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.