As neuroscientists and pharmaceutical companies further scrutinize the expansive scope for healing and the therapeutic value of earth-based psychedelic compounds such as ayahuasca and psilocybin, it comes as no surprise that the pursuit of bio-hacking to tailor them better to our needs is also high on the agenda. With the medicalization of magic mushrooms approaching fast and the psilocybin decriminalization incentive gaining momentum, science is also speedily researching methods of synthesizing the most ‘efficient’ and effective laboratory-produced equivalent of these earth-based medicines. Psychedelic experts believe purging the pain is the most powerful way to heal.
The bid to minimize the “body-load”, a blanket term for explaining the discomfort and uneasiness felt in the body induced by some of these earth-based substances is a priority as these medicines are geared up to be sold on a mass scale. Although it can be said that there is validity in creating a model suited to providing mass access to these medicines, should we also question the risk of spiritually bypassing the healing offered by these earth-grown compounds, by seeking a faster, softer, pain-free experience?
Let’s explore a little about the physical demands of the mind-body healing process of sacred earth medicines.
Synthesizing and Medicalization
Magic mushrooms are currently being fast-tracked towards medicalization. Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in these sacred mushrooms, is being extracted and isolated in a reductionist process that is suited to scaling for industrialized countries in the west.
Should we consider the implications of taking a synthetic version of an earth-based organic dose of mushrooms over a lab-made pill? There is a lot of talk of in psychedelic circles of the synthetic options having less depth and body and instead more mind, but what are the implications of the ‘body-load’ being reduced or illuminated altogether?
A Traditional Perspective
“The path to heaven often comes through the belly of a personal hell”
The traditional shamanic and indigenous beliefs associated with many of these sacred earth medicines tie the purgative factors to the spiritual element of how these drugs help us to heal neurologically and psychologically.
They also contain what practitioners and shamans call ‘Earth Wisdom’, a quality every organism that is based and grown and nourished by the earth carries in their molecular structure. Medicines such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, peyote, and San Pedro all carry earth knowledge, due to the fact they have been grown naturally in the earth’s soil for millennia.
Many traditional practitioners, facilitators, and shamans hold the firm belief that the releasing and purging that happens during a sacred medicine ceremony be it by crying, screaming, vomiting, sweating, or shaking acts as the medium for emotional release. It is central to the healing process of our repressed subconscious and the psychological traumas whilst under the medicine. The purging process of many of these sacred plant medicines is regarded as the core of the cleansing and purification of the mind-body, which leads to healing through the act of this cathartic release.
Minimizing the Process
The uptake of recent trends like ‘lemon tekking’, is reflective of our Western model of seeking ‘quick fixes’. Lemon Tekking is one of the widely publicized hacks for helping reduce the feelings of nausea that often lead to purgative effects after taking higher doses of psilocybin mushrooms. It is a process that though organic in nature dramatically minimizes nausea, but also speeds up and intensifies the trip. The process reduces the trip duration by up to half the number of hours.
It’s evident that there is a growing desire to tease apart and speed up the psilocybin experience in a quest to remove ‘negative or painful’ aspects such as nausea/vomiting, anxiety, and the journey duration in favor of a softer pain-free experience that is more compact without the need for several hours of time sacrificed for a ‘traditional’ ceremony.
No Pain, No Gain
It’s our natural human condition to steer our bodies away from physical harm. We are biologically geared to reject pain and suffering so it’s no surprise that many westerners would be more drawn to an invitation to skip that part of the process altogether, why would we want to put ourselves through hours of vomiting if we had an option not to?
Working with the discomfort of the trauma and the unknown aspects of the psyche that result in the mental health and chronic illnesses rising to epidemic levels in the Western world is not the prescribed modern approach to healing. Most medicines produced by pharmaceutical companies and provided by doctors today do the exact opposite. They dull the pain and mask the symptoms, and require no real work or effort to be made in the process of taking them. We receive a prescription, and we’re encouraged to get on with life.
Although known to be incredibly arduous on the body, medicines like ayahuasca and Kambô on the other hand provide us with evidence of the firm relationship between physical cathartic release and the process of emotional, psychological, and physiological healing.
These master purgers of psychedelic medicine are notably held in high regard for their purification and cleansing attributes which often are seen as a side effect of the medicine by western researchers and scientists and not always attributed to the actual physical act of purging itself.
Master Purge Medicine
Kambô, known in the West as a ‘cleansing’ medicine, is named after the poisonous secretions of the giant monkey frog, the ‘phyllomedusa bicolour’. This medicine is used in a healing ritual originating in South America, primarily in the Brazilian Amazon. The secretions are an organic defense mechanism produced by the frog to kill or subdue any attacking prey. These secretion – or DMT milking – methods have been used by indigenous people for centuries to heal and cleanse the body by strengthening its natural defenses. It is also said to ward off bad luck and is believed to increase stamina and hunting skills. These days shamans and naturopathic practitioners use it for detoxifying the body and treating numerous health conditions.
With a long list of side effects, Kambô affects the body in minutes as the peptides in the secretion trigger an intense immune response. Some of the symptoms of the medicine experience include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling of the face, pain and a rapid heart rate, loss of bladder control, and dizziness.
Not exactly the most enthralling of invitations is it? While this list of physical reactions is likely to sound extreme to many people there are many noted psychological responses as well. It is the historical-cultural beliefs and values associated with Kambo that do the medicine justice and have enabled it to gain popularity quite quickly in the Western alternative medicine scene. Scholars and practitioners report that it is used to purge “bad principles” from the body. The “purge” is often a physical bout of vomiting which reinvigorates the participant and enables them to expel ‘emotional toxins’ from their body. Consumers in the west are drawn to frog medicine for these believed healing and cleansing properties.
Strangely, although experts have studied Kambô for years, none of the existing research supports the acclaimed health benefits Kambô is praised for.
Natalie, a holistic trauma-informed medicine practitioner based in London, hosts Kambô medicine ceremonies. She is of the opinion that the resistance we have culturally to purging is due to the negative associations such as excessive alcohol consumption and physical illnesses.
“Purging is the conscious release of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional imbalances…when we purge with intention we feel freer, lighter and more aligned. Really it’s just our body releasing naturally, so when we release consciously and with intention it becomes a purge. We carry so much within us that’s in our spiritual, emotional, physical bodies and our mental self, we carry so much past negative energy and trauma, purging is a great way to energetically release these impurities and the more we release the lighter we feel.”
Natalie, holistic practitioner
Kambô advocates often speak of the feeling-good factor as being the primary reasons for them returning to the medicine. Many feel energetically cleansed post-ceremony and feel as though they have experienced an emotional detox of negative feelings, bad habits, and aliments through the physical purging of the body. It is the reiteration of this belief that has many Westerners attending Kambô ceremonies.
Purging as a ritual for cleansing and purification has been practiced in many indigenous religious cultures for centuries. The Taino people, an indigenous people of the Caribbean, were polytheists who practiced inducing vomiting using a swallowing stick as part of a preparation ritual for their religious and agricultural celebrations. This culture of people induced vomiting to purge the body of impurities, both a literal physical purging and a symbolic spiritual purging.
Maria Sabina, the Mazatec sadia, or curandera (shaman), was a well accomplished, respected, and acclaimed healer. She was famed for her veladas, a healing ceremony based on the use of sacred psilocybin mushrooms. Her ceremonies were sought after by many in her community in her hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. Sabina spoke of the need for purging in her healing work with sacred mushrooms. In fact, she reiterated that it was specifically in the act of purging that her patients could expel their illnesses.
“The sickness comes out if the sick vomit. They vomit the sickness. They vomit because the mushrooms want them to. If the sick don’t vomit, I vomit. I vomit for them and in that way the malady is expelled.”
The Science Behind Nausea From Psilocybin Mushrooms
Nausea after consuming psilocybin mushrooms is not uncommon. One of the reasons for this is the tough cell walls of the fungi themselves, which are mainly composed of the chitin molecule. Believe it or not but this molecule also makes up the exoskeleton of some insects and crustaceans. That fact in itself is probably nauseating to some, so it’s no surprise that the body might find this molecule quite tough to break down. The feelings of nausea that some people experience are created by the triggering of immune responses during the difficult digestion process.
The Psychiatrist Observes
The psychiatrist Salvador Roquet – who sometimes collaborated with Maria Sabina but remains largely unknown – inquired into the process by which traumas left the body of Sabina’s patients. Roquet would be present when her patients were under the influence of the mushrooms observing the ‘vomiting, sweating, shaking and screaming’.
He noted that beyond simple affective responses, the participants’ bodies ‘‘released’’ traumas that had long been stored, causing the rupture of repression and the release of unconscious material.
Roquet was cautious in assuming that all these traumas lay entirely in the mind. His focus was primarily on the terrified body that lay before him. He was keen to skirt the line between the mind-body duality of the customarily practiced holistic Mexican shamanism and the contemporary psychiatry he practiced. He observed quite literally that under the influence of the mushrooms the boundaries between mind, body, and self seemed to be very blurred.
The notion of the mind-body connection is a relatively new concept to scientists who are now starting to recognize that all facets of our human selves are connected. The psyche is directly related to the body, and one informs the other. Fields of study like epigenetics are also teaching us how emotions influence our genes and directly influence our body. Undergoing a psychedelic trip ultimately takes you on a journey of past traumas, purging the pain, the pain of your past, the pain of your existence. Health starts at the core. Without getting down to the root problem of your dispirited life, your health will not progress.
Hurting to Heal
Psychedelic expert and writer James W. Jesso, who has publicized his self-initiated purges under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms in his book The True Light of Darkness, concedes that in entheogenic culture the idea of purging is based on the idea that the ‘darkness’ in the person can be exorcised through physical experiences of vomiting, sweating, shaking, crying, and various other forms. He suggests that the active ‘hurting’ in this context is the past pains within the person’s mind or subconscious leaving the surface of one’s experience, the body, as it begins to heal. It is in this context of purging that “the hurting is healing”.
Jesso emphasizes the fact that although we can enjoy entheogens as a means to experience joy, beauty, and moments of profound bliss, the level of healing we can authentically own is likely to be in proportion to the purging we have done psychologically through our every day lives.
Purging the Pain
In his book, Fellowship of the River, Dr. Joe Tafur writes about his explorations with the traditional Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca. They led him to trace a common origin of epidemics in the US. When observing those inflicted with psychological illnesses, be it depression, PTSD, anxiety, addiction, or even psychosomatic issues like migraines, he found that those people all have emotional processing problems.
On account that Western therapy is still very focused on talking (to engage the intellect), therapy can last for years before the patient starts to see tangible results. Plant-based medicines like ayahuasca have seen a surge in popularity because the medicine can make your unconscious permeable. The Amazonian psychedelic plant has a way of rooting out emotions that need to be resolved within participants. The medicine works in a way that allows you to be detached from the difficult emotions or experiences you may be trying to heal, allowing for a spiritual psychotherapeutic experience. These ayahuasca experiences often allow the person to understand their traumas better and, in turn, let go of them.
This otherworldly manner that ayahuasca has the ability to introduce one to their shadow in such a unique and detached way is exactly why indigenous cultures have been committed to it as a mind-body medicine for millennia. Indigenous cultures in South America have been using this medicine to successfully heal a variety of ailments for thousands of years. And more and more people are seeking ayahuasca retreats to heal modern aliments.
Recent anthropology research papers on ayahuasca are shedding light on the fact that the psychedelic therapeutic effects of purging can not be dismissed as a drug side effect only, but are intrinsic to the healing aspect of this sacred medicine.
La purge (the purge), as it is referred to by many of the indigenous ayahuasca maestros of the Amazon, is the physical outlet for energetic release and surrender by the person in the ceremony – purging the pain. They believe it is part of the process of not only detoxifying but that it is intrinsic to the healing process.
In combination with the visions, when under the influence of the medicine, come the unusual bodily sensations and the psychological effects of the beta-carbolines in the vine. The common result of this is why you will often see bowls and buckets beside the beds in a maloka, an open-sided hut where the ceremonies take place. On account of the fairly recent explosion of interest in the brew among Westerners who primarily are lured to the medicine for its visionary effects, purging is often perceived as a side effect instead of being central to the experience.
From a physiological perspective, scientists have suggested ayahuasca vomiting, similarly to psilocybin, to result from higher serotonin levels, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract, which can cause direct stimulation of the vagus nerve, as well as diarrhea. The medicine permeates the body’s digestive tract via the enteric nervous system, a complex biochemical and anatomical network with about 100 million neurons, similar to what dogs have in their brains. Its complexity and ability to function independently have lent it the title ‘the brain of the gut’ or the ‘second brain’.
Therapeutic approaches to ayahuasca point to combined modulations of the gut and the mind, the body and the psyche.
Purification and Healing
Recent ethnographic data collected by anthropologists examining shamanic tourism in the Peruvian Amazon as well as neo-shamanic networks in Australia, site a relatively unanimous description of the purging process from the shamans conducting these healing ceremonies.
“In this period, deep fears, traumas, and negative patterns of the personality emerge and the initiates have to confront them and go through this by themselves. It is a process by which the initiates expand their consciousness with regard to themselves and the world around them.”
The data from this survey which included over 247 participants, also highlights a common theme in the descriptions of ayahuasca purging. The participants described the process as the “unblocking” and “letting go” of past experiences and healing of their trauma. These research papers also surmise that emphasis was placed on the purging of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and addictive patterns. These participants all had very severe emotional traumas that would have needed years of therapy and care to resolve.
Traditionally there is also a purification period, which must be adhered to before an ayahuasca ceremony occurs. Eliminating certain foods from the diet weeks before the medicine is consumed and using tobacco, among other plants, are used to ‘physically and spiritually cleanse’ initiates negative energies in preparation. Many other plants are taken to purify the circulatory system since blood is a “potential storehouse of physical and spiritual impurities”.
It’s not surprising that these ideas are widespread across many Latin American medical systems. The use of purgatives and laxatives to literally “expel” evil spirits is very common in the Andes, where the word “purgas” describes the plants used for expelling “bad spirits” from a patient’s body. The psychedelic cactus San Pedro is classed as a “purgas” and is known for causing an emotional release in the person consuming it, in the form of crying.
A Deeply Personal Journey
An ayahuasca advocate who has been going to ceremonies yearly for the last six years, said the following about the various stages of the purging process:
“At the beginning of my journey with aya, my purging was very much tied to the physical toxins that were in my body, I say this because after my very first ceremony, I really recognized how my diet was affecting me, even though I felt it was relatively healthy, the medicine highlighted a few issues. Further along the process, the purge became more tied to and reflective of the emotions I needed to purge, the process of vomiting actually would come on whenever I was entering a negative storyline while in ceremony, so you realize as you keep moving through the ceremonies and working with the medicine that the purge is the acknowledgment of what you have trapped within your subconscious that you need to work through.”
There is ethnographic evidence that directly relates to recent scientific studies, which connect the gut to our emotional health. Perhaps collectively, we westerners need to reflect that our at times shallow approach to ‘healing’ is rooted in our addiction to the ‘quick fix’ culture we’ve been reared on by modern medicine.
Perhaps we need to consider the repercussions of what reducing the body load of these psychoactive medicines would mean in terms of possibly minimizing the long-term benefits of these sacred healing medicines.
“Can it be consumed faster and more efficiently with the least pain possible? I think a lot of people want that, except that in my psychological understanding, the process of mastering courage through pain and self-observation and resilience to face things that are difficult is the healing.”
This rebuttal from Bourzat about the issues relating to the medicalization of synthesized psilocybin further cements the notion that we westerners should consider the wider repercussions of a quicker, pain-free psychedelic experience. Bourzat, author of Consciousness Medicine, counselor, and an expert in indigenous psychedelic practice suggests that whilst there is healing to be had and insight gained from a lighter experience, we risk bypassing aspects of our healing.
“…by cutting through, the danger is bypassing. Spiritual bypassing, this is very convenient, nobody has to suffer, and the healing is not complete. The problem is the healing is not complete, that’s my worry about those things that are very fast and furious, and are more pleasant. The human healing, the human psychological burden that we carry has not gone anywhere, it’s just transcended and it keeps appearing everywhere, in our relationships, in the way we think, in the way we behave, in the way we feel.”
This doesn’t sound like the goal of a ‘mental health revolution’ that the psychedelic renaissance is hoping to achieve.
Cross-Cultural Symbolic Purging
The irony is the idea of emotional renewal and restoration through purgation is not new to us in the West. Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, katharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the cleansing, releasing, and purgation of emotions – particularly pity and fear – through theater and literature.
Originally used by Aristotle in Poetics as a metaphor for comparing the effects of tragedy on the mind of the person watching the effect of a cathartic on the body. To add, Aristotle believed the function of tragedy was the purgation of emotions.
Furthermore, it’s a cross-cultural and widespread medical belief that balance and equilibrium in the body are integral to our health. We just haven’t ever adopted the cultural traditions upheld by indigenous cultures in the practice of restoring vitality and health through medicinal purgative plants. For centuries, our culture has also perceived a distinct separation between body and emotion with little to no emphasis on the importance of emotional and spiritual balance. Our medical system tends to focus more on fixing our problem’s symptoms rather than healing the issue. Perhaps because creating drugs to dull the pain is more lucrative and time-efficient for huge pharmaceutical conglomerates.
Many indigenous cultures use energy as a key metaphor for describing less physical components of our body and psyche, the soul, our desires, the belief that the body is where emotion and even knowledge live. The concept of energy is also a key metaphor in Amazonia and is related to the soul, power, desire, and intention. Power is thought to reside in the human body and is affected by the ingestion or expulsion of substances
Although a biological process, purging is loaded with symbolic meaning cross-culturally. The idea that balance or equilibrium in the body is central to health is the most widespread medical belief cross-culturally. Health and vitality are often restored through medicinal plants, some of which are purgatives used to expel what causes imbalance. Notably, there is a lack of clear separation between body and emotion in native medical systems that emphasize the importance of physical, emotional, and spiritual balance for wellbeing.
While traveling to receive healing at a traditional sacred medicine ceremony may not be available to everyone, we must consider that these medicines’ natural components have been serving people in healing ailments and psychological maladies for centuries. The act of expelling such ailments through purging may be a small price to pay for a lifetime free of our psychological burdens.
Purging and the body in the therapeutic use of ayahuasca. Evgenia Fotiou, Alex K. Gearin Social Science & Medicine 239 (2019) 112532
Why do magic mushrooms cause-nausea: Psychedelicreview.com
Singing to the plants: Ayahuasca and the Grotesque Body 2012
Utilizing Expanded States For Healing And Transformation- Françoise Bourzat / Third Wave 2020