the challenges of life. This phenomenon was reported in a study exploring the therapeutic use of ayahuasca in the context of substance dependence where ayahuasca-induced spiritual experiences were regarded as highly therapeutic by both the participants and healers interviewed.2 Some individuals have even described an increase in their religious, spiritual, and contemplative practices following ceremonial ayahuasca use, including increased engagement with meditation, yoga, and prayer.38

    And the body?

    On a somatic level, ayahuasca oftentimes induces purging, a practice of important therapeutic value from the perspective of traditional indigenous medicine. Purging may take many forms, including vomiting, diarrhea, and crying, and is thought to be mechanisms through which the body is cleansed from physical, mental, and emotional blockages. A number of individuals have also reported that ayahuasca facilitates greater awareness of, and connection to, the body and its health needs. For example, one may become more attuned and responsive to bodily needs such as hunger, satiety, and even exercise. In a study conducted among individuals with a history of eating disorders, visions during the ceremony, as well as insights following participation in ayahuasca ceremonies, were perceived to facilitate a greater level of respect and gratitude for the physical body, and in some cases, this phenomenon was directly related to decreases in symptoms and normalization of eating and weight.7 When integrated, ayahuasca-related somatic experiences and insights can lead to meaningful lifestyle changes that can have profound effects on one’s physical and mental health and overall quality of life.40

    Now what?

    There is no doubt that more research is needed to better understand the “how” of ayahuasca’s effect on mental health. We’ve put forth some of the current theories, including from our own study findings with those with a history of addiction and eating disorders; however, these are very early days. So far, mechanisms of action have been identified in the domains of neuroscience, psychology, spirituality, and physical health, and we believe, as do others, that these workings are likely to be integrative and mutually influential.41 Psychedelic researchers are also restricted by the limitations of the scientific process in terms of both methods and tools, as well as the legal status of ayahuasca in many countries (which, not surprisingly, makes it incredibly difficult to study). In fact, an additional note of caution is in order. We are not advocating for the use of ayahuasca in settings in which it is not legal, and it should not be taken recreationally. It may also be contraindicated for some, including those predisposed to psychosis (personal or family history) and for those taking antidepressants or other pharmacological treatments, due to the possibility of problematic interactions.42 43 44 Until more is known, it is recommended that one seek appropriate counsel prior to embarking on this path. The good news is that research on ayahuasca and other psychedelics is progressing at an accelerated rate, and the advent of psychedelic medicine is certainly upon us.45 46

    1. Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar, The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer, 2014).
    2. Anja Loizaga-Velder and Rolf Verres, “Therapeutic effects of ritual ayahuasca use in the treatment of substance dependence—qualitative results,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 46, no. 1 (2014): 63–72.
    3. Flávia de L. Osório, Rafael F. Sanches, Ligia R. Macedo, Rafael G. dos Santos, João P. Maia-   de-Oliveira, Lauro Wichert-Ana, Draulio B. de Araujo, Jordi Riba, José A. Crippa, and Jaime E. Hallak, “Antidepressant Effects of a Single Dose of Ayahuasca in Patients With Recurrent Depression: A Preliminary Report,” Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria 37, no. 1 (2015): 13-20.
    4. Rafael G. dos Santos, Flávia L. Osório, José Alexandre S. Crippa, Jordi Riba, Antônio W. Zuardi, and Jaime E. C. Hallak, “Antidepressive, Anxiolytic, and Antiaddictive Effects of Ayahuasca, Psilocybin and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD): A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials Published in the Last 25 Years,” Therapeutic Advances in    Psychopharmacology 6, no. 3 (2016): 193–213.
    5. Gerald Thomas, Philippe Lucas, N. Rielle Capler, Kenneth W. Tupper, and Gina Martin, “Ayahuasca-Assisted Therapy For Addiction: Results From a Preliminary Observational    Study in Canada,” Curr Drug Abuse Rev 6, no. 1 (2013): 30–42.
    6. Michael C. Mithoefer, Charles S. Grob, and Timothy D. Brewerton, “Novel Psychopharmacological Therapies for Psychiatric Disorders: Psilocybin and Mdma,” The Lancet Psychiatry 3, no. 5 (2016): 481–88.
    7. Adele Lafrance, Kenneth Tupper, Jenna Fletcher, Marika Renelli, Anja Loizaga-Velder and Natasha Files, “Nourishing the Spirit: Exploratory Research on Ayahuasca Experiences Along the Continuum of Recovery from Eating Disorders,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2017), Forthcoming.
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    10. Marie Naughton, Jane B. Mulrooney, and Brian E. Leonard, “A Review of the Role of Serotonin Receptors in Psychiatric Disorders,” Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental 15, no. 6 (2000): 397–415.
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    12. Adam L. Halberstadt, “Recent Advances in the Neuropsychopharmacology of Serotonergic Hallucinogens,” Behav Brain Res 277 (2015): 99–120.
    13. J. Gonzalez-Maeso, N. V. Weisstaub, M. Zhou, P. Chan, L. Ivic, R. Ang, A. Lira, et al., “Hallucinogens Recruit Specific Cortical 5-Ht(2a) Receptor-Mediated Signaling Pathways to Affect Behavior,” Neuron 53, no. 3 (2007): 439–52.
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    17. J. Gonzalez-Maeso, N. V. Weisstaub, M. Zhou, P. Chan, L. Ivic, R. Ang, A. Lira, et al., “Hallucinogens Recruit Specific Cortical 5-Ht(2a) Receptor-Mediated Signaling Pathways to Affect Behavior,” Neuron 53, no. 3 (2007): 439–52.
    18. E. Dominguez-Clave, J. Soler, M. Elices, J. C. Pascual, E. Alvarez, M. de la Fuente Revenga, P. Friedlander, A. Feilding, and J. Riba, “Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, Neuroscience and Therapeutic Potential,” Brain Res Bull 126,  Pt 1 (Sep 2016): 89–101.
    19. Adele Lafrance, Kenneth Tupper, Jenna Fletcher, Marika Renelli, Anja Loizaga-Velder and Natasha Files, “Nourishing the Spirit: Exploratory Research on Ayahuasca Experiences Along the Continuum of Recovery from Eating Disorders,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2017), Forthcoming.
    20. Marcus E. Raichle, Ann Mary MacLeod, Abraham Z. Snyder, William J. Powers, Debra A. Gusnard, and Gordon L. Shulman, “A Default Mode of Brain Function,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 2 (2001): 676–682.
    21. Riba, S. Romero, E. Grasa, E. Mena, I. Carrio, and M. J. Barbanoj, “Increased Frontal and Paralimbic Activation Following Ayahuasca, the Pan-Amazonian Inebriant,” Psychopharmacology (Berl) 186, no. 1 (May 2006): 93–8.
    22. Fernanda Palhano-Fontes, Katia C. Andrade, Luis F. Tofoli, Antonio C. Santos, Jose Alexandre S. Crippa, Jaime EC Hallak, Sidarta Ribeiro, and Draulio B. de Araujo, “The Psychedelic State Induced by Ayahuasca Modulates the Activity and Connectivity of the Default Mode Network,” PLoS One 10, no. 2 (2015): e0118143.
    23. Marcus E. Raichle, Ann Mary MacLeod, Abraham Z. Snyder, William J. Powers, Debra A. Gusnard, and Gordon L. Shulman, “A Default Mode of Brain Function,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 2 (2001): 676–682.
    24. José Carlos Bouso and Jordi Riba. “Ayahuasca and the Treatment of Drug Addiction,” in  The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca, ed. Beatriz C. Labate and Clancy Cavnar,  (Heidelberg: Springer, 2014), 95–109.
    25. Joaquim Soler, Matilde Elices, Alba Franquesa, Steven Barker, Pablo Friedlander, Amanda Feilding, Juan C. Pascual, and Jordi Riba, “Exploring the Therapeutic Potential of Ayahuasca: Acute Intake Increases Mindfulness-Related Capacities,” Psychopharmacology  233, no. 5 (2016): 823–829.
    26. Marc Galanter, “Spirituality and Addiction: A Research and Clinical Perspective,” The American Journal on Addictions 15, no. 4 (2006): 286–292.
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    31. Albert Garcia-Romeu, Roland R. Griffiths, and Matthew W. Johnson, “Psilocybin-Occasioned Mystical Experiences in the Treatment of Tobacco Addiction.” Current Drug Abuse Reviews 7, no. 3 (2014): 157–164.
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    33. Michael P. Bogenschutz, Alyssa A. Forcehimes, Jessica M.. Pommy, Claire E. Wilcox, Paulo Cesar Barbosa, and Rick J. Strassman, “Psilocybin-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol Dependence: A Proof-of-Concept Study,” J Psychopharmacol 29, no. 3 (Mar 2015): 289–99.
    34. Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, Una McCann, and Robert Jesse, “Psilocybin Occasioned Mystical-Type Experiences: Immediate and Persisting Dose-Related Effects,” Psychopharmacology (Berl) 218, no. 4 (Dec 2011): 649–65.
    35. Roland R. Griffiths, William A. Richards, Matthew W. Johnson, Una McCann, and Robert Jesse, “Mystical-Type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later,” J Psychopharmacol 22, no. 6 (Aug 2008): 621–32.
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    38. Marika Renelli, Jenna Fletcher, Anja Loizaga-Velder, Natasha Files, Kenneth W. Tupper, and Adele Lafrance, “Ayahuasca and the Healing of Eating Disorders,” in Embodiment and Eating disorders: A Handbook of Theory, Research, Prevention and Treatment, ed.  Hillary L. McBride and Janelle Kwee, (New York City, NY: Routledge Press, 2017, Forthcoming).
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    40. Anja Loizaga-Velder, “A Psychotherapeutic View on Therapeutic Effects of Ritual Ayahuasca Use in the Treatment of Addiction,” MAPS Bulletin 23, no. 1 (2013): 36–40.
    41. Mitchell B. Liester and James I. Prickett, “Hypotheses Regarding the Mechanisms of Ayahuasca in the Treatment of Addictions,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 44, no. 3 (2012): 200–208.
    42. Rafael G. Dos Santos, Jose Carlos Bouso, and Jaime E. C. Hallak, “Ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine, and Psychosis: A Systematic Review of Human Studies,” Ther Adv Psychopharmacol 7, no. 4 (Apr 2017): 141–57.
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