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Vegetalistas in the Amazon: Plants and Chants of Peruvian Jungle Healers

Traditional and folk medicine has remained a primary treatment source for many people throughout the world. Even in developed countries, such as the United States, the number of visits to practitioners of traditional and folk medicine actually exceeds the number of visits to Western doctors (Bussman, Sharon 2006). While Western medicine operates and treats patients from a strictly positivist framework, most traditional practitioners believe that diseases can be both caused and cured supernaturally. In Peru, many locals, as well as tourists, seek healing of their physical and spiritual ailments from vegetalistas, who are shaman healers that work closely with plants and their supernatural healing powers. The following paper will examine the beliefs regarding disease origins and several of the main practices of vegetalistas in the Peruvian Amazon, such as dietas, ayahuasca, and icaros.

The term vegetalista can also be interchangeable with curandero and shaman. However, we will use the term vegetalista to describe the healers in the Amazon who work supernaturally with plants and who ascribe largely to the indigenous healing practices of Quecha tribes such as the Shipibo and Conibo, but who may also utilize aspects of Catholicism or New Age beliefs. Vegetalistas can be Mestizo or from indigenous tribes, and, in some rare cases, of European descent (if they have extensively trained under a master shaman) (Demange 2002). Many vegetalista healing practices come directly from the traditional indigenous ones. It can be argued that vegetalistas are appropriating the practices of the indigenous tribes, however, it is not cut and dry, because most of the vegetalistas are mestizo and are descendents of the indigenous tribes. The main difference between a vegetalista and an indigenous curandero, is that vegetalistas focus on the individual healing of physical and spiritual disease, while indigenous curandero practices are centered around maintaining social structures and balance within the tribe and cosmos. If a person is sick, the indigenous curandero views it as an imbalance within the entire society and universe, and heals to restore the balance. The vegetalista is concerned with the individual. Nevertheless, their techniques are very similar and can be difficult to distinguish (Demange 2002: 60).

BELIEFS ABOUT DISEASE ORIGINS

Vegetalistas believe that illness can be caused either naturally or supernaturally. A person can be infected by a variety of supernatural means, such as spirit darts (virotes) sent by demons or shamans. There are many culture-bound illnesses of supernatural origin in the Vegetalismo belief system (Homan 2011). Mal de aire (evil wind) is when a person gets infected with an invisible illness from an encounter with an evil lost soul, and is thought to be highly contagious. Susto happens when a person is extremely scared and part of their soul leaves their body due to the shock. This causes the person to experience imbalance and become sick (Homan 2011). Symptoms of susto are depression, loss of appetite, weakness, and diarrhea (Beyer 2009:327). The only way to cure susto is to visit a shaman and have them travel the spirit world to retrieve the missing soul. When illnesses originate from natural causes, they are referred to as enfermidades de Dios (illness from God) (Homan 2011). When a person experiences an illness from God, they typically visit a pharmacy or clinic to be treated, although sometimes the vegetalista shamans provide treatments too (Homan 2011).

DIETAS

Peru is rich in biodiversity and there are many plants which are recognized to have healing properties, both supernatural and natural. There are countless plants used in vegetalismo as a vehicle to connect to the spirit world (Demange 2002: 30). Vegetalismo practices are centered on the belief that plants are “animated superior intelligent beings” that can relay important teachings (Demange 2002:33). Vegetalistas claim that they receive their healing powers and knowledge directly from the spirits of the plants in the rainforst (Santuario). The vegetalista aims to become acquanited with as many plants as possible (Demange 2002:33). Dietas, or plant diets, are followed in order to connect with the spirit of a certain plant, make it an ally, and to understand it’s healing properties. Vegetalistas- in- training typically follow a dieta for six months to a year as part of their apprenticeship, and will continue to follow it periodically for the rest of their lives. Dietas are very restrictive and the follower can typically only consume very plain, unseasoned foods such as boiled plantain, rice, fish, and chicken. All sexual activity must be refrained from, and time is spent in an isolated jungle hut (Demange 2002:34). One at a time, they will add a medicinal healing plant to the diet. The blandness of the rest of the diet allows the healing properties of the plant to be understood, without interference from other compounds or plant spirits. It is also believed that some of the healing plant medicines get easily jealous, so the bland diet with little additives and no sexual activity proves to the plant that it is the most important.

AYAHUASCA

One of the primary plant mixtures which is used in treatment is ayahuasca, which is an entheogenic brew made out of the vine baanisteriopsis caapi, and the leaves of DMT-containing plant such as chacruna. DMT, or dimethyltyptamine, is one the strongest psychedelics known. It is not normally orally active, but is once it is combined with a MAOI, such as the baanisteriopsis caapi vine (Chantin 21). The two main ingredients are boiled into a dark and bitter tasting tea. Ayahuasca has potent consciousness-altering properties, and the user experiences profound visions, intense emotions, and synthaesia, which is the cognitive phenomenon where colors are heard and sounds are seen ( Demange 2002: 20). Vegetalistas typically hold regular ayahuasca healing ceremonies, where both the vegetalista shaman and the patient will ingest ayahuasca. These take place at night. The ayahuasca is said to allow the shaman to see and diagnose where the physical or mental sickness is coming from in the patient, and to work to extract it out through supernatural means. This can be done by sucking out the supernatural arrows and entity attachments, using certain chants to manipulate energy,

While everyone has a different ayahuasca experience, a common theme is seeing anacondas and jaguars (even those who take ayahuasca out of the jungle, in other parts of the world). It should be noted that ayahausca has shown scientifically to have some benefits, especially when used as a treatment for substance abuse disorder and depression (Winkleman 2014). It has also been shown to be effective in killing and expelling parasites (which is a very convenient feature in the jungles of the Amazon!) (Winkleman 2014).

ICAROS

Sacred healing chants, or icaros, are revealed to the shaman. These icaros are viewed as a main tool through which healing occurs, and are a “shaman’s most highly prized possessions, the vehicles of his power and the repositories of his knowledge” (Townsley 2001:267). An experienced shaman will know hundreds of different icaros. It is believed that every living thing has its own song, and it can be revealed to the shaman under certain states of consciousness, like after taking ayahausca. These icaros, when sung, invoke the healing spirits. The icaros chants are believed to have the power to manipulate reality and to weave strands of energy to rebalance and heal. Many individuals who have participated in ayahuasca rituals relate that the chanting can be directly felt and experienced within the body. The ayahuasca has the effect of causing the body to feel like a buzzing highway of vibrations, and the vibrational tones of the icaros can be felt moving throughout the body like a snake, or pulling or tugging the energy of the body.

 

The Introduction of Ayahuasca Tourism

While many traditional healing systems around the world are being swapped out for Western medicine, vegetalismo is unique because it is only gaining in popularity as tourists flock to the Amazon in search of physical or spiritual healing. There are many tales of Westerners overcoming serious diseases, depression, and having extraordinary spiritual awakenings. This trend has encouraged some to take advantage of the opportunity to make money by holding ayahuasca ceremonies for tourists. While some of these people are legitimate vegetalistas who have had years of training, unfortunately, many are not trained vegetalistas and shamans (these are called ayahuasceros- they can make ayahuasca and hold ceremonies, but are not trained shamanically). Trained vegetalistas and curanderos look down on this because they believe by doing a ceremony without a shaman, the participants are left vulnerable to evil spirits and negative energies. If a participant has a healing crisis of some sort, there won’t be anyone there to guide them through it. Also, some warn that the ayahuasceros are brujas, or witches, and that they use the ayahuasca ceremonies as a way to siphon energy out of its participants to increase their own power (Homan 2011).

Conclusion

Vegetalista medicine plays a large role in Peru. While many Peruvians head to Western doctors for “diseases from God” (natural illnesses), they still will visit a vegetalista, curandero, or shaman to help heal them from any illness that appeared from supernatural causes (Homan 2011). Many people throughout the world seem to trust the traditional healers, who almost always deal with supernatural aspects of illness, more than Western doctors. Looking at this from a positivist perspective, the traditional healers act more holistically than Western doctors, and spend more time and care on their patients. If a person trusts their practitioner, and believes that what they are doing will heal them, it can remove the stress they are feeling about their illness which is greatly conducive to healing. Traditional and supernatural medicine will continue to flourish as long as people have supernatural beliefs, and will continue to be combined with or used as a compliment to Western medicine.

Sources

Bussman, Rainer., Sharon Douglass. 2006. Traditional Medicinal Plant Use in Northern Peru. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 2006 2:47

Demange, Francois. 2002. Amazion Vegetalismo: A Study of the Healing Power of Chants in Tarapoto, Peru. University of East London MA thesis.

Homan, Joshua. 2011. Charlatans, Seekers, and Shamans: The Ayahuasca Boom in Western Peruvian Amazonia. University of Kansas MA thesis. Accessed https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242331589_Charlatans_seekers_and_shamans_the_ayahuasca_boom_in_western_Peruvian_Amazonia

Winkleman, Michael. 2014. Psychedelics as Medicines for Substance Abuse Rehabilition: Evaluating Treatments with LSD, Peyote, Ibogaine, and Ayahuasca. Current Drug Abuse Reviews. 2014. 7, 101-116.

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Psychedelics as a Treatment for Substance Abuse Disorder by Megan Funck

 

Psychedelics have had somewhat of a negative stigma attached to them ever since the Hippie movement of the 60’s, which was notorious for its widespread (and perhaps reckless) use of mind-altering drugs. In the 70’s, they became illegal and classified as Schedule 1 Substances in the U.S, and the research that was being conducted on various psychedelic substances was halted. Subsequently, their potential therapeutic applications in psychology and medicine were largely forgotten about. Recently, there has been a reemergence of scientific interest on psychedelics and their potential to treat various disorders, such as anxiety in cancer-patients, substance abuse disorder, and depression. The following paper will briefly survey some of the psychedelics which have shown some evidence of being effective treatments for substance abuse and anxiety disorders.

What are Psychedelics

Psychedelics are drugs, both of natural and synthetic origins, which result in an alteration of perceptions and cognitions. Psychedelics have a very low chance of causing any long-term side effects and are non-addictive (Winkleman 2014: 114). They are very safe when administered to carefully screened patients with supervision. Psychedelics are said to produce profound visions and epiphanies, and can create intense  feelings of euphoria and peace. The specific mechanisms detailing the way these drugs work in the brain is out of the scope of this paper. However, it is shown that all of the psychedelics increase serotonin levels in the brain. In turn, “serotonin acts as a neuromodulator, with direct effects upon other neurotransmitter systems”, and “enables serotonin enhancement to cascade into other neurotransmitter systems affected by addictions” (Winkleman 103).  Those who are suffering from addiction typically have very low serotonin levels. Additionally, it seems that psychedelics have some action on the brain, by increasing activity in certain areas, which allows for the user to access repressed emotions and memories, and to view their life choices from a different perspective.

LSD

            From the early 1950’s to 70’s, the federal government funded 116 studies on LSD (Pollan 2015). It was tested on people for a number of different conditions, such as terminal cancer, alcoholism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The results were frequently positive; however, by today’s standards, many of the tests were poorly designed and controlled. When psychedelics became banned and (wrongly) classified as Schedule 1 substances  (which means they have no therapeutic uses and a high potential for abuse), the research was halted on LSD, and because of the poorly designed studies, the results were dismissed  and forgotten (Pollan). Recently, in 2012, a study (this time, a well-designed and controlled study) was conducted on LSD as a treatment for alcoholism (Krebs 2012). The results showed that just a single dose of LSD is associated with a decrease in alcohol use, and that compared to other drug treatments for alcoholism, like naltrexone, LSD was superior (Krebs). The results showed significant positive effects for around six months after the single dose. After six months, the positive effects seemed to diminish, and patients returned to drinking.

It seems there needs to be further research which periodically administers LSD sessions to patients (perhaps twice yearly), to determine if the positive results can be sustained. LSD can have some negative side effects, such as a “bad trip”, anxiety and confusion, and the psychedelic experience lasts much longer than other similar psychedelic compounds, such as psilocybin. However, it has a very high safety profile and there is no scientific reason as to why some patients should not be treated with LSD for alcoholism (Winkleman 102). LSD appears to provide a “fundamental shift in consciousness that provides a profound motivation for positive change”, and can produce a “vivid awareness of one’s personal problems, presenting graphic images of the immediate and long-term deleterious effects of the alcohol” (Winkleman 102). Many of the patients who benefited from LSD attributed their positive changes to the “spiritual affects” of the drug.

Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a medicinal and sacramental tea which originates from South America. It has a strong history of use in shamanic healing rituals. It normally consists of two main ingredients: the leaves of the chacruna tree, which provide the psychedelic compound dimthyltryptamine, and the vine baanisteriopsis caapi, which provide a MAO inhibitor which allows the DMT to become orally active.

There is a plethora of anecdotal, ethnographic, and some scientific data which indicates that ayahuasca can useful and successful in treating addiction and other psychological disorders. Ayahuasca has anti-addictive properties via its “direct and indirect actions on dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons in the mesolimbic pathway”, which balances brain chemistry “between the low levels associated with withdrawal and the elevated levels associated with initiation and reinforcement of addictive behavior” (Winkleman 110). In order words, ayahuasca can essentially promote a neurological rewiring of the brain’s reward pathways, making addictive substances and behaviors less desirable. While ayahuasca is currently illegal in the U.S. (except for use by some religious groups), there are many treatment centers around the world which use ayahuasca-based therapy. Because of the unreliable dosages of DMT/MAOI’s in ayahuasca (being made from whole leaves and bark, which may have differing levels of the compounds), it is hard to do dose-controlled studies with ayahuasca.

However, studies and observations on various ayahuasca- based religious groups and treatments have shown very positive effects in participants. For example, studies on the members of the ayahuasca church Uniao do Vegetal, in Brazil, showed that “people with a history of alcoholism underwent profound life changes leading to sobriety shortly after joining the church” (Winkleman 108). In addition, case-controlled studies revealed that long-term religious ayahuasca users had less cases of drug abuse and psychiatric disorders compared to the general population (Winkleman 108). However, some of these positive effects may be from the other factors surrounding the ayahuasca use, such as the strong community support aspect. While there  needs to be more research on ayahuasca, so far, the evidence of its positive benefits is impressive, and it should be included as a potential treatment.

Ibogaine

            Ibogaine is a compound which comes from the bark of a tree in West Africa. It has shown  evidence of being a useful treatment for substance abuse disorder, especially for individuals who suffer from opiate  and cocaine addiction and withdrawal (Winkleman 112). Some non-medical clinical studies showed that ibogaine resulted in “attenuation of opioid withdrawal symptoms within several hours of ingestion, and lasting resolution of the acute opioid withdrawal syndrome within 12 to 18 hours”  (Winklem 107). In addition, animal studies showed that when addict-rats were administered ibogaine, they stopped self-administering the addictive drug for at least several days (Winklem 107).

There has been some controversy about the safety of ibogaine, after a handful of deaths related to it occurred. However, the individuals who died either had preexisting medical conditions that should have excluded them from ibogaine treatment (cardiac issues), or had used cocaine or opiates within a short time before or after using ibogaine (Winkleman 112). Ibogaine is similar to the other psychedelics, in that the experience produces “visions that provide psychological insight into their drug use, particularly understandings that helps overcome psychological blocks” (Winkleman 112).

Psilocybin

            Psilocybin is a compound found naturally in certain species of mushrooms. It has been found to be very safe and is not hazardous to physical health (Grob 2011). A recent double-blind study on patients with terminal cancer and acute anxiety showed a reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood (Grob). In another psilocybin study, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder experienced reductions in OCD symptoms (Grob 2011).  The results on this compound are so far promising. More studies should be conducted on psilocybin as treatment for various psychological disorders.

Conclusion

There are no valid scientific reasons as to why some of these psychedelics should be excluded as legal and potential treatment options for substance abuse disorder and anxiety. They have proven to be very safe when administered carefully to the right candidates with proper supervision. There is very little potential for abuse with these substances, and they are “more ethical than maintenance/treatment programs employing drugs of high abuse or substitutes (e.g. methadone treatment) because of their abuse and overdose potential” (Winkleman 113-114). Additionally, the rates of effectiveness of psychedelics for treating addiction is substantial- in comparison, the actual rates of those who attribute their remissions to conventional treatments is about the same as those who have spontaneous remissions without treatment (Winkleman 114). Hopefully, with more research, psychedelics will lose their negative stigma and become included as legal treatments for those suffering from substance abuse disorder and anxiety.

 

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

Charles S. Grob, MD; Alicia L. Danforth, MA; Gurpreet S. Chopra, MD; Marycie Hagerty, RN, BSN, MA; Charles R. McKay, MD; Adam L. Halberstadt, PhD; George R. Greer, MD  (2011). Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer .Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71-78

 

Krebs Ts, Johansen PO (2012). Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for Alcoholism; Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Psychopharamacology. 26(7): pp994-1102.

 

Pollan, Michael. “The Trip Treatment.” New Yorker. New Yorker, 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

 

Winkleman, Michael (2014). Psychedelics as Medicines for Substance Abuse Rehabilitation.

Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2014, Vol. 7, No. 2. pp.101-116.

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