Lucas de Oliveira Maia

Lucas de Oliveira Maia

Therapeutic effects of ayahuasca ritual use as experienced by people facing severe physical illness: a qualitative study


Preliminary studies indicate that ayahuasca ritual use could promote therapeutic effects for people facing severe physical illnesses (SPI). Diseases that threaten life or cause serious residual disability also affect mental health, since they trigger existential issues that may be a source of deep distress. Currently, an increasing number of people have sought ayahuasca after the diagnosis of SPI as a possibility of obtaining physical and psychological benefits that could help to mitigate adversities imposed by the illness. The aim of this study was to explore how the ritual use of ayahuasca during the treatment of severe physical illnesses may influence the way people understand and relate to their illness, using qualitative methods to assess the participants’ perspectives. Fourteen participants who consumed ayahuasca ritualistically during the period of medical treatment for SPI (cancer, HIV, and rheumatological, neurological, gastrointestinal, and dermatological diseases gastrointestinal, dermatological, neurological and rheumatologic diseases) were purposely chosen. Data were obtained through semi-structured in-depth interviews with open-ended questions. Data analysis was performed by thematic analysis, and sample size was defined by theoretical saturation. The results indicate that ayahuasca ritual experience acted on participants’ illness understanding through multiple psychological mechanisms, including introspection, self-analysis, emotional processing and catharsis, recall of autobiographical memories subjectively related to illness origin, illness resignification, and changes of perspective. This study suggests that the subjective experience induced by ayahuasca may facilitate illness acceptance through an influence on the meanings of illness, life, and death. These changes may favor a more balanced relationship with illness and treatment.


Lucas O. Maia has started his academic studies in the Biology field, researching the pharmacology of medicinal plants. For his master’s degree, he advanced to psychobiology, focusing his research on psychoactive plants/substances and their therapeutic potential for psychiatric disorders, conducting preclinical research about the antidepressant effects of cannabinoids. On his Ph.D., he focused on ayahuasca, a subject that attracted his attention from the personal experiences he has had with it, carrying out a qualitative study on the ritual use of ayahuasca during the treatment of severe physical illnesses. He has also taken part in an epidemiological survey on the use of ayahuasca and its therapeutic potential for smoking cessation, and other research projects exploring the therapeutic effects of psychedelics.



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