Psychedelic plants for many people are a taboo when it comes to tackling mental health issues - how can a mind-altering substance that takes people to different dimensions actually help a person in the here and now? But curiously, there are many anecdotal accounts of psychotropic plant medicines improving symptoms of depression and anxiety.
For years, spiritual seekers have been heading to the Amazonian jungle to take Ayahuasca, the potent brew containing the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the chacruna plant. The two plants mixed together allow for the psychoactive component DMT (dimethyltryptamine) to reach the nervous system. This generally leads to a kind of hallucinogenic trip lasting several hours. Many people who have taken ayahuasca report healing past emotional traumas, experience feelings of forgiveness, joy and ecstasy, and often receive insight about current situations in their lives.
But what does science say about this ancient amazonian tea? In one study on mice, researchers found Ayahuasca produced the holy grail of a healthy brain - new neuron growth. They suggested this could cause what’s known as neuroplasticity - the creation of new neural pathways - a crucial requirement for combatting depression.
Neuroplasticity is very much associated with mindfulness - the practice of present moment awareness and commonly used as an anti-stress technique. When someone has an established mindfulness practice, they can often take a step back from the troubling thoughts passing through their mind, giving them a greater sense of perspective. This was an experience shared by subjects who were given ayahuasca as part of a study entitled, “Exploring the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca: acute intake increases mindfulness-related capacities.” Scientists assessed 25 individuals before and after taking ayahuasca using two tests to measure mindfulness traits. They found that Ayahuasca led to “a reduction in judgmental processing of experiences and in inner reactivity” - two thought mechanisms that can become overactive in depression and anxiety.
In a Brazilian double blind placebo clinical study, ayahuasca was found to have “significant antidepressant effects compared to the placebo,” with the authors concluding that the “study brings new evidence supporting the safety and therapeutic value of ayahuasca, dosed within an appropriate setting, to help treat depression.”
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Not strictly plants, but sticking to the psychedelic theme, magic mushrooms more formally known as psilocybin, have also been studied for their antidepressant effects. Like ayahuasca, psilocybin users note a feeling of connectedness and well-being that lasts long after the effects of the mushrooms have worn off.
The Beckley Foundation, a British NGO supporting research into the medicinal effects psychedelics, was behind the most notable piece of clinical research published in Nature Magazine last year. Collaborating with Imperial College, London, they found decreased depressive symptoms in all 19 of the subjects one week after the trial, with almost half continuing to feel less depressed 5 weeks later. In functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) they found decreased cerebral blood flow in the temporal cortex, including the amygdala - the tiny area of the brain responsible for processing fear and emotions. Researchers believe this may account for the reduction in depressive symptoms noted.
Lead Researcher Dr Robin Carhart-Harris told the Guardian Newspaper:
“We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments.
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’.
“Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.”
Such was the success of psilocybin in this study that a second stage clinical trial is currently recruiting, again under Carhart-Harris at Imperial. This time, it will be a randomised, double blind placebo study comparing the effects of psilocybin with a placebo and a currently prescribed antidepressant, Escitalopram.
3. St John’s Wort
Also known by its latin name Hypericum, St John’s Wort is a powerful plant with proven pharmacological effects. Research suggests that the plant’s active ingredients increase neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain which possibly account for its mood-lifting effects.
While St John’s Wort’s use for treating low mood dates back to antiquity, modern day studies are not conclusive about its efficacy. In a number of studies, scientists have declared the plant superior to a placebo and as effective as commonly prescribed antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.
In one trial which found St John’s Wort and the antidepressant amitriptyline to have similar effects, a possible advantage in prescribing the herbal remedy was suggested due to its improved tolerability compared to amitriptyline. Another possible factor in the plant’s favour is that it does not diminish libido, which is a common side effect of prescribed antidepressants.
4. Cannabidiol (CBD)
Another gift from nature to our mental wellbeing is cannabis sativa, sometimes known as hemp. For thousands of years, it’s been used as a tonic for our spirits, with ancient texts such as the Vedas mentioning its bliss boosting effects.
These days we know cannabis contains over 100 special compounds called cannabinoids. They activate our endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex communication network of neurotransmitters and special receptor sites, constantly acting to regulate everything from sleep, appetite, our immune system, pain, reproduction and you guessed it, our mood.
In fact, scientists have observed that a deregulated endocannabinoid system is a common factor in depression and anxiety, therefore suggesting it should be a therapeutic target for developing novel antidepressants.
It’s believed that supplementing the body with compounds from the cannabis plant may be an answer. One cannabinoid, in particular, is proving of particular interest and that’s CBD or Cannabidiol. Non-psychoactive in nature, it creates a calming effect on the nervous system through indirectly affecting our ECS. It does this by blocking the enzyme responsible for breaking down a key endocannabinoid, Anandamide, which is itself named after the sanskrit word for bliss.
CBD has also been found to partially activate the brain’s 5-HT1A serotonin receptors which are involved in regulating mood and anxiety levels. Researchers believe this could account for the compound’s reported anti-anxiety effects which have been demonstrated in some small clinical trials on subjects with social anxiety. In a simulated public speaking test they experienced less anxiety and improved performance after taking CBD.
CBD has also been observed to elicit anti-depressive effects in preclinical studies on rodents, with one study noting that “CBD could represent a novel fast antidepressant drug, via enhancing both serotonergic and glutamate cortical signalling through a 5-HT1A receptor-dependent mechanism.”
But its mental health boosting potential doesn’t end there. CBD is currently being researched for treating PTSD and has shown exciting results on patients with psychosis when taken alongside their existing medication.
Not everyone is ready or willing to try the psychedelic route out of depression, so thankfully mother nature has given us a selection of non-psychoactive natural remedies to suit every need. At Endoca, we’re obviously number one fans of CBD, but we embrace all natural approaches and call for more research into Cannabidiol for depression and anxiety, as well as other plant medicines such as ayahuasca and psilocybin.
If you’d like to read a more in-depth article about what CBD can do for our mental well-being, check out this article, or if you want to find out about the endocannabinoid system and depression, this blogpost is a great place to start.