By Daniel Gustafsson
This article is the culmination of six years work, having studied ethnobotanical natural medicine and the field of neurodisease, making connections between the two in the search for something viable in terms of an alternative treatment option for ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and similar neurodegenerative conditions.
In south and central america, the native people within many tribes living in the Amazon rainforest have a long historical tradition of making and consuming a natural medicinal tea called ayahuasca. It is harvested and prepared mainly from a wild growing vine, it’s latin name being Banisteriopsis Caapi. Often, but not always, leaves from trees named Chacruna or Chaliponga (Psychotria Viridis and Diplopterys Cabrerana) are added to the tea, or in some regions Jurema tree bark (of the Leguminosae family and Mimosa species).
The rainforests of the earth are known to be an enormous resource and a necessity for upholding the ecosystem of the planet. It is estimated that a very great number of undiscovered plants of medicinal value are yet to be explored within these forests. Many conventional pharmaceutical medicines originate from substances found in rainforest plants, or their synthesized variants. Ethnopharmacologists have long been aware that there is vast support for the medicinal value of ayahuasca in its use against a number of diseases, but until recently this has been limited to individual claims. Even if a great number of very in-depth and credible personal stories have been available, serious studies have previously been missing.
This, however, has come to change in the last decade. Natural substances extracted from the ayahuasca plants have been found to possess unique restorative and strongly antioxidative properties on specific nerve cells in the brain and central nervous system – controlling neurotransmission, muscle/motor activity, memory and coordination. This gives probable cause to the theory that ayahuasca could be an effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Promising results as of date have also been obtained from studying the substance psilocybin, remarkebly closely related from a molecular staindpoint to the substances found in ayahuasca, naturally occuring in certain species of medicinal mushrooms consumed by the indigenous people where ayahuasca is also used.
According to Dr. Juan Ramos, head of the neurological disease department at the South Florida university, USA, initial studies show that these tryptamine-family substances stimulate the development of new cells in the areas of the brain controlling the above mentioned functions. If this could prove to be an eventual cure through complete restoration of damaged or destroyed cells remains to be seen, but initial results indicate this could potentially be the case. Other studies led by Dr. Jordi Riba at the spanish university of Sant Pau, Barcelona, show connections between ayahuasca and neural pathway redevelopment in the neocortex. Cancer researchers have also shown interest in B. Caapi, as its alkaloids have shown to be effective against the growth of cancer cells, and are believed to be able to stabilize and balance mitochondrial function. This relates also to ALS research in that mitochondrial dysfunction is nominated one of the main causes of cell damage in ALS, and that the normalization of mitochondrial metabolism through modulation of calcium influx from beneficial alkaloids contained in ayahuasca could prevent motor neuron damage and increase survival rate of these cells. Mitochondrial function is directly related to neuronal survival, and unregulated levels of intracellular calcium are thought to initiate motor neuron dysfunction, or amplify other mechanisms prone to injure motor neurons.
Eduardo E. Schenberg, Federal University of Sao Paulo:
“There are enough available evidence that the active substances in ayahuasca, especially dimethyltryptamine and harmine, has the positive effect of preventing cancer cells in cultures used for cancer research, and that these substances affect the biochemical processes that are crucial to the treatment of cancer in-vitro as well as in-vivo. The reports available about people with experience from ayahuasca in the treatment of cancer should be taken seriously. The hypothesis is that the combination of (beta-carboline) alkaloids and dimethyltryptamine present in ayahuasca blocks the transportation of nutrients to tumours, lessens the dividing process of cancer cells, and changes the unbalanced mutation-causing metabolism in cancer cells.”
A recent study by Icahn School of Medicine, New York, singled out harmine (from the ayahuasca Caapi plant) among 100.000 substances, as the only one able to cause beta cells in the pancreas (the internal organ that produces insulin) to regenerate, a discovery of great interest to diabetes researchers. Other evidence suggest that ayahuasca may have the potential to regenerate several different types of cells, in many places in the body where needed, the specifics of which calls for medical research in many areas – especially neurodegenerative diseases without a known cure. There is also a growing interest in exploring the cell regenerative properties of these plants within spinal chord injury research. Harmine in ayahuasca has also been found to regulate glutamate pump expression in the central nervous system, thereby reducing glutamate toxicity – one of the causes believed to trigger and aggravate ALS through excitotoxic reactions occuring through excessive receptor stimulation by neurotransmitters.
What has previously been somewhat controversial about ayahuasca, is that the plants in question used to be thought of simply as hallucinogens by western science. In other words, these medicinal plants of great importance, were neglected by the scientific community and thought of simply as if they were natural drugs. A more correct term for these plants, with respect to the indigenous culture in which ayahuasca is a part of, would be “entheogens” – which means plants used in a context sacred to the native people, inducing spiritually oriented experiences (explained from their own perspective and worldview). In several countries, such as Peru, ayahuasca is fully legal and accepted as a complement to conventional medicine, and during the recent decade, western countries have to an increasing degree changed their former unfounded and faulty attitude towards entheogens such as ayahuasca, as more and more studies of entheogenic plants have been completed with positive outcome.
Along with several other similar harmala-alkaloids that can be found in B. Caapi, harmaline is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme in the body that breaks down signal substances (such as serotonin). The inhibition of MAO allows the signal substance to remain in the synapse for a longer period of time. Many anti-depressants work in a similar way, as they stimulate receptors in a targeted area. However, the alkaloids present in ayahuasca should not be compared to antidepressants, as they are not the same though they both have the ability to affect the same receptors. A comparison is that Caapi alkaloids and antidepressants have the same type of delivery system, but different contents. The biochemical properties of plants used in ayahuasca, and the effects they cause on a multitude of bodily functions remain unique to these plants alone. Various types of harmala alkaloids exert suppression of neurotoxic metabolites, such as quinolinic acid and kynurenine – metabolites correlating with ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, all in which elevated levels of given metabolites are found and thought to contribute to onset of disease through interaction with spinal motor neurons.
Ayahuasca in itself is proven to be unharmful, as its compounds are non-toxic, though temporary side effects such as nausea and vertigo are common when used in amounts above medicinal purpose. However, combining certain medical drugs with MAO-inhibitors (such as the ones found in ayahuasca) can be dangerous, even lethal in some cases. This means that in order to safely consume ayahuasca, one must not combine it with any contraindicated medicinal drugs, and those suffering from certain health conditions such as epilepsy or high blood pressure are adviced to refrain from this treatment. The more or less uncomfortable side effects from ayahuasca, are greatly dose-dependent, and a smaller amount consumed for medicinal purpose can thus mean few, if any, side effects experienced.
When searching for information about ayahuasca, a few negative articles can be found, emotionally angled (understandably so), since they tell stories of unfortunate tourists who on their own, or having been duped into doing so, drink something entirely else than ayahuasca – for instance the toxic plant datura, or liquid made from tobacco plant – with serious outcome to their health (including death in a few known cases, from apparent nicotine poisoning). This leads to fear and misinformation, and is not only tragic for the diseased and their families, but also for the natural medicine community that is trying to promote the safe and responsible use of natural medicine for health benefits, and treatment of diseases that regular medical care fails to provide options for. Sensationalistic headlines making unfounded claims, written by people without any knowledge about ethnobotanical medicine, will definitely not help neither ALS patients or others seeking viable treatment options for their condition, and will only make medicinal plant research more difficult. In several countries, including Peru, Brazil and Costa Rica, established retreats offer ayahuasca treatment where the right plants are harvested (sometimes even organically grown on the property) and prepared by experienced botanists.
One of the earliest studies on B. Caapi was done in the 1920’s, and involved patients with Parkinsons’s disease. The patients experienced great symptom relief in early trials, but unfortunately the research was discontinued due to lack of profit potential – as substances already present in natural plants could not be applicable for any patent useful to pharma companies.
Ayahuasca as an alternative therapy is likely to gain further attention in coming years, but is already well established. Should the discoveries eventually lead to a therapeutic pharmaceutical drug, derived from these plants, to be produced, it lies many years ahead from now. The process from studies, through trials, to eventual launch of an approved drug made for use in the medical care system, is slow due to obvious reasons. The real interesting fact is that ayahuasca in its natural form is something that is available now, today, for those who live with a diagnose lacking options for other treatment. For those who want and can partake in alternative treatment using ayahuasca, there is, while not in any way guaranteed, the still real possibility for improvement. As in many other cases, the individual results will vary, and there should be an emphasis on not overly stirring people’s hope up when questions and work remain. There is also the importance of emphasizing and thereby minimizing the risks involved concerning contraindicative medications. But awaiting further studies, this information should be worth the attention of anyone suffering from a debilitating progressive disease such as ALS.
My personal connection to this topic and project, was the passing of a close friends’ mother due to ALS a few years ago. The course of her disease was rapid, and unfortunately several of the now available studies, had not yet been published at the time. This led me into investigating the connection between entheogenic natural medicine and the treatment of neurological disease, and into gathering and presenting information on the topic in a publicly available format.
B. Caapi is legally obtainable in most countries/states much in the same way as other known herbal remedies, such as Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng. However, just like with these potent natural supplements, it is up to the consumer to use and combine these in an informed and responsible way. Natural medicines should always be treated with respect, just like conventional medicinal drugs. One commonly known species that actually contains small amounts of harmala-alkaloids is passion flower, or passion fruit tree, although the concentrations in its leaf foliage and flowers are far too low (and the fruit contains none) to be used effectively for monoamine oxidase inhibition and ayahuasca purposes. Also, while similar, the alkaloid profile in terms of proportions and molecular structural deviations between distinct alkaloids does not match up exactly with that of B. Caapi, making the two species related to a certain degree but far from equal regarding their medicinal properties. Extracts from various passiflora species are produced and sold worldwide as mild herbal relaxants and sleeping aids, and as an antispasmodic for Parkinson’s.
The substance known as dimethyltryptamine, found in plants traditionally added to ayahuasca, is regulated by law in a number of countries classified as a scheduled substance. (Questionably so, due to its medicinal value in multiple areas). It is these secondary added plants and this particular substance that induces an altered state of consciousness, a many times misunderstood and stigmatized phenomenon. A description of this altered state is that it is dreamlike, that it stimulates memory and the ability to think abstract, and that it has self-therapeutic qualities. Even though dimethyltryptamine is naturally occuring in the human body, thought to be produced in small amounts by the pineal gland in the brain during the dream phases of sleep, it remains an illegal substance in a number of western countries since the 1960’s and 70’s, when lawmakers prematurely criminalized many substances suspected of having any effect on the mind, including natural ones, due to the widespread moral panic at the time – regardless of the fact that many of them, including dimethyltryptamine, has never been proven unhealthy in any way, and has in fact been used by indigenous people, in the form extracted from plants, to successfully treat disease for centuries. Leaf juice from Chacruna has been used traditionally as a remedy for migraines and ant bites, and Jurema bark for treating burn wounds – significantly quickening regeneration of skin and scar tissue. Dimethyltryptamine also targets chaperone sigma 1, a receptor subtype expressed in both neurons and glia of multiple regions within the central nervous system, with capacity to modulate biological mechanisms implicated with neurodegeneration. Sigma 1-receptors present compelling targets for pharmacologically treating neurodegenerative disorders, and dimethyltryptamine acts as an endogenous Sigma-1 receptor regulator, but interactions between the two in association with motor neuron disease is not understood.
Although, several european countries have redefined their policy regarding many formerly frowned upon medicinal plants in recent years, much due to an increasing awareness and access to new and unbiased information regarding these plants, as well as up-to-date research. In Scandinavia, Sami native Urbi Svonni from Sapmi, Sweden, was recently aquitted from all charges in the court of law, for having brought Peruvian medicinal cactus into the country. The court established that natural plant material alone cannot be defined as a scheduled substance, and that the therapeutic work Svonni was doing, which included Echinopsis Pachanoi cactus, was indeed not a criminal act, but served the purpose to help and heal people. Another similar case with the same outcome involved ayahuasca additive plants. Cacti from the Echinopsis and Lophophora species are known for their soothing and restorative effects on the central nervous system, and are used as such in ethnobotanical medicine.
To be precise, the definition of Ayahuasca is any tea made from either the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi alone, or from B. Caapi + additional plants containing dimethyltryptamine. A tea made from B. Caapi alone does not have what is sometimes referred to as “visionary” qualities, as it is only the addition of dimethyltryptamine from the additive plants mentioned, or actually the combination from the mao-inhibiting alkaloids in B. Caapi together with dimethyltryptamine-containing plants that induces a state of mind formerly mislabeled “hallucinogenic”. It needs to be clarified though, that this word brings up negative associations in many people, and is thus feared and misunderstood. Unlike what some people tend to think, one does not hallucinate things appearing out of thin air after having consumed ayahuasca, but rather there are sequences of inner dreamlike visions taking place while resting, while still awake and fully conscious, provided a significant amount of tea has been consumed. It is actually quite undramatic, aside from the side effect of vomiting which does affect some people.
And herein lies the essence that is many times misunderstood: One does not have to take a great amount of ayahuasca for experiencing strictly its medicinal effects – without the abstractions and visionary effects some people are wary of. (Or the nausea/vomiting for that matter). Also, several of the medicinal health benefits can be obtained by using B. Caapi alone – without any additive plants, thereby ensuring no peculiar visionary effects experienced at all, should this be desired. It should be noted though, that the synergistic effect between the two plants used simultaneously will bring the best medicinal and bodily response. Exaggerations regarding ayahuasca is what made these medicinal plants overlooked for many years in the west to begin with, but its reputation has been steadily revised as more people with experience from these plants in a medicinal context have come forward, claiming the true medicinal value of ayahuasca relevant to medical conditions of different types – the field of neurological disease being the latest. Ayahuasca has already been effectively used for symptom relief from Multiple Sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, by a growing number of people in Europe since at least 2006. ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease all share a lot of common ground, being that they all involve nerve cell degeneration of some kind. It is thus likely that any type of natural broad spectrum medicine able to affect the process of nerve cell regeneration, and that also has substantially antioxidative and cell protective properties, could prevent and slow the progression of neurological disease in general.
Whatever wild or strange stories about ayahuasca that may occasionally be found circulating, they stem mostly from people who went to live with native tribes during the late 80’s and early 90’s, taking part in traditional ceremonial use of ayahuasca – consuming exceptionally generous or concentrated amounts of the medicine, enfolding themselves in deep cleansing experiences not necessarily easily endured. This medicine, like any other, should most definitely be well respected, but not subjected to exaggeration or downright misrepresentation – causing people to dismiss what they are simply uneducated about, which in turn may lead to people never getting the type of treatment that could slow the progression of their terminal health condition, or in some cases even reverse it. The vivid and fascinating visions induced by strong tea often seem to have a theme rooted in nature, perhaps tied into the underlying psychological expectations associated with the revered history of ayahuasca itself, as depicted quite beautifully in colorful paintings by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009). They arise from the simple fact that the alkaloids and tryptamines dissolved in the tea, combine to affect receptors that in turn stimulate the processing of memory relating to images and words – noticeably of relevance to Alzheimer’s research.
Ayahuasca is proven to be non-addictive, and is even used to aid people in breaking their drug dependencies, as ayahuasca has a detoxifying and documented effect of ridding the user of drugrelated abstinence issues.
The MAO-inhibition does, among other things, ensure that the uptake of dimethyltryptamine can occur in the body, as it is otherwise (without MAO-inhibition) broken down by enzymes in the stomach, unable to cause any effect. Dimethyltryptamine is molecularly near identical with the above mentioned psilocybin in Dr. Ramos research. Researchers think that psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine binds to brain receptors that stimulate growth and healing, acting on the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is essential to learning and forming memories, recieving sensory impulses and that has target cells and receptors for important signal substances. Hippocampus atrophy occurs when nerve cells die, or when abnormal levels of stress hormones prevent neurogenesis, and is a known sign in Parkinson’s disease. It is theorized that the unique combination of various harmala-alkaloids from B. Caapi, and dimethyltryptamine from additional plant sources used in ayahuasca, work on a cellular level to repair and restore nerve cells, stimulate and enhance motor neuron transmission, and to protect remaining nerve cells and other cells from degenerative damage. This is without doubt valuable from a neuromedical perspective.
As the non regulated B. Caapi alone has proven to have very positive abilities, potentially effective against neuro and cancer diseases, it is thus something real that may be a valuable alternative treatment option. For someone who experiences positive results to whatever degree, but does not live in a state or country where the use of plants containing dimethyltryptamine is permitted, there is then the possibility to travel to one of the many countries (or states) which by law allows the use of added secondary plants with their combined medicinal properties for evalution of full ayahuasca treatment. In Europe, Spain is one of several countries where ayahuasca is becoming established as an alternative therapy, and Spain is also the chosen location for an international conference 2014, where ethnopharmacologists, psychologists and researchers from all over the world gather around the topics of ayahuasca and other entheogens.
Among others, Ede Frecska, M.D., Ph.D, University of Debrecen, lectures on the possibilities of recreating braincells and regulating the immune defense system through this plant-based medicine and others. This event is held by ICEERS – International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service, and can be followed at:
Furthermore, besides their ability to aid and enhance the process of nerve cellular repair and the protection against cell oxidation, many of these entheogenic plants (and fungi), including ayahuasca, do possess psychotherapeutical qualities as well. Coping with degenerative illness is obviously stressful to patients, and a great deal of emotional relief, personal insight, and ability to better cope with one’s personal situation is achievable through the single or repeated experience of entheogenic medicinal plants/mushrooms in a comfortable and supportive environment, according to renowned Johns Hopkins medical university.
The fact that many of these medicinal plants are becoming revived as they recieve scientific approval, is great news in many ways. Sustainability and environmental issues comes to mind, and so far the outlook is positive. Many organic farms have developed in south and central america, cultivating ayahuasca plants for both local use and for export, providing work and income for people in rural areas otherwise struggling with poverty. This also serves as a way for many locals to reconnect with their cultural past, as ayahuasca is declared a national heritage in Peru among other places.
Dennis Mckenna, PH.D, one of the world’s most renowned ethnopharmacology researchers speaks on the importance of sustainability, regarding cultivation of ayahuasca and the preservation of rainforests. This should concern all people out there, who benefit from treatment using ayahuasca medicinal plants. Dr. Mckenna is co-founder and director of ethnopharmachology at Heffter Research Institute, New Mexico. He is also a faculty member of the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota, and was key organizer in the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca, funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute. The plants can actually be grown at home in gardens anywhere in the world where the climate allows, or indoors or in heated greenhouses elsewhere, and the seeds are both cheap and abundant – available from numerous online ethnobotanical vendors worldwide, ensuring the survival of these medicinal plant species and their sustained availability for future generations.
It used to be that this formerly unknown plant medicine was completely overlooked, but as we have begun to understand its potential, neglect has been replaced with knowledge, and the scientific groundwork on this matter is becoming firm. People should not be led into thinking this is some kind of natural miracle cure, but if anything it could provide a longterm aid in the restorement of body and mind function in people with certain neurological conditions. Together as a community we can all help to inform people in an unbiased, ethical and safe way about any viable alternative treatment options, and about the medicinal and therapeutical value of entheogenic plants in general.
Common sense should be applied when working out dosage to ensure a sufficient degree of medicinal activity, while not being overwhelming. A clean diet is essential in conjunction with ayahuasca, in order to minimize side effects and to maximize benefit and utilization of medicinal compounds, and basic knowledge on the process of preparation of the medicine is helpful in order for the plants to synergize correctly. The help and information needed for these purposes are provided to participants in the below pilot study.
There is currently an ongoing community-based international Pilot study involving people diagnosed with ALS, documenting the use of this plant medicine, the gathering and evaluation of results being processed at this point.
To follow this project, or if you are interested in joining this study, click on the following link: https://ayahuascatreatment.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/natural-als-treatment-pilot-project/
Ayahuasca has been used for a very long time historically, and only recently for treatment of the conditions brought up in this article. Any substantial health improvement from this natural medicine in cases of motor neuron disease would be likely to reveal itself long-term at first. Initial updates from people taking part in the ayahuasca ALS treatment pilot study report a few things in common; the feeling of a somewhat wider range of movement, weight gain in muscle mass, tension relief in muscles, reduced spasticity and slightly improved grip strength in affected limbs, though it should be noted that none of these had lost all of their muscle control prior to treatment, and that whether or not this effect will prove to be permanent is not known at this moment.
Summary of Key Points:
Ayahuasca could effectively be used in treatment of ALS and other motor neuron diseases based on the fact that studies suggest uniquely antioxidative effects that seem to protect brain/nerve cells, targeting motor neurons through a unique biochemical transport system, and that it and other moleculary similar substances, also naturally occuring, stimulate neurogenesis – the development of new brain/nerve cells, and the communicative capacity between these. In studies it has been found to reduce symptoms in Parkinsons’s patients – all neurodegenerative diseases share common ground, thus making it likely that something that improves a given neurological condition could also be beneficial to other conditions nearly related. Also based on credible personal accounts from people having used ayahuasca for symptom relief from their multiple sclerosis (once again – the common ground of neurodegenerative diseases), documented in books about ayahuasca, and from descriptions of early stage minor improvement by those with various types of ALS now participating in the treatment project, already having used this medicine for a period of time. Studies also indicate ability to normalize metabolism in mitochondria, crucial to motor neuron survival, and to regulate and decrease levels of excitotoxicity in the central nervous system.
Ayahuasca and other entheogens can and will gain the credibility and amends they truly deserve, and bring new possibilities to many out there living with diseases that lack conventional healthcare treatment options. Meanwhile, these medicinal plants remain available for the personal evaluation of the individual who chooses to explore the option. In relation to the medical conditions brought up in this article, these plants may have the future role as a powerful tool for the reversal of the progression of ALS and related diseases. Hopefully, you found this information valuable. Share it, should you find it an important topic.
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(Ayahuasca and neurological disease)
(Neurotherapeutic ayahuasca potential in pharmacology)
(Ayahuasca harmala-alkaloids and Alzheimer’s disease study)
(B. Caapi and Parkinson’s disease)
(Ayahuasca neurogenesis study)
(Study proving ayahuasca safe from a health point of view, and to not have any longterm side effects)
(Ayahuasca cancer research)
(Psilocybin study showing increased memory function in subjects)
(Dr. Juan Ramos profile)
(Psilocybin brain research)
(Study proving regular intake of ayahuasca leading to increased longterm wellbeing and general mental health)
(ICEERS – International center for ethnobotanical education research and service)
(Canadian studies of ayahuasca as treatment for drug/alcohol abuse)
(Johns Hopkins university studies on the the therapeutical benefits of psilocybin medicinal mushrooms)
(Echinopsis and Lophophora cactus central nervous system study)
(Lophophora cactus medicinal properties)
(Ayahuasca diabetes research)
(Dr. Gabor Maté on Ayahuasca and stress related disease)
(Ayahuasca and neural pathway redevelopment in the neocortex)
(Compilation of scientific literature on ayahuasca)
(Harmine and glutamate transporter expression study)
(Role of Sigma 1-receptors in neurodegenerative diseases)
(Publication on dimethyltryptamine and Sigma 1-receptor regulation)
(B. Caapi Postencephalitic Parkinsonism therapy)