What is ayahuasca? It’s an entheogenic or psychotropic tea or “spirit medicine” typically made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine often in combination with other plant(s) containing dimethyl tryptamine (DMT). The name Ayahuasca (pronounced EYE-UH-WAHS-KUH), comes from Quechua, the language of the Incan people in South America. It roughly translates as “vine of the soul.”
This dark, foul tasting tea is traditionally administered by an indigenous shaman in healing ceremonies in and near the Amazon, but also now through a variety of Brazil-based churches as well as non-religious organizations. It has relatively recently become known outside South America and is being used by more and more people around the world to treat all manner of medical conditions – including cancer.
Some who have tried ayahuasca swear by its healing properties. Western scientists have begun to study it and some health professionals are including it as an integral part of their protocol to treat cancer.
Ayahuasca & Cancer: What’s The Connection?
One personal example of healing cancer was shared back in 1998 in the Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in an article titled “Ayahuasca and Cancer: One Man’s Experience.” In the article, Donald M. Topping, PhD, shared that after his colorectal cancer metastasized to his liver Western doctors had essentially condemned him to death, so he came to ayahuasca for a second opinion.
In the article he gives a first-hand account of four ayahuasca ceremonies, including his inner experience. The first two experiences were with a Santo Daime group in Hawaii, and the next two were with a man who claimed to have been trained by Peruvian Ayahuasceros. Topping stated that a week after his fourth ayahuasca session, his CEA count – a cancer activity indicator – was completely normal.
A year later in 1999 he wrote another article “Ayahuasca and Cancer: A Postscript” in which he says his “cancer appears to be in complete remission” and attempts to explain how he thinks ayahuasca worked on his cancer. Although he credited ayahuasca with curing his cancer, Topping made it clear he was not proposing ayahuasca as a miracle cure.
Four years later at the age of 73, Topping passed away, ending a 16-year bout with cancer. Considering that fewer than 4% of patients with colorectal cancer survive for five years after it has metastasized, Topping’s seven-year survival was remarkable. But did it have anything to do with his four ayahuasca experiences?
Lack of Published Studies Into Ayahuasca’s Healing Powers
It seems that no study has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal linking ayahuasca with cancer remission. In fact, it has been studied very little, as the legal restrictions in place in many countries make studying DMT and ayahuasca both taboo and more difficult.
However, ayahuasca, which is legal in Brazil, is now being researched for its healing properties with cancer.
Eduardo E. Schenberg, who works for the Federal University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and organized a recent study, believes the healing powers of ayahuasca deserve attention from the scientific community, especially when it comes to cancer.
In an article that was published in Sage Open Medicine, Schenburg writes: “Oral reports of ayahuasca helping people with cancer are common among communities using ayahuasca, but unfortunately, written reports with details and clinical data are scarce. A thorough review of the literature, including peer-reviewed scientific journals indexed at PubMed, as well as lectures and books on the topic of ayahuasca resulted in nine published reports of cancer patients who consumed ayahuasca as part of their treatment.”
He then goes on to describe each of these reports, Topping’s among them, and hypothesizes that: “the combined actions of β-carbolines and DMT present in ayahuasca may diminish tumor blood supply, activate apoptotic pathways, diminish cell proliferation, and change the energetic metabolic imbalance of cancer cells, which is known as the Warburg effect. Therefore, ayahuasca may act on cancer hallmarks such as angiogenesis, apoptosis, and cell metabolism.”
He concludes that, “the data available so far is not sufficient to claim whether ayahuasca indeed helps in cancer treatment or not. However, there is enough available evidence that ayahuasca’s active principles, especially DMT and harmine, have positive effects in some cell cultures used to study cancer, and in biochemical processes important in cancer treatment, both in vitro and in vivo. Therefore, the few available reports of people benefiting from ayahuasca in their cancer treatment experiences should be taken seriously, and the hypothesis presented here, fully testable by rigorous scientific experimentation, helps to understand the available cases and pave the way for new experiments.”
The Ayahuasca “Experience” Is as Important as the Tea Itself
Beyond hypothesizing about the potential biochemical impacts ayahuasca can have on cancer, Schenberg suggests that the “set” and “setting” of one’s ayahuasca experience can have an impact on the outcome and are important in understanding the complete healing effects.
“The set is a complex and dynamic composition of the personal motives, purposes, intentions, and beliefs of the person, as well as the physical characteristic, genetics, and the emotional and cognitive state at the time of the experience.
The setting includes things such as the physical environment where the experience is to occur, the person(s) who will be guiding the experience, and the person(s) who will be accompanying the experience.
Both set and setting can occur in short and long time frames and include the preparations before and the activities after the experience itself. A careful approach considering these factors is crucial if any psychedelic experience or therapy is to succeed.”
Can Sacred Ayahuasca Ceremonies Actually Help Cure Cancer?
Renowned Canadian physician, Gabor Maté, has been both investigating and experimenting with ayahuasca ceremonies in treating medical issues such as cancer. He has stated they can be a potent part of the healing process when special attention is given to set and setting, and when coupled with therapy. While Dr. Maté is quick to say it is not a panacea, or a cure-all, universally applicable for everyone, his hypothesis for why and how ayahuasca can help heal is intriguing .
Dr. Maté takes issue with the traditional allopathic Western medical perspective he was trained. This perspective which views diseases as biological events, and their causes as independent of an individual’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual life. Since Western medical practitioners view the causes of disease as biological, they attempt to administer treatments purely in a biological fashion. From this limited perspective, treating cancer with a sacred ceremony using a psychoactive substance such as ayahuasca might seem ridiculous.
However, Dr. Maté challenges two assumptions underlying the Western medical perspective . The first assumption is that we can separate the body from the mind, as if what happens to us psychologically and emotionally has no significant impact on our health. The second assumption is that the individual is separate from the environment, as if our lifelong interactions with our psychological and social environments doesn’t play a part in our health.
In a speech titled, Psychedelics in Unlocking the Unconscious: From Cancer to Addiction, Dr. Maté suggests a different perspective:
“What if we actually got that human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures by nature, and actually bio-psycho-spiritual creatures by nature – which is to say that our biology is inseparable from our psychological, emotional and spiritual existence – and therefore what manifests in the body is not some isolated and unique event or misfortune, but a manifestation of what my life has been in interaction with my psychological and social and spiritual environment?”
He references an article which appeared in the January 2012 edition of Pediatrics (the major pediatric journal in North America) called “An Integrated Scientific Framework for Child Development.” The article, by Harvard University’s Center On the Developing Child, states:
“Growing scientific evidence also demonstrates that social and physical environments that threaten human development because of scarcity, stress, or instability can lead to short term physiologic and psychological adjustments that may come at a significant cost to long-term outcomes in learning, behavior health and longevity.”
Dr. Maté suggests that cancer and other chronic illnesses are more accurately described as symptoms of a deeper problem: stress resulting from a disconnection from our essence (from our true selves) and adaptations to that stress. Both, he says, are significant contributors to chronic illness.
Cancer, in particular, tends to include the suppression of healthy anger, and the self-suppressive patterns in somebody’s life, he says, at some point will suppress the immune system, and that suppression is actually what causes the illness.
Dr. Maté offers examples of two men who died of cancer: one man’s behavior suggests that he believes that being angry equals being a bad person and unworthy of love. The other man believes he is responsible for how other people feel and that he must never disappoint anybody.
These beliefs don’t just come out of thin air, Maté says. They are coping mechanisms adopted to survive in a certain parenting environment. If your parents can’t handle your anger and emotions, for example, then you as a child start taking responsibility for your parent as a way of maintaining the relationship. Meanwhile, you are suppressing your own healthy anger and other emotions.
The psychological coping mechanisms and core beliefs that help a child cope with the original stress and survive become ingrained in the brain and body as automatic and compulsive responses to the world. These survival mechanisms then become the major contributors to his or her illness and possibly death!
From this perspective, using sacred ayahuasca ceremonies as a cancer treatment can make sense, because ayahuasca addresses (according to Dr. Maté) the underlying basis for cancer and chronic illness.
An ayahuasca ceremony is an experience that can enlighten you to clearly understand that you are not those adaptive patterns to traumatic experiences in your past, and that there’s a true self underneath that doesn’t have to behave in those ways anymore. Then perhaps you can let go of those coping mechanisms and find true liberation and healing.
After hearing so much about ayahuasca from others, Dr. Maté attended a ceremony in Vancouver, Canada, with a Peruvian shaman. He describes his experience this way:
“I sat there in the dark with my heart open and a feeling of delicious nurturing warmth, the tears of joy rolling down my face, and I got love. And I also got how many ways in my life I had betrayed love and had turned my back on it, which is a coping pattern, because when you’re as vulnerable and hurt as a child as I was as a Jewish infant under German occupation in Hungary, then you close down to love because it’s too painful to be open to it.”
He says the ayahuasca got rid of his coping mechanisms in a flash, and right then he knew that this was something to work with. Within half a year he “was working with Ayahuasceros, people shamanically trained in the Peruvian Shipibo tradition, and beginning to lead retreats.” He says, “the results are increasingly but not uniformly astonishing.”
What to Look for in an Ayahuasca Experience
Dr. Maté concurs with Schenberg that the set and setting contribute significantly to one’s healing. When looking for an ayahuasca experience, here are four factors you want to consider:
- Is it a sacred ceremony?
- Do you feel safe in the environment?
- Are the people leading the ceremony experienced, trusted, and well-respected?
- Are the people who facilitate it responsive and supportive?
As powerful as one’s ayahuasca experience may be, Dr. Maté warns that the impact will fade over time. The way to have your ayahuasca experience to become truly life-transforming, he says, is by doing the work to integrate the experience and insights into one’s daily life. Otherwise, he says, one’s experience tends to become little more than a memory.
Is Ayahuasca Safe?
At a 2010 MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conference, Spanish psychiatrist J.M. Fábregas presented results of research in Brazil which showed “the absence of any indication of neurological impairment after decades of regular ritual ayahuasca use, as measured by tests of executive functions and memory.
In fact, members of the ayahuasca-using groups scored higher than the control groups on some of these tests, indicating a lack of the functional impairments characteristic of neurotoxicity. The results suggest that ritual use of ayahuasca does not create the psychological or neurological problems that are normally associated with the problematic use of certain drugs.”
Although ayahuasca has been shown to cause neither physical harm nor dependence, people who have personal or family history of manic depression or bipolar disorder should probably avoid it.
Those who do not cleanse their body with a particular diet before the ceremony can expect the tea to assist their body in purging itself of chemicals, alcohol, caffeine, salt, sugar, animal flesh, and other impurities and toxins. However, if your body is clean, there will likely be nothing to purge.
The greatest risks in pursuing the ayahuasca path are probably the scammers and fake “shamans” taking advantage of those looking to experience ayahuasca. As it grows in popularity, many people are touring to experience ayahuasca, creating a market for profiteers to take advantage. AyeAdvisor (like Yelp for ayahuasca destinations) may help you know more about where you are going and with whom you are working, but nothing beats a personal relationship and trust.
Is Ayahuasca Legal?
In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled DMT (one of ayahuasca’s constituents) a Schedule 1 drug. The ayahuasca plants themselves are legal, but brews made using DMT-containing plants are illegal. However, this is now being challenged.
In February 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the US federal government must allow a Brazil-based church, União do Vegetal, to import and consume ayahuasca (or as they call it, “hoasca”) for religious ceremonies. And in 2008, the three Santo Daime churches (also Brazil-based) filed suit in federal court to gain legal status to import DMT-containing ayahuasca tea. The case was ruled in favor of the Santo Daime church, and as of March 2009 members of the church in Ashland, Oregon, can import, distribute, and brew ayahuasca. U.S. District Judge Owen Panner issued a permanent injunction barring the government from prohibiting or penalizing the sacramental use of “Daime tea.”
Where Can You Go for an Ayahuasca Experience?
If you are looking for ayahuasca experiences, you can find them throughout many countries, especially in the Americas. This article in Men’s Journal describes how many Americans are experiencing ayahuasca in their homes, even bringing in Peruvian shamans.
To re-emphasize the point made above, it is widely recommended not to use ayahuasca recreationally and to never partake in a ceremony without having complete trust in those inviting you to it and leading it.