Exploring Ayahuasca and Its Taboos: A Conversation With Dr. Jeff McNairy
If you’re curious about plant medicine, you’ve likely heard of ayahuasca. Drinking it leads to an altered state of consciousness that is said to have healing effects. If these plants can heal, why are there so many taboos surrounding ayahuasca?
I wanted to do this episode because I too have personal experience with ayahuasca. I tried it 5 years ago. I wasn’t suffering from anything serious, but I did have a persistent feeling that there had to be more to life than meets the eye. It wasn’t an easy decision as I was aware of the taboos and controversy surrounding it. I was terrified of ingesting this foreign plant medicine, as well as the judgment that I might receive from people close to me. Ultimately I made the decision to try it as I was desperate to feel more deeply connected to myself. And, that’s exactly what I experienced: I was able to connect to my soul in ways that I didn’t know were possible.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Jeff McNairy, who has been working in the healthcare field for 25 years. He is the Chief Operations Officer and Chief Medical Director of Rhythmia Life Advancement Center in Costa Rica. Rythmia is one of the few places that utilize ayahuasca under medical supervision.
It should be noted that I am not a doctor and am not equipped to give medical advice. This article is based on a conversation that I had with Dr. McNairy, who is a trained professional.
A more in-depth definition of ayahuasca
Ayahuasca isn’t a plant itself, but rather a drink made up of a combination of two. They are most often found in the Amazon basin of South America. It was often used by ancient Amazonian tribes for spiritual reasons.
One of the plants is a vine that features a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, or an MOI. MOIs work to turn off stomach enzymes so that the other plant, which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca) can actively be absorbed into the body. This starts the process of healing.
Ayahuasca can be used to treat depression, trauma, and a myriad of other mental health issues. It mainly works to reset the dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain. If these receptors become imbalanced, depression can occur.
It is typically administered in the presence of a shaman, or a type of healer.
How ayahuasca can help with trauma and depression
In order to understand just how ayahuasca can help treat acute mental health issues, it’s important to learn a little bit more about how the brain works.
The subconscious, memories, and emotions live in a part of the brain called the amygdala. When human beings go through traumatic events, the brain immediately works to protect itself. The amygdala absorbs emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, and confusion so that the person can revert to the fight or flight response.
When ayahuasca is consumed, it enters the brain and opens up the amygdala, and connects it to the prefrontal cortex. This is the conscious and rational part of the brain. When those two parts of the brain connect, it’s easier to become aware and remember all of the trauma that someone may have been repressing for years. Ayahuasca allows one to sit with those emotions and let them go.
Folks who have used it for healing purposes say that when they wake up, they feel free, clear, and resolved. It acts almost like a reset button for the brain.
Stigma centered around ayahuasca
Like most plant medicine, there is a lot of stigma around using ayahuasca. Many write it off as something that only hippies and weirdos use to get high. Others believe that it is evil or demonic. Others still consider it a drug that users take to trip out on. Most Westerners don’t trust mind-altering substances for a variety of reasons.
The truth is, consuming ayahuasca isn’t a pleasant experience. The results are worth it, but it’s not fun. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not addictive as over time you need less of it, not more. You also don’t have withdrawals when you stop taking it, like other addictive substances.
Some do need to take ayahuasca several times in order to truly benefit from the effects. This could be for several different reasons: wanting to go deeper, having some residual trauma that needs to be taken care of or simply a desire to meet others with similar issues.
Is ayahuasca safe for people with mental health issues?
Those who are diagnosed with Bipolar 1 are at risk of going into a psychotic manic phase when ingesting ayahuasca. It can keep them in a state of high-level serotonin. Most times it naturally subsides over a few days, or they can take some medication that will bring it down right away. It’s not dangerous perse, but it is something to be aware of.
Not everyone with Bipolar 1 will become manic but it does happen. Others who have not been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 but have a naturally high level of serotonin in the brain may experience the same side effects.
That said, those with personality disorders such as sociopathy, narcissism, borderline personality disorder, or histrionic dependent personality disorder could seriously benefit from consuming the drink. Plant medicine like ayahuasca has been shown to resolve these types of disorders.
What about those with addictions?
If you struggle with substance addiction and are interested in trying ayahuasca, it’s typically recommended that you be sober for at least a month, if not longer before consuming it. If an addict is actively using, ayahuasca can become dangerous.
Those who have a history of addiction may be wary to try the healing drink. As it is a mind-altering substance, many believe that if they take it means they are no longer sober.
That said, if you think about the intention of plant medicine, it’s not to get high or avoid yourself. It’s about getting closer and connected to yourself and gaining clarity in your life. But, if you are afraid to relapse after ingesting it, it’s probably best to skip it. In all cases, it all comes down to the individual.
What to do if you’re interested in taking ayahuasca
Make sure you find a reliable facilitator, like the folks at Rhythmia. When you consume the drink in a safe place like Dr. McNairy’s Costa Rican retreat, you’re more likely to experience the benefits.
Rhythmia is staffed with trained professionals who are there to assist in case anything goes wrong. And, when you know that you’re in good hands, you’re more likely to fully appreciate and benefit from this special plant medicine.
If you’re interested in learning more about all things ayahuasca, make sure to head over to the podcast, where Dr. McNairy and I talk more in-depth. You can find the episode here.