Plant Medicines Aren’t One Size Fits All for Mental Health Treatments

Psychedelic plant medicines aren't a one size fits all. Learn more about the different properties of healing plants.
By Kelli Foulkrod, MS, LPA, LPC, RYT
December 23, 2020(Updated: January 28, 2021)

Psychedelics have the potential to heal many mental health ailments, but each plant medicine has its own strengths. Join Kelli Foulkrod, MS, LPA, LPC, RYT in learning more about the different properties of healing plants.


Indigenous healers understand that nature is the original pharmacy. Traditional folk healers and shamans can identify over 80,000 species of plants and trees in the rainforest, and have knowledge that each plant has medicinal, energetic, and healing properties. The industrial revolution and capitalism created a massive disconnection in Westerners from Nature, and we as a culture have forgotten that The Earth is here to help us heal. 

Through working in the mental health industry in America for 19 years, I have learned that the approach for healing is based on a medical model, which uses synthetic band-aids for symptom management. In having the privilege to study with other cultures, I learned that the American mental health system is not healing or curing, but rather compartmentalizing treatments only focused on the brain and ego. Other cultures understand that to truly transform and heal from trauma, an integration of the body, spirit, and soul must accompany any treatment addressing the mind. 

Over my career, I have learned as many tools and modalities to heal trauma and PTSD as possible. This is because when traumatic energy is stuck within the nervous system, it is not a one size fits all approach in moving the energy out. Many variables influence how trauma is digested; such as early childhood trauma, attachment and relationship trauma, chronic trauma, sexual trauma, a catastrophic event in nature, or unexpected death [1]. Some psychotherapeutic modalities do not go deep enough to work with trauma from a body and psyche level. Luckily, because the Earth loves us, nature provides us with many different plant medicines to put the ego in the back seat in order to radically shift traumatic experiences. 

Plant Medicines for Mental Health

This article offers an overview of the specific functions of plant medicines in regards to common mental health concerns. Another article will need to address synthetic psychedelics. Please understand that these plants described below are not legal to use in America; however there are safe and legal ways to access these medicines by traveling to locations where these medicines are legal.

Mescaline Cacti

San Pedro is a cactus that grows in the Andes, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Southern States in America. It is traditionally brewed and drank as a tea in a group ceremonial context during the daytime. It is a gentle medicine with masculine energy, often referred to as grandfather energy. The active psychedelic compound is mescaline, which is a phenethylamine, with receptor binding primarily at the serotonin 1A and 2B receptors, and dopamine receptors [2, 3].

Mental health benefits include empathogenic or heart opening properties, gently taking down the walls around the heart to help with self-acceptance, compassion (to yourself and others), and healing of old wounds in relationships. It is my opinion that San Pedro is less popular because it has subtler effects; however the mental health benefits of addressing the psychological defenses around the heart center are very beneficial to common mental health concerns and traumatic memories.

Psilocybin Mushrooms

Psilocybe cubensis is an entheogenic mushroom that grows naturally in some areas of the U.S., throughout Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Australia [4]. Psilocybe cubensis is a species of psychedelic mushrooms with active compounds of psilocybin and psilocin. Art as far back as 5,000 B.C. depicts cultures across all continents utilizing the mystical and healing properties of mushrooms.

The energetic properties of mushrooms are believed to work at opening the pineal gland, or third eye center, as well as re-wiring circuitry of the brain altered by traumatic experiences. Also known as “los niños”, mushrooms seem to activate the inner child dynamic to offer healing through levity and play. Psilocybin is a tryptamine that targets the the serotonin 2A receptor, and works by activating the same serotonergic system as SSRI antidepressants [5]. 

Mental health benefits demonstrated by current scientific research studies and clinical trials show dramatic improvements in treatment of trauma and PTSD, resistant depression, anxiety and OCD, addictive behaviors, eating disorders, and existential anxiety in cancer patients at the end of life stage [6].

Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a tea derived from a combination of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of the plant psychotria viridis. The vine contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, while the shrub known as chacruna (psychotria viridis) contains DMT [7]. As a nighttime medicine, ceremonies are held at night in the dark and this is symbolic to the powerful effects the medicine has on activating the Shadow of the unconscious mind.

Often referred to as “la purga” (the purge), due to vomiting and diarrhea being a common experience during an Ayahuasca ceremony.  This plant medicine is referred to as The Grandmother. A dieta, or cleansing diet eliminating inflammatory foods such as alcohol, red meat, coffee, and salt is required for the ceremony. Energetically, purging is seen as a positive and healing aspect of the plant, and it is believed that it can cleanse you on all levels; physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  

Neuroscience brain scans have shown that Ayahuasca increases the neural activity in the brain’s visual cortex, and the emotional center, the limbic system, while also quieting the Ego, or default mode network and rewiring traumatic memories [8, 9]. Research has shown that it is an effective treatment for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and addictive behaviors [10, 11].

Careful Considerations for Plant Medicines

Just like there is not one model in psychotherapy that works for everyone, there is not one type of plant medicine that is a magic bullet for mental health concerns. It is my opinion that plant medicines and synthetic psychedelics are not suitable treatments for everyone. These medicines should be carefully considered, and the type of medicine matters. 

It has been my experience that some individuals with dissociative symptoms in complex PTSD, specific personality traits, and certain cases of psychosis can actually have harmful experiences with psychedelics if too much of the psyche is dissolved, without adequate levels of integration.  Proper preparation and integration is the foundational key to healing and transformation with plant medicines. 

It’s my opinion that integrating the experience of the expanded state of consciousness is more important than the peak experience. While plant medicine ceremonies have become popular in the West, emphasis and focus is also necessary around emotional processing and articulating what insights and wisdom was earned with the expanded state. Please reach out if you have questions about how plants may assist in mental health treatments.

References

  1. Cloitre, M., Stolbach, B. C., Herman, J. L., Kolk, B. V. D., Pynoos, R., Wang, J., & Petkova, E. (2009). A developmental approach to complex PTSD: Childhood and adult cumulative trauma as predictors of symptom complexity. Journal of traumatic stress22(5), 399-408.
  2. Trulson, M. E., Crisp, T., & Henderson, L. J. (1983). Mescaline elicits behavioral effects in cats by an action at both serotonin and dopamine receptors. European journal of pharmacology96(1-2), 151-154.
  3. Appel, J. B., & Callahan, P. M. (1989). Involvement of 5-HT receptor subtypes in the discriminative stimulus properties of mescaline. European journal of pharmacology159(1), 41-46.
  4. Metzner, R. (Ed.). (2005). Sacred mushroom of visions: Teonanacatl: A sourcebook on the psilocybin mushroom. Simon and Schuster.
  5. Passie, T., Seifert, J., Schneider, U., & Emrich, H. M. (2002). The pharmacology of psilocybin. Addiction biology7(4), 357-364.
  6. Andersen, K. A., Carhart‐Harris, R., Nutt, D. J., & Erritzoe, D. (2020). Therapeutic effects of classic serotonergic psychedelics: A systematic review of modern‐era clinical studies. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.
  7. Ruffell, S., Netzband, N., Bird, C., Young, A. H., & Juruena, M. F. (2020). The pharmacological interaction of compounds in ayahuasca: a systematic review. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry42(6), 646-656.
  8. Dos Santos, R. G., Osorio, F. L., Crippa, J. A. S., & Hallak, J. E. (2016). Classical hallucinogens and neuroimaging: A systematic review of human studies: Hallucinogens and neuroimaging. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews71, 715-728.
  9. Pasquini, L., Palhano-Fontes, F., & Araujo, D. B. (2020). Subacute effects of the psychedelic ayahuasca on the salience and default mode networks. Journal of Psychopharmacology34(6), 623-635.
  10. Zeifman, R. J., Singhal, N., Dos Santos, R. G., Sanches, R. F., de Lima Osório, F., Hallak, J. E., & Weissman, C. R. (2020). Rapid and sustained decreases in suicidality following a single dose of ayahuasca among individuals with recurrent major depressive disorder: results from an open-label trial. Psychopharmacology, 1-7.
  11. Jiménez-Garrido, D. F., Gómez-Sousa, M., Ona, G., Dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J. E., Alcázar-Córcoles, M. Á., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Effects of ayahuasca on mental health and quality of life in naïve users: A longitudinal and cross-sectional study combination. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-12.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Note that the plants are deemed Schedule I substances under the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and are illegal in US states. The publisher and author of this article do not condone the purchase, possession, sale, or consumption of illegal substances.

Published by:
Kelli Foulkrod, MS, LPA, LPC, RYT
I am a licensed professional counselor based in Austin, Texas. Learn more about my work on my practitioner profile and at my website.

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