Using Psychedelics for Healing and Wellness -- What You Should Know
The television series, 9 Perfect Strangers, a cast led by Nicole Kidman playing the role of therapist and leader at a wellness center called Tranquillum, takes a deep dive into their personal traumas and experiences with loss, using psychedelic drug and plant-based therapies (specifically, MDMA and Psilocybin, otherwise known as mushrooms are used in the show). While the series and the book it is based on is entirely fictional, the use of these therapies is rooted in reality. And many of us watching the series who have experienced our own trauma or struggle with mental health might be wondering -- is this something that can help me heal?
The answer is maybe and is very specific to the kind of healing you need and the drug you are thinking about. The research and practice of using these tools as an aid to healing of the mind and spirit is both very old and relatively new. Many of the drugs that fall loosely within the term “psychedelics” have been around for centuries and have been used extensively by cultures around the world, while others have only recently surfaced as therapeutic aids. Ayahuasca, for example, a ceremonial medicine made using plant species native to the Amazon basin, has been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years for healing purposes. MDMA, better known in the U.S. by its recreational nicknames “molly” or “ecstasy,” was first created in a lab by a pharmaceutical company, in 1912. Other drugs within the category have distinct histories and uses -- they include LSD, a hallucinogenic popularized in the 1960’s, Ketamine, an FDA-approved anesthesia that is also used "off label" for the treatment of depression, Ibogaine, a psychoactive alkaloid that in large doses can significantly reduce withdrawal from opiates and temporarily eliminate substance-related cravings, and 5-MeO-DMT, a chemical extracted from toad venom that can prompt spiritual experiences and has been studied as a potential treatment for anxiety (the last two are not specifically discussed here, but we've included resources for those curious to learn about them).
In other words, just as with any family, each member has its unique and one-of-a-kind personality. Here are several key takeaways to keep in mind as you evaluate whether a psychedelic might help you in your own wellness practice:
- Support and Research are Critical: While there is evidence to suggest that each of these drug therapies has the potential for helping those in need of healing from trauma and for spiritual wellness, nobody should attempt to do so without doing their own personal research and without the support of somebody with expertise on the specific therapy. There are pros and cons to each that you should be well-versed in before taking any next steps. Importantly, some of them, as noted below, are not legally sanctioned! If you are interested in learning more, we’ve included some resources for each drug therapy to get you started. (Note: we are talking about the use of these drugs as a therapeutic tool as part of a holistic healing practice; recreational use of psychedelics is not covered here.)
- Use Care and Caution: As you consider whether a psychedelic is right for you, the source of the psychedelic is equally crucial. As with any drug, legally approved or not, there are potential side effects to consider. And particularly with this category of therapies, many are not regulated and can more easily be tainted with substances that are harmful and, in some cases, lethal. Know where the drug comes from and take precautions to ensure that you are staying safe.
- Respect and Appreciation: While many of the therapies we discuss here were born in a lab, many are derived from plants and animals and are part of a rich cultural heritage of native peoples around the world. Support efforts to preserve and shine a spotlight on those responsible for plant-based psychedelics. The Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative, created by the Chacruna Institute, raises money and distributes the funds to twenty grassroots organizations that help gap financial and social inequity that indigenous communities face as globalization of psychedelics increases. Join us in supporting their work.
Psychedelics -- Reference and Resource Guide
Still interested? We’ve put together a reference and resource guide for those interested in learning more about the use of psychedelics in their spiritual wellness and healing practices. To gather this information, our primary sources were the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana and José F. Mata, an Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and owner of The Held Space (found on Instagram @theheldspace). Mata is also one of a handful of practitioners who is part of the Phase 3 clinical trial on the use of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in addition to the rest of his healing-based psychotherapy. Special thanks to Mr. Mata for his incredible insight and guidance for this piece.
Description: MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a ring-substituted phenylisopropylamine derivative invented by the Merck pharmaceutical company in 1912. MDMA increases the activity of certain hormones associated with trust and bonding, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and prolactin. Users of MDMA report increased empathy and compassion, improved abilities of communication and introspection, reduced feelings of fear and anxiety, and increased feelings of interpersonal trust.
Current Status: MDMA is currently being studied in several clinical studies for the treatment of several disorders and purposes, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, anxiety, social anxiety in autistic adults, and substance abuse. MAPS is conducting a Phase 3 trial for those diagnosed with PTSD. Candidates can apply here, which initiates a screening process conducted by study sites. The current therapy protocol is intense and includes over 40 hours of therapy: in addition to the screening procedure and other sessions, there are three 8-hour sessions during which two separate doses of MDMA are administered with the assistance of the therapist. The study is double-blind, meaning some participants are receiving a placebo and neither the study team (two co-therapists and a psychiatrist) or patient are aware if they are being administered the drug. Results thus far are remarkable -- 67% of those receiving MDMA report no longer meeting requirements for PTSD (compared to 32% of the placebo group). The trial is expected to close in 2022, with approval for general use possible in 2023.
- MAPS website (those interested in participating in the clinical trial must first apply here first.)
- The Held Space (and on Instagram at @theheldspace, for those interested in contacting José F. Mata).
Description: Psilocybin is the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms and produces visual and auditory hallucinations over the course of a few hours after its ingestion for some users. Perceptual disturbance is not a side effect experienced by everyone. Some consumers of psilocybin report decreased feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as a higher state of consciousness.
Current Status: Psilocybin has been approved by the FDA for use in clinical trials studying its impact on depression. A study conducted by John Hopkin University found that two doses administered in conjunction with therapy was effective in reducing depression -- 67% of the group reported at least a 50% reduction in depression symptoms a week after treatment and 70% after four weeks. More clinical studies are in the works. The legal landscape is also changing: While it is still federally illegal, several states have initiatives to legalize psilocybin on upcoming ballots and Oregon passed a measure that legalizes Psilocybin specifically for use in therapy, with licenses to grow and train facilitators on track to be issued by 2023. Mushrooms are additionally sanctioned for therapeutic use in New Mexico. The Heffter Institute, for example, offers 8 hour sessions where the drug is administered as part of a screened protocol that includes a more all-encompassing therapy program.
How Should We Do Drugs Now? By Michael Pollan, New York Times
Clinical Study Shows Hallucinogenic Magic Mushroom Compound Psilocybin Relieves Depression, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News
Description: Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew or tea most commonly derived from Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine containing monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and the leaves of Psychotria viridis or other plant containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and often several other admixture plants. People who have used Ayahuasca report a greater sense of well-being, connection with self and improved self-knowledge. There is, however, a dearth of research and study on the pharmacology of the plant-based drug and there have been illness and death reported (albeit a small number) over the last decades making it important that its use is with experienced practitioners and with accessible medical help nearby.
Current Status: Ayahuasca is currently illegal in the United States, although federal courts have upheld its use for religious purposes in two instances. However, it is legal in many countries in South America and is used for ceremonial, recreational, and spiritual purposes throughout the region (and throughout the world). MAPS published one of the only studies of Ayahuasca in 2013, an observational analysis on the drug’s use in treatment for substance abuse and stress. In the study, which details a typical Ayahuasca ceremony, the researchers found that taking the drug as part of therapy “correlated with improvements in several cognitive and behavioral states—including enhanced mindfulness, personal empowerment and hopefulness—which we hypothesized may be associated with recovery from problematic substance use. Participating in the retreats also correlated with improvements in quality of life (meaning and outlook), and subjective feelings of connection with self, others, spirit and nature. The results also suggest that this form of ayahuasca-assisted group therapy may be associated with reductions in substance use, particularly reductions in problematic cocaine use.”
- A Psychotherapeutic View on the Therapeutic Effects of Ritual Ayahuasca Use in the Treatment of Addiction, Anja Loizaga-Velder
Description: Ketamine was first synthesized in the 1960’s and has been FDA-approved in the United States for anesthesia and analgesia since the early 1970s. It gained traction as a spiritually and psychologically healing drug after recreational users reported positive uses. One psychologist contrasts Ketamine with the experience of other psychedelics, noting “It is a dissociative medicine that quiets sensory input and can launch people into an expansive, transpersonal space.” As a result, it has been studied and used in trials for treatment of clinical depression. There are several healing approaches using Ketamine, varying from therapy-assisted administration to clinician-administered intravenous drip. There are potential side effects, which include high blood pressure and nausea or vomiting.
Current Status: In 2019, a chemical relative of Ketamine, Esketamine, was approved by the FDA for treatment of depression via a nasal spray called Spravato. Ketamine is still not approved by the FDA for depression, but it is currently utilized by clinicians in the US for this purpose as an "off label" application. Ketamine clinics are now plentiful and easily accessed for those who are suffering from depression and other mental health issues. The Kriya Ketamine Research Institute, located in Berkeley, California, offers an online search tool to find a local provider.
Description: LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) was first synthesized in a Swiss lab in 1938 and was popularized for its use in treating psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and alcoholism, in the 1940’s and 50’s. The hallmark of this psychedelic is a hallucinogenic “trip,” upon ingestion that can last anywhere from a few to 20 hours. Proponents of LSD for therapeutic use point to research and anecdotal reports that it can be useful for treating anxiety and increasing creativity and spiritual connection. Detractors point to incidents known as “bad trips,” that can lead to negative psychological impact.
Current Status: LSD is considered illegal in the United States and has not been approved for any therapeutic uses (Oregon decriminalized small amounts of LSD via a ballot initiative, but it is not sanctioned for therapeutic use). It is additionally considered illegal in many countries via a United Nations accord. MAPS sponsored the first human study on LSD and its use for healing in over 40 years, examining the treatment of anxiety for those with life-threatening illnesses.
Additional Resources on Psychedelics for Healing and Spiritual Wellness
- How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan
- A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin (Film)
- Psychedelics and the Potential of Plant Medicine, Rachel Harrrison
While the use of psychedelics in your wellness practice requires some mindful consideration and commitment, their use can offer new layers and opportunity to broaden and deepen your healing -- particularly for those who may be searching for or exploring new opportunities for relief and connection.