The man on a lone mission to prove ayahuasca can treat bipolar disorder

Ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi
The ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi which contains an enzyme that prevents the breakdown of a wide range of psychoactive drugs. Credit: Jairo Gavlis Henao/Flickr

Expert opinion is heavily weighted against Benjamin Mudge. “If you asked your average psychedelic scientist, your average ayahuasca ceremony facilitator or expert in the field, or if you asked your average psychiatrist,” he says, “they would all say ayahuasca is dangerous for people with bipolar disorder because there’s a risk of manic depressive mood swings getting worse.”

And yet Mudge regularly drinks the South American psychedelic brew, claiming that it has stabilised his own bipolar disorder.

Before he consumed ayahuasca for the first time some 10 years ago, Mudge’s life was marred by episodes of mania interspersed with long bouts of depression. He was suicidal for months on end and spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Over the years his doctors prescribed him 17 different drugs, but overall, he says, they just made him worse. The side effects outweighed the benefits. Lithium did help stabilise his mood, he says, but it robbed him of his creativity, his sensitivity and spiritual awareness.

He claims that taking ayahuasca, by contrast, has levelled out his mood without sacrificing the things that give his life flavour and meaning. Regular doses free him from the dangerous swings between mania and despair, leaving him with a sense of “humble happiness”.

In the years after his first ayahuasca experience he met several other bipolar patients who also claimed to have benefited – including Jay Griffiths, author of Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression and is now partway through a PhD in the psychiatry department at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, entitled “The therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for people with bipolar disorder”.

I heard Mudge speak with quiet conviction about his research at the recent Breaking Convention conference on psychedelic consciousness in Greenwich, London.

Even among psychedelic enthusiasts, Mudge is clearly breaking with convention. Conventional wisdom has it that to drink ayahuasca if you have bipolar is a terrible idea, because the concoction has been known to trigger mania, which in turn can lead to a suicidal phase. In fact, merely admitting to a family history of manic depression is enough to get you turned away from reputable ayahuasca retreat centres such as The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, as I discovered myself earlier this year. And if you volunteer yourself as a research subject in a psychedelic study, your services will be politely refused for much the same reason.

Mudge told us that early in his research he conducted a survey of 50 people with bipolar who had taken ayahuasca. Thirty reported the experience to be entirely positive, 14 said it was entirely negative, and six had variable results – some good experiences and some bad. Of those who had an entirely negative outcome, drug interactions were implicated in the majority of cases. Three had also taken mescaline, one took magic mushrooms, three or four marijuana and others the high-nicotine tobacco rapé.

Ayahuasca contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which prevent its psychedelic component DMT being broken down, and is known to interact strongly with a wide range of psychoactive drugs – including medications prescribed for depression and bipolar – as I explained in my previous blog.

Of those who reported variable experiences in his survey, Mudge believes “set and setting” – the well established effect of a person’s mindset and their environment during a psychedelic trip – played a major role. He also believes it’s important to get the ratio of the two plants in the tea – the MAOI-containing vine Banisteriopsis caapi and leaves from the DMT-containing shrub Psychotria viridis – just right. Even their particular subspecies may be critical to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I’m on a quest to find an ideal ayahuasca brewing technique customised for people with bipolar disorder,” he told the audience of psychonauts at Breaking Convention. He has been collecting batches of tea that he has drunk, carefully noting their effects, then freeze-drying and analysing them.

Only four batches have been tested so far, but he plans a field trip to Brazil where he will collect 25-30 samples from ayahuasca churches and ayahuasqueros, record their effects then analyse their contents using liquid chromatography. He will interview ceremony facilitators and medical professionals who have served ayahuasca to people with bipolar.

If you want to help him achieve his goal of identifying the perfect brew, he’s in the process of crowdfunding this work. And if you have bipolar and have tried ayahuasca, you might want to share your experiences with him.

If his research sounds a little preliminary, well it is. But the ultimate aim is to gather enough observational evidence to justify a full-blown clinical trial.

Is what he is doing irresponsible, given the very real risks and the weight of expert opinion against him? “I’m not recommending that bipolar people drink ayahuasca,” he insists. “But I know that it’s happening.” So his objective is to minimise the hazards they face by disseminating information about diet, drug interactions, the importance of set and setting, and so on.

Ayahuasca has shown promise as a treatment for addiction and major depression, and is being investigated as a way to help people with PTSD exorcise their demons. Could a specially tailored brew stabilise the mood of people with bipolar? It’s way too early to say, but I wish Mudge every success in his endeavour.

16 thoughts on “The man on a lone mission to prove ayahuasca can treat bipolar disorder

  1. A close friend of mine uses ayahuasca, and he is experienced in leading guided experiences with it – he claims it’s incredibly therapeutic and I trust him. I haven’t done it since I take an MAOI and it wouldn’t mix. Maybe someday….

    Congrats on your book! Sounds wonderful!

    I bought Jay’s “Tristimania” book when it first came out. I met the founder of her U.S. publisher, Counterpoint, and I was intrigued. However, I haven’t read it yet – I will.

    My book is about my experience with bipolar, periartum onset, a rare form of bipolar and a perinatal mood & anxiety disorder. I’m thrilled it has been endorsed by writers/psychiatrists I admire such as Kay Redfield Jamison, Dr. Verinder Sharma, Mark Lukach, Matt Samet, Jay Mohr, Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the heads of the DBSA, Intl. Bipolar Foundation, BP Magazine, and other incredible visionaries.

    p.s. I like your blog title! 😉

    Best wishes,

    Dyane Harwood
    “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder”
    Foreword by Dr. Carol Henshaw (Post Hill Press, October 10, 2017)

    1. Hi Dyane

      Thanks! You’re absolutely right about MAOIs and ayahuasca – you’d have to stop taking it three or four weeks before the ceremony. Congratulations on your book, it sounds fascinating. I know from friends and family how challenging living with bipolar can be. It would be wonderful if ayahuasca or DMT by itself were more effective than conventional treatments, but I guess it’s going to be several years before we get a clinical trial that would prove things one way or the other.

      Best of luck with the book!


  2. I took ayahuasca in Peru in the summer of 2015. It was a harrowing experience, the derealization and visions, but it got me out of the depressive state I was in. However, by the end of the year I started going downhill again…first dealing with a nastier depressive state (to the point of suicidal), then having to take medical leave from work, and finally needing electroconvulsive therapy. ECT triggered a hypomanic phase, which is almost 100% indicative that I truly had bipolar disorder, not major depression.

    So, ayahuasca with bipolar disorder may have taken two years off of my life and plenty of my memory capacity due to ECT.

    Since then, I have spoken to several people who talked about a similar “crash” six months or so after taking ayahuasca. Not sure if they were bipolar or not.

    I would never recommend anyone take ayahuasca, let alone with bipolar disorder.

    1. I understand you had a rough say the least based on your comment. But why wouldn’t you reckoned Ayahuasca to anyone? I had experienced great healing from it. (not bipolar but other serious illness)

      with that said…I think more research is needed for bipolar and Ayahuasca…but Deming the medicine as “not helpful” is a bit misleading.

  3. Hello

    Thanks for your website and the work you are doing. I am happy to hear that the medicine is helping you to balance out your mental health. I work as an intake coordinator for a reputable healing amazonian center. I would encourage you to also share on your blog some of the evidence that my colleagues and I have gathered over several years of work in the field of traditional amazonian plant medicine. The evidence shows the reality that folks with Bipolar type 1 specifically can have a manic episode from drinking aya. We have seen it too many times to feel there are safe ways at the moment to make exceptions.

    some of these incidents have also been published in medical journals:

    I share my thoughts and experience with you as your blog is the first hit that comes up when you type bipolar and aya. From what I can read on your website, it looks like you are working towards a noble end to help folks with Bipolar. We are too, and many times that means doing no harm. Thanks for considering to share the info I’ve shared here with you and I hope that you find a brew that is safe for folks with bipolar to drink.



    1. and by us helping folks with Bipolar, I mean that we allow them to come for treatment in ceremony without their consuming ayahuasca medicine.We don’t turn them away from our center.

      Traditionally, and presently, most tribal people don’t consume ayahuasca each time they attend an ayahuasca ceremony to receive treatment. The shaman always drinks ayahuasca to diagnose the affliction and may prescribe a plant diet to the patient that often times is not psychedelic and safe for almost all people to consume, including many people with Bipolar disorder.

  4. Hi Rafael

    Thanks so much for your comment and the link. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s unwise for people with bipolar to drink ayahuasca. Mudge always says in his presentations that he is not recommending that anyone else with bipolar drinks the tea. As you rightly say, there are many documented cases of vulnerable people becoming manic after a ceremony. From his own experience and cases he has reviewed for his PhD research, he believes there are several factors that increase the risk of this happening, including use of other drugs in the days before and after the ceremony, not least alcohol, tobacco, antidepressants and other psychedelics; lack of sleep for several nights in a row; and several ceremonies within a short space of time. For more details, please see a video of his presentation which I will also embed in this post.

    It is Mudge’s personal conviction that there is an ideal “recipe” for ayahuasca, with the optimal amounts of vine and leaf, cooking time etc. which could one day be provided by specialists under controlled therapeutic conditions. But that day is a long way off. There will need to be pilot studies and large, rigorous clinical trials. Mudge’s research is preliminary, as he would freely acknowledge. His own experience with his “optimal recipe” has been very positive. After years of failed mainstream treatment he believes he can manage his condition by drinking the tea. For now, in scientific terms, that’s just an anecdote. Neither he nor I would recommend other patients self-medicate in this way – there are very real risks as you rightly point out.


    1. Hi James,
      In my experience, an ayahuasca ceremony and the work of a shaman is more of an art than science. The whole idea of an “optimal recipe”, clinical trials and pilot studies is all western thinking. It’s trying to put into a scientific box something that is spiritual and often beyond comprehension. My own healing of an incurable autoimmune disease in the jungles of Peru involved leaving behind this analytical way of thinking, living in nature and learning how to live as the indigenous people do, those who initially worked with the plants. The two shamans I work with are very careful about working with people with severe mental illness. It is not a one-size fits all approach. They like to meet people first and can then intuit if ayahuasca will benefit them. How? By talking to the plants. How do you measure the spiritual world in a clinical trial? I appreciate the work that you are doing but I don’t believe that the true healing effects of ayahuasca will ever be repeated in a clinical setting.

      1. Hi there

        You raise some really interesting points that go to the heart of differences in approach between western medicine and traditional, shamanic medicine. Personally, however, I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be highly beneficial common ground between the two. Many scientists who have been researching psychedelic medicine for decades, such as Roland Griffiths, William Richards and Jordi Riba, recognise the vital importance of the spiritual, mystical dimensions of the experience for healing. This is more than a gut feeling: it’s something they’ve proven through painstaking, clinical research using psychedelics to treat issues such as alcoholism, end-of-life anxiety, PTSD and depression.

        At the same time, I’m pretty sure these scientists would be happy to acknowledge the expertise of the best shamanic healers and be anxious to learn all that they can from them, in particular how they choose the plants for a particular patient and how they prepare their brews.

        Psychedelic science has long recognised the huge importance of the setting in which people have these experiences. It may take time, but I hope one day the resulting therapies will have a lot more in common with religious ceremonies than they do at present and that patients will be able to express their preference for shamanic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist etc. – or indeed secular – symbols and settings for their therapy sessions. These are the things that will resonate most strongly with their beliefs and provide the most meaningful, therapeutic experience possible.

        You’re very lucky to have found such skilled shamans to work with. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s hard to see how the healing potential of these plants could ever be safely and effectively harnessed for the vast numbers in the west who could potentially benefit from them by having them fly to Peru or Mexico and trek through the jungle in the hope of finding a decent, genuine shaman who isn’t simply looking to profit from ayahuasca tourism. When psychedelic medicines have been clinically proven and made legal treatments in western countries, which I hope they eventually will be, I trust we will find safer, cheaper, more effective ways to deliver their benefits, closer to home.

        The more we understand these medicines the better we will be able to use them to treat patients effectively and safely in their own countries. To conclude that traditional medicines can’t be researched, analysed or improved upon in any way, or removed from their traditional settings, is I think to sell them very short indeed.


  5. I am bipolar and have considered taking ayahuasca. I do take a mood stabilizer and an anti manic medication along with an anti depressant. I believe that natural remedies can have transformational effects. Would it be wise to take ayahuasca with these medications in my system or to wean off and try ayahuasca? I’d love your opinions. I realize you’re not a medical doctor but I’d appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Hi Ashley, of course I can’t recommend anyone takes ayahuasca, but if your heart is set on it I’d strongly suggest you contact Benjamin Mudge directly. I know he’d love to hear from you. I’m happy to pass on his contact details if you email me or DM me on Twitter @JamesAKingsland. He’s the real expert. I know he has a list of advice for people in your situation that he hands out after giving talks, though he can’t personally recommend that anyone drinks the tea. I do know that taking an SSRI antidepressant such as Prozac or an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) antidepressant with ayahuasca is a very bad idea because there are potent MAOIs in the tea. These enzyme inhibitors prevent the breakdown of serotonin and other monoamine neurotransmitters in your body, so taking ayahuasca while antidepressants are still in your system will raise your serotonin to dangerously high levels. Good ayahuasca retreat centres always recommend a washout period. It’s also best to reduce your antidepressant dosage slowly over a long period, so you’ll need to plan well ahead. Take care, James

  7. I was diagnosed with Bipolar one in 2018. In the last two years, I’ve learned to take Pharmahuasca about everyone three months to balance out. My experience mirrors what is written here in this entry. Thank you sharing your story. I wish I had found you sooner. Stay blessed. ❤

    I have Discord server for safe use and harm reduction. I have research and dosing charts posted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s