Dr. Gabor Maté: Healing Addiction
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Dimethyltriptamine, or DMT was first synthesized in 1931 by English chemist Richard Manske. Its initial synthesis garnered little if any attention and it was likely that no Western researchers knew about its psychoactive effects before the mid-1950s. In 1956, Hungarian chemist Stephen Szara extracted DMT from the rootbark of the Jurema tree shrub and injected himself with it. Szara felt the intense psychedelic effects of DMT, which had been unknown to the Western world despite DMT’s long-time use by shamans in South America. In the 1970s, DMT was categorized as a Schedule I drug, making investigation into the most powerful psychoactive extremely difficult, if not impossible. Dr. Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque was the first granted permission to research DMT. Although it is not conclusive, it is highly likely that the pineal gland of the brain has the capacity to produce endogenous levels of DMT. The pineal gland produces all the chemical compounds necessary to make DMT. Endogenous DMT, or DMT that is naturally produced in our bodies, serves the important purpose of regulating the brain’s perceptual functions. Strassman’s research strongly suggests that without the naturally occurring levels of DMT in the brain, the world may appear dull and lifeless. Dr. Strassman’s research has also provided insight into the effects of administering exogenous DMT. Exogenous DMT prompts intense hallucinations followed by what study participants cite as a very strong sense that they are loved.
The way DMT works in the brain gives answers into why and how DMT can heal disease. Dr. Gabor Maté has pioneered research into Ayahuasca’s power to heal disease and sickness and integrates its use in a holistic framework of treatment. Ayahuasca is a DMT containing plant that predominantly grows in the Amazon region of South America. It has been used in Shamanic and religious rituals for an indeterminate amount of time. To make an orally active serving of Ayahuasca, it is brewed as a tea with one of two other plants that inhibit an enzyme in our gut that blocks the effects of DMT. Those plants are called Chacruna and Chagropanga. Ayahuasca is slowly growing a reputation as a powerful healing agent, used on patients with a wide ranging variety of emotional, psychological, and biological illness. Dr. Maté has worked on creating a re-structured view of addiction. He calls for a framework of treatment that takes into account the shortfalls of our social attitudes towards drug addiction and makes strong arguments about the efficiency of Ayahuasca to cure drug addiction. This cure is brought about by the fundamental goal of having the patient reconnect with themselves through guided psychotherapy, counseling, and ayahuasca treatment sessions.
While Dr. Strassman and Dr. Maté have made awesome leaps in our collective understanding of DMT, there is still so much to learn. The prospect of future research and discovery into this naturally occurring and prevalent compound is extremely exciting. Each new understanding will inspire a multitude of other questions. What is the purpose of DMT and its connection to the pineal gland of the brain? Why is it found in all living things? Why does it hold such intense healing power? Some insight into what it does to our brains and what that means for healing disease and drug addiction helps to answer those questions, albeit insufficiently.
The Brain and Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca holds strong influence in three main areas of the brain: the Neocortex, the Insula, and the Amygdala. The neocortex is said to be “the area of the brain that makes us human,” the point at which we make rational decisions. The amygdala stores much of our early emotional memories, significantly our traumatic ones that may make a permanent imprint in our neural pathways. Lastly, neuroscientists believe that the insula, or insular cortex, forms a connection between “our emotional impulses and decision-making capacities.” The connections forged by the insula are particularly important to the work on ayahuasca and addiction headed by Dr. Maté. This part of the brain proves that our rational, decision-making process is underlined by our emotional memories. When our brain tries to assess new information to make a decision, it makes its rational choices based on past experiences. Traumatic experiences in one’s past conspire together to form “an imprint or shortcut” that our brain uses to process new stimuli. Traumatic experience leaves a trace in the brain not unlike the way a physical injury might leave a scar on the skin. Ayahuasca and its inherent “abnormal” levels of exogenous DMT, catalyzes hyperactivity in these regions of the brain where we store the memories of our lived experience. During the time of hyperactivity, the DMT in ayahuasca may uncover memories one may have forgotten or it may re-frame the way one perceives any given memory. This is the point at which the profound healing and self-connection necessary to overcome addiction occurs.
Dr. Gabor Maté perhaps offers the clearest, holistic, and sound understanding of what addiction is. He explains that each one of us enters the physical world “whole and perfect,” with the complete capacity to bring our potential to full fruition. He states with conviction that pain is the underlying state behind all behaviors of addiction. Someone suffering from addiction seeks to drugs that soothe pain or that release chemicals in the brain that soothe pain. Another factor that Maté stresses is that of the role of society in addiction. He places culpability on the short-sighted assumptions of Western medicine that treatment of disease be strictly relegated to the biological. Anything having to do with emotional and spiritual existence is pushed to the way-side as irrelevant to treatment. The most harmful inferences derived from that assumption are that “we can separate the mind from the body” and “the individual can be separated from the environment.” His aim in developing a form of Ayahuasca-assisted psychotherapy to treat addiction is to also inspire a shift in social perspective. We must recognize that “human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures by nature.” Addiction behaviors must be traced back to their emotional and spiritual origins.
Early painful, traumatic experiences form patterns in the brain that inform decision-making. Then, our culture of consumption re-enforces painful beliefs of one’s personal inadequacy, making one seek externals in an attempt to feel whole or “good enough.” Maté gives the example of a heroin addict to illustrate the function of addiction and why it is so difficult to heal it. The ingested heroin travels to a part of the brain that relieves pain and produces feelings of “pleasure, reward, and human connection.” One of Maté’s patients describes his feeling on heroin as giving him the feeling of being a child cared for by a loving and attentive mother. If one has never felt the full strength of these feelings of human connection and the first source you derive them from is a drug, then reliance on it for the semblance of love and pain relief will form.
The first step in helping a patient is to help them reconnect with themselves, to help them re-discover the truth that they possess “a deep core of adequacy, beauty, and power inside” of themselves. Ayahuasca in the context of planned, personalized psychotherapy gives the patient the ability to re-frame the way they see their past, allowing them to let go of what no longer serves their healthy personal realization. The regret of their addictive behavior and the harmful choices that may have followed are more easily dropped away and the patient can focus on the present moment. Dr. Maté describes ayahuasca thusly: it “shows you your full potential as a loving, connected being.” He further elaborates by saying that he felt the absolute truth that he is loved “not by any particular person” but simply loved. This has wonderful implications for those suffering from drug, or any other kind of addiction. Addiction originates from the urge to soothe pain, perhaps the pain that one feels when one has been made to believe that they are not worthy of being loved. Ayahuasca assisted therapy brings one back to the self that affirms –without a doubt- ones incredible capacity to be love. This, in turn, mitigates or eliminates the unhealthy, addictive behaviors inspired by a deep fear of one’s personal inadequacy.
DMT containing plants, like Ayahuasca, need to be further studied and implemented into a comprehensive understanding and treatment of addiction. The benefits of its use are wonderful to imagine on a larger, social scale. Dr. Maté’s vision for an amplified, compassionate, and whole approach to disease and addiction is the most exciting prospect for helping those among us that need to be re-adjusted with our inherent beautiful, grounded sense of selves.