Latest posts by Dr. Joe Tafur (see all)

I am a Colombian-American family physician raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Throughout my career, I have been interested in holistic healthcare.  After training in family medicine, I spent two years studying mind-body medicine at the University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychiatry.

After my research fellowship, over a period of six years, I lived and worked in the Peruvian Amazon at the traditional healing center Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual. There, I worked closely with master Shipibo shaman Ricardo Amaringo and trained in traditional Amazonian plant medicine. At the center, I completed a traditional apprenticeship in ayahuasca shamanism. During those years at Nihue Rao, I assisted hundreds of individuals from all over the world as they went through traditional healing with Amazonian plant medicines and in ayahuasca ceremonies.

Maloca Amazon Ayahuasca

Maloca, Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual, Peru. Photo:

I believe that shamanic plant medicine helps us to access the mystical realm of spirit, where we can find and heal our deeper wounds and release emotional burdens; thus, emotional health returns and, along with it, our innate ability to heal mind and body.  In my new book, The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, I draw upon current scientific research in psychedelic medicine, psychoneuroendocrine immunology, and epigenetics to support my theories.

Below is a sample from the chapter “Lisa’s Migraine Headaches and the Black Dragon,” a powerful story of a woman’s journey to heal migraine headaches and family trauma with traditional plant medicine:

Lisa had been taking sumatriptan for her migraines. I am not a migraine expert, but I had been noticing a pattern among some of the migraine sufferers visiting the center. In talking with them and spending time with them, I observed that several of them had been exposed to a lot of aggression and yelling as children. It was as if their young nervous systems had been overwhelmed by excessive voltage. Some researchers are now supporting the theory that migraines are caused by repetitive stress exposure in childhood.1 As previously discussed, repeated stress exposure can damage the emotional body and stress-response system. Such stress-related damage (accumulated allostatic load) causes a maladaptive stress response. In the case of migraines, this manifests as a dysfunctional response to certain triggers. The brain responds abnormally to certain environmental conditions (psychological and/or physiological), such as certain foods, fatigue, excessive stress, hormonal changes, etc.2

I asked Lisa if she had been exposed to a lot of aggression as a child. She told me that her father had been very verbally abusive. She said,

He was never, ever physically abusive in any way. [But he] was very verbally abusive. The thing is, my mom used to say, ‘When he’s good, he’s really good. When he’s bad, he’s horrible.’ I have great memories, going to the park, playing with the dogs. And, I have not-so-great memories.  For the first half of my childhood, he and my mom tried to make it work . . . then they would fight. They would have these massive fights. That was bad. Every holiday he was . . . he turns into a rabid dog. He screams and he would toss things off the table. [One time] he shoved the whole Thanksgiving dinner off the table, that kind of insane behavior.

I, luckily, got left behind [when he would take my brother on trips]. He would refer to me as the girl child: “The girl child can’t come with me to the boy thing,” and he would take my brother. I used to be really sad about that. I would feel neglected and stuff. I’m thankful today because [I learned that] he would take my brother and mess with his head. He’s very manipulative. I don’t even know the extent of what he said and did to my brother. I know he never hit him or anything, but psychologically he was [relentless].

My parents actually didn’t get divorced until I was eighteen, which is crazy because they totally separated and stopped talking when I was about twelve. [My dad] had his own house. I think that they realized the fighting just got [to be too much]. He would still come over like at Christmas and stuff and they would still have those huge fights, so I don’t really know what they were thinking. The majority of what happened with me was when I was a teen-ager. He started getting just nasty with me and saying things . . . put-downs. He would put me down all the time. Tell me I was going to end up as trailer trash. Talk bad about my dancing. Just putting me down all the time.

Traditional Treatment

Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual

Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual, Peru. Photo:

In 2014, Lisa travelled to the center with her husband, her brother, and his girlfriend. One sunny Sunday afternoon, Lisa and her group roared into the property on a couple of mototaxis. Not long after arriving in the jungle, right after her vomitive, Lisa suffered a terrible migraine.

“That was the worst one of my life, I mean of my entire life. It was brutal.”

Ayahuasca and the diet process often stir up pain in problem areas of the body, sometimes even before any of the treatments begin. Maybe it was simply the change of environment, or the travel, but for Lisa, this intense headache was a strange surprise.

Despite her discomfort, she decided to maintain her vegetalista diet and go through this severe headache without medication. As tough as this was, she was deeply committed to the process. Sometime later, the terrible headache subsided. Along with the other new arrivals, she consulted with Ricardo and expressed her intentions. (He assigned her the master plant ojé.) The following night, Lisa entered her first ayahuasca ceremony.

I was away from the center at the time and did not arrive until after her first ceremony. While I was away, my cousin Francisco Ville- gas had come from Colombia to assist at the center.

“The first ceremony was the one that totally knocked me on my [rear],” Lisa recalled. She told me that someone (Francisco) had to keep her from flailing out and disturbing the people around her. In that wild ceremony, she started a deep cleaning process, which involved working through the trauma that she had endured from her father—the anger, the frustration, and the hurt. When I arrived the next day, Francisco let me know that it had been a rough night. Lisa had been a handful, out of control through much of the ceremony.

“Time to lower the dose,” I thought.

The following night, I entered ceremony with Lisa, Francisco, and the others. She was given less ayahuasca, but was still strongly affected. Sometime after the shamans began singing, on her way back from the bathroom, she just plopped herself down in the middle of the maloka, swaying and moaning quietly. I walked over with Francisco to see what could be done. We needed to try to get her back to her mat, out of the way, but she was deep in the mareación. She did not respond to any of our questions.

From the outside, it was hard to know what she was going through. Later, she informed me,

I remember I was dealing with a lot of stuff with my dad. I just want to reiterate that a lot of times were good and a lot were bad. It was a constant struggle between feeling loved and feeling rejected, so it caused us to have to try really hard for approval. I was always doing what I could to make him love us, so I think that’s where the anger and migraines came from . . . and as a result I carried a lot of guilt from my behavior . . . I feel like my migraines are connected to my cycle but I also think they are connected to all this stuff I was carrying for so long.


As she went through her process in the middle of the maloka, I realized we were not going to be able to move her. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” I thought. I sat down on the wooden floor next to her and started singing, trying to bring her back down with my icaro. I tried to center her and help her through whatever she was going through; hoping, if at all possible, to get her back to her mat.

As I sang to her, I started to see something. I saw a thick, beaded strand floating in front of me. It was her DNA, but it was not just her DNA, it was her chromatin. Chromatin is basically the DNA in its protein packaging. The human DNA strand is approximately three meters long. In order to fit neatly into each and every one of our thirty trillion cells, this strand must be magically bundled into each cell nucleus, wrapped tightly around proteins known as histones.

In my visions, this beaded strand of chromatin (made up of DNA wrapped around histones) was glowing pink, and between the beads were little nooks, crannies, and channels. I saw something cruise through one of those narrow channels. It was a long, black dragon swimming laps through the intimate spaces between the beads, round and round the genetic material. As I watched this dragon cruise through the chromatin, I received the message that Lisa’s problem was not in her genes (not exactly), but over them. Her migraines were linked to this thin, dark dragon. The song follows the vision, and as I watched I shifted my focus to cleaning out this dragon energy.

This vision reminded me of what I had learned about epigenetics, which is, in a sense, the study of that which exists upon the genes. Epigenetics is the study of trait variations that result from external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells express genes. For example, epigenetics explores how external factors like diet and lifestyle can affect the expression of genes causing problems like diabetes, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. Epigenetics, among other things, examines how external factors (like nutrition and pharmaceuticals) alter the surface of the packaging proteins (histones) that the DNA is wrapped around. External factors mark or tag these histone proteins and affect the way their associated segment of DNA strand can be expressed. Like a swimming dragon, these tags reside over the genes and influence them energetically. In general, epigenetics is the study of the way environmental factors, from outside the body and within the body, interact with genes.

Ayahuasca was showing me that Lisa’s problem was not genetic: it was epigenetic. Although there may have been others in her family line with migraines, her problem was not fatally locked into her so-called genetic destiny. Her migraines were not caused by a hardware problem; they were caused by a software problem. Lisa’s problem appeared to be related to some kind of epigenetic programming problem, maladaptive tagging, if you will. This little dragon represented the unhealthy program. Repeated stress had left her with maladaptive software.

Lisa was not alone in this, of course. Researchers are now investigating the ways in which childhood maltreatment alters epigenetics and leads to migraine headaches later in life.3 Epigenetics is a big deal, and I’ll get more into this topic in the next chapter.

Sitting there with Lisa, I continued singing to her to try and clear the little black dragon out of the pink-beaded strand of chromatin. I sang to her for a good while, trying to clean and doing my best to center her mind and senses. Eventually, when I felt that I had done enough, I stopped. Lisa was able to speak with me then. She said she was doing slightly better.

I then brought her over to the Shipibo shamans for further treatment, after which my cousin guided her back to her mat in the maloka. “Someone put me back on my mat. I was a deflated shell. You know what I mean, just deflated. I feel like I released so much that night, and I think that’s why the migraine came on.” After her personal icaros, Lisa got another migraine. It was not severe, but it lingered on throughout the ceremony and into the morning, then dissipated. She chalked up this second headache to her healing process. She did feel that the treatment was working on her brain, despite the discomfort. She continued steadfast, with the diet and the ayahuasca ceremonies. She later told me, “It’s like every ceremony, even if I wasn’t focused on my dad, I had experiences around it. I would see him and I felt forgiveness and compassion. Every night a little a bit. I don’t know what migraines are caused by, but releasing [my anger and guilt], that was a huge thing.”


Maleki, N., Becerra, L., & Borsook, D. (2012). Migraine: Maladaptive brain responses to stress. Headache, 52(Suppl 2), 102–106.

Meggs, W. J. (1993). Neurogenic inflammation and sensitivity to environmental chemicals. Environ Health Perspect, 101(3), 234–238.

Roos-Araujo, D., Stuart, S., Lea, R. A., Haupt, L. M., & Griffiths, L. R.. (2014). Epigenetics and migraine: Complex mitochondrial interactions contributing to disease susceptibility. Gene,543(1), 1–7.

Malhotra, R. (2016). Understanding migraine: Potential role of neurogenic inflammation. Ann Indian Acad Neurol, 19(2), 175–182.

  1. Borsook, D., Maleki, N., Becerra, L., & McEwen, B. (2012). Understanding migraine through the lens of maladaptive stress responses: A model disease of allostatic load. Neuron. 73(2), 219–234
  2. Smitherman, T. A.,  Burch, R., Sheikh, H., & Loder, E. (2013). The prevalence, impact, and treatment of migraine and severe headaches in the United States: A review of statistics from national surveillance studies. Headache., 53(3), 427–436
  3. Tietjen, G. E., Buse, D. C., & Collins, S. A.. (2016). Childhood maltreatment in the migraine patient. Curr Treat Options Neurol, 18(7), 31.

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