Psychedelics have been hitting the headlines nonstop these days. The New York Times, and other major media, have run a slew of articles highlighting the promise of psychedelics for hard-to-treat clinical conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
Important discoveries are emerging from prestigious academic centers worldwide that have dedicated millions of dollars to psychedelic research. These include New York University, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Imperial College London, University of California San Diego, the University of Exeter, and many more.
And that’s despite the fact that the vast majority of psychedelics remain classified as Schedule 1, a category of drugs defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
“Wait,” you may be asking. “Didn’t you just say psychedelics show benefit as one of the most promising treatments we’ve seen for addiction?!”
Yes. And therein lies the rub.
On the one hand, growing research shows that these therapies may offer profound relief to people for whom countless other approaches, conventional and otherwise, have failed. On the other hand, psychedelics remain stigmatized and illegal in most cities and states, though that is slowly shifting as part of a national decriminalization effort.
In many ways, the uncertainty—and a person’s ability to surrender to the unknown—is the whole point of the treatment. The unique individuality of the experience is exactly what makes it so powerful . That’s very different from the linear, rational certainty we learned in medical school.
Not unlike the cannabis craze a few years ago, the current “psychedelic renaissance,” as it’s been called, is leaving a lot of us wondering how to navigate conversations with our patients about psychedelics.
Though the current research is tremendously promising, there is still much more to learn about psychedelics than many advocates admit. At the same time, there’s also less to fear than we’ve been told.
The Power of Uncertainty
As clinicians, we are accustomed to having a reasonable set of expectations about the benefits and risks of the treatments we recommend. From that perspective, guiding patients who seek psychedelic healing experiences–whether at home or in the jungles of Peru–is paradoxical to the risk-averse mindset we’ve all internalized.
That’s because, despite the growing research, we cannot predict exactly what will happen to a particular person during a journey, nor can we be certain the experience will leave the journeyer better off than before. Psychedelic experiences are inherently individual, subjective, and not predictable.
In many ways, the uncertainty—and a person’s ability to surrender to the unknown—is the whole point of the treatment. The unique individuality of the experience is exactly what makes it so powerful and transformative.
Yikes! That’s very different from the linear, rational certainty we learned in medical school.
So what’s a clinician to do?
Seeking the Big Shift
These days, many (most!) of us are overwhelmed with patients struggling with chronic physical and mental health conditions that require more than the current medical paradigm offers. These patients have been through a full array of pharmaceuticals, psychotherapy, integrative approaches, and more, none of which have fully resolved their problems or restored their health.
Something more is likely going on. And now we’re learning that traumatic experiences (whether “big T” or “little t” traumas) can trigger a persistent cell danger response that manifests physically and mentally, until something shifts the person out of that state.
Patients are also learning about this phenomenon, and they want that big shift via psychedelic experiences. Many also want our guidance about the potential benefits and risks. As practitioners, we cannot ignore the potential to help people that are suffering deeply, even if we have hesitations.
The good news is that there’s not just one way to experience the benefits of psychedelics and “Master Plants,” as they’re called by many of the indigenous cultures who have worked with them for millennia. Master Plants are plants and fungi that produce neuroactive substances that, when ingested, inhaled, or applied, affect human consciousness.
Most people hear the word “psychedelics” and automatically think of what are referred to as peak experiences or “tripping” – states of profoundly altered reality, visual or auditory hallucinations that render someone out-of-commission for the duration. They think that this is the only way psychedelics “work.”
Macrodosing for peak experiences is not the only way people have traditionally engaged with Master Plants. If you study the long history of human interaction with these plants, you’ll find a tremendous precedent for use of much smaller doses.
Some seek these big experiences whether for therapeutic, spiritual, or recreational reasons. And indeed, there’s research to show that within a context of a therapeutic support before, during, and afterwards, full-on psychedelic experiences can be profoundly transformative and healing.
Yet macrodosing for peak experiences is not the only way people have traditionally engaged with Master Plants. If you study the long history of human interaction with these plants, you’ll find a tremendous precedent for use of much smaller doses.
What are Master Plants?
In their indigenous communities of origin, naturally-occurring psychedelics are referred to not as “drugs” but as Master or Teacher Plants. In some cultures, they’re called Grandmother or Grandfather, Mother or Father. They’re considered to be very old and powerful kin; they convey an ancient wisdom and lineage that can help individuals to heal and communities to evolve.
Some examples of psychedelic Master Plants include psilocybe mushrooms, ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus, peyote, iboga, and salvia, among others. Not all Master Plants are psychedelic (think cacao, opium poppy, or the coca plant), but all psychedelic plants are considered to be masters
In contrast to the way we perceive medicine in modern industrialized culture, these plants are not exploitable resources that produce “compounds” to be “taken” or “used”; they are revered community members– honored elders, teachers, and allies. As such, people approach them with extreme reverence and humility, with offerings in hand. The healing benefits are considered sacred gifts from the plants.
Skeptical? That’s no surprise. Those of us from the Global North have long operated under the assumption that indigenous peoples—particularly those from the Global South–are primitive, backward, or “undeveloped.” That’s partly because they are preliterate or extra-literate, and thus unschooled in the European literature, history, and science that comprise an “acceptable” education in our cultures. By this logic, indigenous communities have no science, technology, or advanced forms of knowledge.
Those assumptions are worth challenging in any conversation about psychedelic medicine, because indigenous knowledge is the past, present, and must remain a fundamental part of the future of our engagement with Master Plants, if it is to be safe and truly therapeutic.
The prevailing beliefs about “primitive” people conveniently ignore the truth that many of our modern scientific “discoveries,” including awareness of psychedelics, have their roots in ancient indigenous knowledge. At least 75% of pharmaceutical companies’ plant-based remedies are derived from knowledge taken from indigenous societies.
Fewer than 2% of all the world’s plants have been fully explored to date. The vast majority of those plants live in tropical forests inhabited by indigenous communities. Indeed, these communities remain the source of many current and future therapies. That’s why pharma development companies employ “bioprospectors.”
Let’s consider ayahuasca, for example. The word translates roughly from Quechuan as “spirit/soul rope,” and this plant medicine has become increasingly popular in the US and Europe among seekers of deep healing and profound shifts in consciousness.
Many people may not realize that the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) alone has no significant hallucinogenic activity. To make the psychoactive substance called “ayahuasca” that’s been prepared for millennia by South American indigenous people, two plants must be brewed together in a highly specialized way for hours.
One of those plants often used in the Amazon is called chacruna (Psychotria viridis). It contains the hallucinogenic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT). However, like the ayahuasca plant, chacruna alone has no hallucinogenic effect when taken orally. That’s because the monoamine oxidase in our stomachs breaks down the DMT.
The combination of the two plants is a whole other story. The ayahuasca vine contains compounds that render this enzyme inactive, so the DMT can survive digestion, penetrate systemic circulation, and enter the brain’s inner sanctum.
Indigenous peoples may not be able to explain the biochemistry behind this phenomenon, but they certainly have advanced knowledge of how and why these plants must be prepared together.
Think about it: there are at least 100,000 plant varieties in the Amazonian jungle alone. Yet, somehow, unrelated indigenous communities isolated from one another, discovered not only the relatively nondescript ayahuasca vine but also the possibility of combining it with just the right second plant, and the hours-long process needed for preparing them together to have a psychedelic effect.
When asked how they obtained this intricate, detailed, and very specific knowledge, indigenous people will say the Master Plants showed them. And yes, they mean this literally. Remember, for them, the plants are not just passive objects that produce useful compounds, they are intelligent beings with spirits.
There are at least 100,000 plant varieties in the Amazonian jungle alone. Yet, somehow, unrelated indigenous communities discovered not only the relatively nondescript ayahuasca vine but also the possibility of combining it with just the right second plant, and the hours-long process needed for preparing them together to have a psychedelic effect.
This is a lot to take in, I know. But the reverence and knowledge these communities show in their relationship with Master Plants has served them well for millennia. It’s a deep contrast to the psychedelic free-for-all that took place here in the 1950s and 60s, when LSD and other psychedelics blasted onto the scene, and drastically different from the current venture capital-fueled psychedelic business frenzy.
Most people in modern industrialized societies don’t realize that plants do in fact possess a “brain.” It may not be in the form of a solid organ, as it is for us. But plants have neural networks – their root systems.
In their roots, plants store memories, analyze inputs, design responses, and plan for the future. Structurally, plant root systems closely resemble the neural networks of our brains, and they perform similar functions. They produce neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, acetylcholine, GABA and even the psychedelic molecule DMT.
Since we humans like to define other beings in anthropomorphic terms, we could think of plants as upside down beings– their “brains” underneath the soil, their limbs and genitalia (yep, flowers!) visible to us.
This idea that plants sense their environments and have intelligence is not new, even to “modern” science. There was a scientist, albeit a controversial one, who described the neural nature of plant root systems in his 1880 book, The Power of Movement of Plants. His name was Charles Darwin.
Small Doses, Big Impact
Indigenous customs and practices for interacting with psychoactive plants can vary widely from culture to culture. In certain communities, only the healer ingests the medicine in a significant “shamanic” quantity, which confers the ability to see inside the person needing healing. Sometimes, the person or people in need of healing might ingest a small amount. But often they ingest none at all, yet still have full healing experiences.
Indigenous people have long recognized—and everyone else is slowly learning—that sometimes our physiology will respond best to a gentle nudge rather than a sledgehammer blow.
The concept of microdosing psychedelics has gained attention recently, popularized by Silicon Valley professionals as a way to get to that “next level.” Microdosing means ingesting a subthreshold dose that will not induce profound changes or alter one’s normal daily functions, but will still have physiological and cognitive effects.
People are now exploring psychedelic microdosing as a way to enhance cognition; boost physical energy; promote emotional balance; treat anxiety, depression, OCD, and addiction; and even address medical conditions like chronic pain, autoimmunity, asthma, dementia, ADHD, or autism.
People are now exploring psychedelic microdosing as a way to enhance cognition; boost physical energy; promote emotional balance; treat anxiety, depression, OCD, and addiction; and even address medical conditions like chronic pain, autoimmunity, asthma, dementia, ADHD, or autism. Microdosing may, in fact, prove to be more effective than macrodosing for some conditions.
Those who regard Master Plants bluntly as neurochemical compounds can get stuck in the “more is more” perspective. Yet early research indicates that microdosing offers hormetic effects, in which a seemingly insignificant dose leads to big benefits.
Microdosing may, in fact, prove to be more effective than macrodosing for some conditions. For example, animal studies show that microdoses of psilocybin confer anti-inflammatory effects not seen with larger doses. Small amounts over time may offer cumulative benefits that larger doses do not.
Researchers have discovered a profound shift in T-helper cell recruitment, eosinophilia, and mucus production in the lungs of people with asthma who took microdoses of 5-HT2A receptor agonists that mimic psychedelic molecules.
Microdosing psilocybin may also benefit mood, cognition, sleep, pain, autoimmunity, and allergy. Though some researchers dismiss microdosing as a placebo effect, the practice does seem to facilitate neuroplasticity in gentle ways over time.
There’s another even more subtle approach to psychedelics: quantum dosing. It’s a way to experience the medicine of Master Plants vibrationally, without ingesting the plant substances themselves.
We now know that all plants oscillate in measurable ways, both mechanically and electromagnetically, which creates a kind of music.
Most plant researchers have disregarded these oscillations as inconvenient “noise” or interference. Yet these vibrational transmissions may be as much a communicative expression as the complex chemical compounds that plants produce, and that we consider to be “medicine.” Under the right circumstances, we can access this vast spectrum of plant communication.
For trained ayahuasqueros and other indigenous wisdom holders, to perceive this music is as potent a medicine as the ingestion of the actual plants themselves; in fact, many consider medicine songs transmitted to them by plants to be equal to or greater in power as imbibing Master Plants in physical form. Receiving the plant vibrations is a foundational avenue to profound healing, without ingesting plant material at all.
Modern biomedical science points to chemical compounds as the sole source of a plant’s medicinal (or nutritional) value. Indigenous science views the medicine of the plants as coming from the Mother of the plant, also referred to as the plant’s spirit. According to this paradigm, it’s more than just a material or biochemical substance, and beyond even an essence or an energy. The plant is considered to have intelligence and even sentience.
A form of quantum dosing takes place in traditional settings through music, which is thought to be vibrational medicine given over by the Mother of a Master Plant. The Quechua word for this vibrational medicine is ícaro, which derives from the word for “to blow.”
“Everything is created by music, by vibration, by sound. When the celestial spirits enlighten us with their wisdom, we receive the ability to sing ícaros and we become part of a divine choir. Music is universal, and we are made of primordial vibration. Ícaros are the music of creation.”–Pablo Amaringo, Peruvian shaman and artist
Ícaros are the vibrations of the plant manifested through the Maestro (the healer and leader of an ayahuasca ceremony), in the form of songs that the healer sings or whistles, especially during ayahuasca ceremonies. To be clear, these are considered vibrational transmissions not composed by the Maestro, but offered by the Master Plants over intensive weeks or months spent training together—a period known as dietas. These ícaros serve different functions at the start, the middle, and the end of a ceremony– to provoke visions, to encourage purging and release, and to return to the physical body.
In the words of the indigenous shaman and artist Pablo Amaringo: “Everything is created by music, by vibration, by sound. When the celestial spirits enlighten us with their wisdom, we receive the ability to sing ícaros and we become part of a divine choir. Music is universal, and we are made of primordial vibration. Ícaros are the music of creation.”
Though the term “quantum” has been thrown around liberally by marketers and new-agers alike, it has real meaning. Quantum physics describes the behavior of the very smallest detectable particles, acknowledging that they embody both matter and wave state simultaneously. These tight packets of wave energy, known as “quanta,” act in ways that are nonlinear and nonlocal, helping us to explain complex phenomena that are otherwise inexplicable with classical physics.
The burgeoning field of quantum science takes into account the vibration and frequency of our bodies, and the impact of vibration and frequency, including light, sound, and biofield on human physiology and consciousness. Nobel Prize winner Luc Montaigner’s controversial work with water is informing a new wave of research regarding the imprinting of DNA information into water.
The oscillations of Master Plants can be imprinted into liquid and then consumed. Ingesting these in the form of quantum drops are another way to experience quantum dosing. It represents another form of vibrational medicine, made together with plants that are never harvested for ingestion. In appreciation for this care, the Master Plants infuse the drops with this ceremonial relationship in the form of sonic medicine. This is similar to the principle behind the Bach Flower Remedies, or other flower essence therapies.
Master Plants can share their medicine and teachings in ways that don’t overdrive our nervous systems, and don’t overuse the plants or turn them into pharmaceuticals or commodities to be exploited. Growing Master Plants that are legal to grow—such as ayahuasca or San Pedro–and tending them, engaging with their seeds, and even creating or wearing artistic depictions of them are all ways to experience their gifts.
Quantum dosing is vibrational and, therefore, legal. It is also safe for people who are highly sensitive, sober, pregnant, or have other medical or pharmaceutical contraindications to the ingestion of psychedelic substances. It is also helpful in preparing for a ceremony, and for the integration process afterward.
It remains to be seen whether quantum dosing can give the benefits observed in studies of macrodosing and microdosing. Likewise, we don’t yet know whether quantum dosing offers benefits not seen with ingestion of plant substances.
All of this is very likely arousing your skepticism, but don’t let that dissuade you from exploring.
Consider what we have only recently learned about the microbiome. Thirty years ago, could we have imagined that our cognition, memory, moods, cravings, immunity, hormones, and sleep cycles are governed in large part by microbes in our intestines? Early microbiome research also aroused skepticism and scorn.
Of course, all of this raises big existential questions: What are we, really? Who’s in charge? Where do we end and the rest of the world begins?
We think of ourselves as static. But ancient indigenous wisdom—and also our most advanced science—shows us that we are universes within universes within universes, far more complex than an amalgam of organ systems mechanically doing their parts.
Deepening our relationship with Master Plant wisdom—whether via intense psychedelic experiences, microdosing, or quantum dosing–enables us to cultivate richer relationship with ourselves, each other, and all living beings by enhancing within us a sense of greater awareness, presence, and aliveness. It helps us remember the sacredness of our existence while navigating the challenges of our ordinary human lives. And this can be profoundly therapeutic.
Maya Shetreat, MD is an adult and pediatric neurologist, herbalist, and ceremonialist. A graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she is author of The Dirt Cure (2016) and newly released The Master Plant Experience: The Science, Safety and Sacred Ceremony of Psychedelics. She has been featured in the New York Times, The Telegraph, NPR, Sky News, The Dr. Oz Show and more. Dr. Maya created Quantum Drops (www.quantumdrops.com) a vibrational Master Plant product that is safe, legal, and deeply transformative. She is also the founder of the Terrain Institute, where she offers a Certification for psychedelic-informed professionals as well as an upcoming Quantum Practitioner Certification.