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What if you could take one dose of a medicine and it could help you to heal from conditions like major depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, addiction, chronic pain disorders like migraines, eating disorders, dementia, and even sexual trauma? And when I say heal, I mean the effects last.
So, I’m talking here about the fascinating and cutting-edge research coming out weekly on medicinal mushrooms and psychedelics.
You’ve probably seen the headlines somewhere, because they’ve been everywhere.
The science of psychedelics is changing the entire landscape of medicine. It’s exciting. And honestly, it’s about time.
For years, I’ve seen profound transformations in so many people who have worked with psychedelic medicines – especially those suffering from the health effects of adult or childhood trauma. Even people who felt stuck – in their physical health or mental health issues or simply like they couldn’t move out of a compromised, unhappy, or less-than-fulfilled place – were able to step into a more healthy, vital, and joyful life.
You may be thinking, Why the heck are doctors so excited to be serving up illegal drugs to the populace?
It’s true – many of us have been told that they’re drugs, that they’re harmful, and that they should be illegal, and a lot of people accepted that.
But now, research is showing us that these indigenous medicines that come from the earth are truly something much more; they serve to show us a connection between our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves – and beyond.
Widespread stories of benefit – and personal experiences by scientists and doctors themselves – have led to an explosion of psychedelic studies.
Extensive research has been underway over the past many years in the most prestigious academic institutions – Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Stanford, NYU – all over the world, with research papers published in the most respected medical journals. In these clinical trials, those suffering from untreatable depression, severe anxiety associated with terminal cancer, crippling PTSD, and drug addiction are reporting mystical experiences that are profoundly life-changing. And for many of these study participants, the benefits even from one dose of mushrooms, for example, can be long-lasting.
In a 2006 trial studying the potential of psilocybin, more than 70 percent of the participants rated the experience as one of the five most important in their lives. Nearly a third rated it the single most important experience. In studies conducted by NYU and Johns Hopkins, results of which were published concurrently in November 2016, about 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in anxiety and depression lasting some eight months after an initial dose. The paper concludes that “discovering how these mystical and altered-consciousness states arise in the brain could have major therapeutic possibilities” and “it would be scientifically shortsighted not to pursue them.”
As with any natural or pharmaceutical medicine, it’s absolutely essential to be educated and intentional in the way we engage with these medicines. And as we’ll see, Master Plants are much, much more than a mere pharmaceutical or natural supplement, so having guidance and support around how to engage with them becomes that much more important.
This book is a journey into considering psychedelics differently than most of us have perhaps ever considered them before.
Given that most pharmaceuticals are taken daily, what’s profound about the current studies on psychedelics is that in some cases, just one dose of these medicines can reverse conditions that are very challenging to treat. And the effects are long term.
One dose of psilocybin-containing mushrooms can transform treatment-resistant depression, anorexia, and PTSD.
With one dose of iboga alone, people have been able to refrain from using heroin, methamphetamine, and other substances that are very difficult to stop otherwise.
With two doses of psilocybin, over 80 percent of people stopped smoking – and almost 70 percent stayed away even after a year. And those same two doses helped heavy drinkers of alcohol cut their drinking by more than half over an eight-month period.
People are discovering that it’s possible to engage with these medicines in micro or even smaller quantum doses over time – with no psychedelic or journeying effect – and still successfully address brain health, mental health, mood, pain syndromes, and more.
Are these for everyone? Probably not.
But can these medicines change the lives of those people who are good candidates?
Trauma Lives within Us
Let’s back up for a moment and consider where we are at this moment in time, and why.
Millions of people around the world are struggling with chronic physical and mental health conditions and have tried different pharmaceuticals, diet changes, nutritional and herbal supplements, and other treatments and therapeutic techniques to address them. These approaches work for a good number of people. Many get better or at least get by, at least for a period of time. But in my practice, a percentage of people still didn’t get better, and I usually saw them at or immediately after the moment when everything fell apart. Something deeper clearly was afoot.
And the question I kept asking myself was this: Why does a similar condition – let’s say strep throat, or Epstein-Barr virus (which causes mononucleosis), or a seemingly benign car accident, or even a divorce – cause one person to get knocked off the horse for weeks or even months or years, while for another person, it barely causes a blip in terms of function for more than a week or two?
When I was in medical school, I was taught the answer to everything that happened to us was likely genetic – diabetes, migraines, mental illness, cancer, all the way down to our level of resilience or shitty coping skills. Who hasn’t heard – or said – “it runs in my family”? Yet while it’s true that all these physical and mental health conditions can have familial and even genetic components, research has shown that genetics likely play a far smaller role than we originally were told. And since genetics are mostly set in stone, I wanted to explore where opportunities existed to change those health and other stories passed down to us. I knew there had to be more to the story, and there was.
As we’ll explore together in these pages, the real answers are both simple and very complex. But what we now know is that a key factor in setting those different responses is trauma. And by that I mean not just current, ongoing, or acute events but even terrible moments or periods of life that could have happened decades ago or sometimes even generations ago. These events imprint upon us down to a cellular and mitochondrial level, and even affect the way our DNA is read. Sometimes trauma can result from an event that didn’t even look very dramatic to someone on the outside. And sometimes there was no “event” that someone could point to – it was simply painfully dysfunctional garden in which they grew every single day of their early childhood.
For a long time, trauma wasn’t a concept even discussed in the mainstream. Then – finally! – mainstream psychology and medicine began to acknowledge that trauma plays an often disempowering or even toxic role in our adult behaviors, responses, and relationship patterns, in ways ranging from overeating to addictions to depression to what we commonly call personality disorders.
Very recently, research has begun to show that adverse childhood events (ACEs) impact even our physical bodies, and can lead to not just mental illness but also some of the most difficult-to-treat physical illnesses we suffer from today – autoimmune disease, metabolic syndromes like diabetes and obesity, ADHD and dementia, and even chronic pain and cancer.
We know much about what happens in the brain and body as a result of individual trauma from studying a variety of childhood events. ACEs include experiences of divorce; addiction; incarceration; physical, mental, or sexual abuse; and loss of a family member, many of which are not uncommon life experiences.
Some people have higher ACE scores (meaning a greater number of difficult childhood experiences) than others, and may suffer more effects as a result. And of course, high or low ACE scores do not always correlate to a particular adult outcome, because every single person’s particular experience of difficult events are uniquely painful to them. Full stop.
How do the physical, mental, and other changes have long-standing impact in our bodies and minds, even causing disease later in life? When these experiences occur, our nervous system structure changes. On an MRI, higher ACE scores correlate with less gray matter in key areas of the brain, including in the prefrontal cortex, which supports decision-making and self-regulation, and the amygdala, which processes fear. If our developing brain was chronically stressed because we were coping with ACEs, the hippocampus, which processes emotion and memory and manages stress, shrinks.
ACEs can affect our resting heart and respiratory rates, eye contact, posture, coping mechanisms, and our emotional responses to situations. And though the events may have taken place in childhood, the effects can last for life, partly because the resulting behaviors tend to become invisible to us. They simply become part of our unconscious behavior.
All of this offers context for why many of us walk around ready to rumble (or crumple!) at the slightest instigation. The imprints of trauma disrupt our decision-making, self-regulation, fear-processing, memory, and stress management. And when we’re triggered, we fall more easily into a dysregulated fear response.
The fear response is designed in such a way that we can’t see subtlety. After all, what good is nuance when we’re running from a lion? The problem is that many of us feel like we’re constantly running from lions, even when we’re not. Every nightly news story or newspaper headline is designed to activate that response. Social media algorithms, too, are designed to act as triggers to the sympathetic nervous system so that we get “fired up” and stay longer on the site. And anyone who reads the comments section of any controversial post on Facebook can vouch for how even triggered strangers can then trigger us, causing a chain reaction of activated trauma.
Trauma mind shows us only directly what’s in front of us, our one and only path to survival, and nothing else. The result of a society in chronic survival mode is that half of the population seems to entirely disagree with the other half on any number of issues. We have seen in real time around the world how easily we can become weaponized against each other when we are triggered. Not surprisingly, black-and-white thinking can be a symptom of trauma response. Yet such thinking actually isolates us and heightens our sense of danger – even, as we’ll see, on a cellular level.
Most of all, trauma is fracturing and stigmatizing. The experiences – and how we internalize them – lead us to feel all alone, victimized, and like we are damaged, broken, and less valuable. Traumatic experiences psychically (and sometimes literally) separate us from what we may perceive to be “respectable” or “normal” society, leading to a sense of victimhood that can cause us to perceive our pain and suffering as unique, different, and something that no one else can really understand. That is the nature of the experience.
While our particular set of experiences are unique to us, pain and suffering are not unique. As a physician, I discovered early on that no matter how wonderful things may look from the outside, people can struggle with crippling issues of all kinds for a variety of reasons.
Years ago, my daughter took a gap year before college and found herself feeling isolated and alone in a relatively small, homogeneous group of people that she felt had more in common with each other than with her. Everyone else seemed to be making friends and having a great time except for her. When she shared her sense of exclusion and loneliness with the guides, they said: You’re not alone. It may not look that way, but a lot of other kids here feel lonely, isolated, and like they don’t have any friends.
That night, they gathered everyone into a circle for an exercise. They gave everyone a handful of pennies, placed a bowl in the middle of the room, and turned out the lights so no one could see anything. Then they asked questions: Do you feel lonely? Do you feel anxious? Do you feel depressed? Do you feel like you have no friends? If the answer was yes, they were instructed to throw a penny into the bowl.
After each question, the room was filled with the sounds of pennies upon pennies landing in the bowl. Inside, everyone felt like they had no friends. Everyone felt lonely, anxious, and depressed. Some just pretended better than others.
When she told me the story afterward, I asked her if she felt better knowing that she wasn’t alone. “No,” she said. “Because I’m really suffering; they just think they are.”
We all think our pennies are worth more.
From there, we live our lives as if in an “us versus them” stance, which becomes our instinctual response.
This automatic response, however, need not remain automatic. Trauma isn’t what happens to us, but what happens within us.
Here’s what I mean.
Like us, our cells exist in one of two major states – growth or protection. Either the cell experiences stimuli that are pleasant, which instigates the cell to open arms wide to accept connection and communication like nutrients and information, or it turns away from overly stressful stimuli, which causes the cell to close off to nutrients, communication, and even releasing waste. In the latter situation, the cell isolates and no longer operates as part of a community. And in extreme periods of protection, the cell becomes stuck in “danger mode” and diverts its function permanently to protection instead of growth.
The cell danger response (CDR) describes the way trauma lives within our bodies on a cellular level as a biological response to physical, mental, or emotional insults. Usually, our cells can activate or deactivate CDR fairly quickly in response to a challenge. But sometimes, the cell continues to live in high alert at all times and siphons resources away from optimal function, with the idea that it is always in danger. This CDR is the underlying physiological mechanism of almost all chronic physical and even mental illness. And as we reenact mental or emotional trauma until we heal it, so too will our cells reenact this response physiologically, and vice versa, again and again, until something shifts.
Our Microbes Run the Trauma Show
Trauma – whether ancestral; mental or physical abuse; a car accident; or countless other sources of physical, mental, or emotional pain –imprints not just on our cells but also, as we’ll see, on our very DNA, and even the microbes that reside within us. This trauma imprinting actually disrupt the composition of our microbiome – the organisms that live in and on our bodies, primarily in our digestive tracts. These three to five pounds of billions of bacteria, viruses, yeast, and fungi are a complex universe within us that supports not just our digestion but also our immunity, sleep, memory, and mood.
These microbes are influenced by what happens to us in our lives, and we, in turn, are exquisitely sensitive to what’s happening in our microbiome. A period of trauma can alter the makeup of microbes that predominate in our gut causing dysbiosis or microbial imbalances. And that alteration translates to persistent negative physical and mental health effects from the stress of that trauma. Our inner microbial community literally holds our traumatic events as their own and invisibly amplifies and propagates and prolongs them in our bodies.
What this means is that something that happens to us when we’re seven years old can imprint on our microbiome, and that shift then facilitates long-term negative impact – just from that single stressor! – for the rest of our lives or until that part of the microbiome is shifted back in balance again.
It turns out that our microbes are fundamental drivers of how we deal with the world around us and how we perceive the world. When trauma imprints on the microbiome, that imprint rewrites how we experience our daily life – literally down to our stress levels, anxiety, depression, brain fog, impaired memory or immunity or autoimmunity, chronic pain, and more – in the context of that trauma.
And it doesn’t even have to be trauma with capital T.
We can be affected in this way by our parents not comforting us when we’re crying or calling us “crybaby.” Or by a caretaker coming late every day to pick us up after school. Or by an abusive first grade teacher who publicly embarrasses us all year in front of our class when we make mistakes.
An important note is that another child in the family or kid in the classroom may not have experienced similar challenges in the same way as we did. For them, insults that flattened us may have rolled right off their backs. Similarly, not everyone demonstrates the same physiological changes as a result of the very same events.
Contrary to what we’ve been taught, “trauma” is not the event itself. It’s how we experience the event or period of our lives and how effectively the changes take up residence with us – whether it ultimately embeds into the makeup of our cells, our microbes, our brains, and beyond. It all depends on how acutely and intensely each of us experiences the particular set of stressors in the context of our particular inner nature, as well as the level of resilience and resource we derive from other parts of our lives.
All of this may sound a little far-fetched. After all, how can a mass of microbes – that aren’t even human – be so affected by our grief, sadness, and anger? And how do they in turn affect our behavior and our health?
At the most basic level, traumatic experiences dramatically shifts our microbial balance away from the beneficial gut organisms that we do need and toward the opportunistic organisms we don’t, all in a very short period of time. And then they really cause problems, because these excessive “opportunistic” organisms begin to create excess inflammation throughout the body. They increase intestinal permeability causing leaky gut and elevated inflammatory cytokines that travel far beyond our intestines – creating a chronically hypersensitive, hyperactivated hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary (HPA) axis, which leads to chronically increased surges of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Now we are living in an ongoing fight-or-flight response.
When the HPA axis is so sensitive and thus more susceptible to activation, small things that would be seemingly easy to deal with create a much more amplified stress response. Everything feels like a 10 out of 10.
Starting to get the picture?
The constant surges of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones that activate our fight-or-flight response trigger sympathetic nervous system and immune system in ways that amp our inflammatory pathways.
Welcome to chronic inflammation, which becomes the foundation for chronic disease. This constellation of events sets the stage for developing autoimmune disease, chronic pain syndromes, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. They can also act as a fundamental instigator of metabolic disease. So now our risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are all dramatically increased because of this fundamental state of elevated inflammation.
In a nutshell, trauma keeps us on high alert, amplified by daily stressors, leading to chronic inflammation, which can cause chronic physical, neurological, and even mental illness down the road.
What does this all mean for us, practically speaking?
Let’s say we experience a common daily stressor – for example, crappy traffic. We’re driving to work, somebody cuts us off, and we get pissed. Totally normal. Our heart rate goes up. Our stress hormones surge. Our flight-or-fight response kicks in.
Sometime in the next twenty to thirty minutes, that stress response should return to baseline.
But if we have a trauma-altered body and gut, that single stressor will perpetuate the flight-or-fight response for hours. Instead of being a minimal, temporary stressor, the day becomes filled with anxiety and inflammation. To add insult to injury, we are now set up for chronic illness. Everything else starts to fall apart because of that embedded stressor within the system.
Of course, the more profoundly the stress persists, the more we try increasingly dramatic approaches to calm the response. Some people enter “freeze” mode and simply go numb or check out. Others develop addictive behaviors or seek substances in desperate attempts to extract themselves or even just cope with the stress response.
When we hold the imprint of trauma in our bodies and our minds, even simple uncertainty of any kind can act as one of many physiological and emotional triggers. The resulting insatiable need for control can look like perfectionism, people pleasing, hypervigilance, always expecting the worst (catastrophizing), and other adaptive behaviors.
But take a minute. Breathe. Because it’s important to know that this response need not be inevitable or permanent.
My Search for Answers in the Unseen World
If we don’t find a way out of these trauma loops, our automatic responses can lead us to repeat familiar childhood dynamics in our adult relationships, even if they were extremely unpleasant. And as a result, we can feel that we’re unsafe, that we cannot trust ourselves or those around us, and that we have to disconnect from ourselves and our needs in order to be accepted or loved. We can walk around dissociated, not noticing physiological cues like hunger, thirst, the need for rest, or even pain, or we can live in a state of chronic brain fog, where we struggle with focus, clear thinking, or memory. We may avoid intimacy, even with our spouses or those very close to us. We may be hypervigilant, our dysregulated nervous system always looking for danger and ready for lights to flash and sirens to blare, or we may catastrophize, expecting the worst of everybody and preparing for the worst possible scenario at all times. We can ruminate, overthink, perseverate, and worry, worry, worry.
These are not inherent responses, but likely result from experiences we had with our families of origin very early in our lives, which in turn can reflect familial and sometimes even ancestral trauma. As long as we are unaware of ways that we automatically live into patterns that may have been in some way modeled for (or inflicted upon) us, we may perpetuate them by repeating them with different sets of actors when we’re adults.
As I mentioned, when I began my own journey into understanding Master Plants, I was already known as an integrative adult and pediatric neurologist, herbalist, and urban farmer who worked with children and adults worldwide to reverse chronic and refractory illness. I was an expert, but even with all of my training, I couldn’t account for the different ways my patients with similar conditions responded to similar treatments. I knew it wasn’t just “genetics.” Something deeper was at play for my patients struggling with treatment-resistant syndromes.
With my detective hat on, I went searching for answers, this time in the unseen world. I took the endeavor as seriously as my prior medical training. I traveled to the Amazon rainforest, the Andes mountains, and the Valley of Longevity to explore different perspectives on how nature heals. In the years that followed, I trained with indigenous elders. I learned about ancient astrology and numerology, read original writings of ancient mystics, and dove deep into my own personal, familial, and ancestral trauma. And I began to grow my own Master Plants, tend to them, learn from them, and listen to them.
In the process, I began to walk the bridge between the ancient, indigenous technologies that modern science has only begun to fathom and my prior training and practice of medicine. I began to make sense of what had previously felt inaccessible. I developed vocabulary for what I had always sensed around me but struggled to describe, which I came to call the invisible terrain within and around us.
Many of us have denied the impacts of our trauma – at our own great peril. We may abandon our own needs and desires for the sake of others, put our effort into trying to make things okay for other people at our own expense, struggle to say no, and do anything to avoid conflict. We may develop addictions to substances or even activities in order to escape from feeling uncomfortable or avoiding unbearable inner pain we have no words to describe and minimal tools to mine. And as we’ve seen, these unexpressed, unseen parts can become loud and manifest as very real mental, emotional, or physical symptoms: explosive rage, depression, anxiety, addiction, insomnia, chronic pain, and conditions including autoimmunity, neurological disorders, and even cancer.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Today, we are discovering how profoundly accurate his words were on every level.
And so we suffer. We can feel persistently isolated and alone even when surrounded by friends, because we literally are not seen for who we are. We can feel chronically fatigued or lack energy partly because we invest so much in pretending we’re fine.
Loneliness itself has the same health risks as smoking almost a pack of cigarettes daily or abusing alcohol. And loneliness doesn’t mean we are literally alone, but simply that we feel alone.
Many people who suffer with these conditions are labeled with what we call “diseases” and are offered pharmaceuticals, as though their problems are purely physical or mental. And while the symptoms are very real indeed, often they don’t fully or even minimally respond to these conventional, integrative, and psychological treatments.
The root cause may be something else entirely.
What does healing look like?
We are capable of change, and we can recalibrate our responses. The first step is to learn to listen to ourselves and trust our transmissions, beginning at the level of our nervous system, heart, body, soul, and beyond. From this place of trust, we can begin to find meaning in our life experiences, and see them as a call to mystery, community, and opportunity. Ultimately, this process allows us to encounter, embody, and continually evolve into our truest selves.
Sounds esoteric or unattainable, I know. But we’re going on this journey together.
When we realize how deeply we really are connected – to the world within us, the world around us, and even the world outside of ordinary space and time – we begin to shift out of the “us versus them” perspective. We can access a new kind of knowing that most of us have never been taught. And we can develop a sense of resonance and alignment rather than fruitlessly pursuing fulfillment through false acceptance. The more authentic we become, the more we recognize and even magnetize our soul family, so we never need to feel lonely again.
With this, our cells shift out of cell danger mode, and our chronic physical and mental health conditions can improve and even reverse. We can feel well, joyful, and more alive. And we can better navigate inevitable hard times as well.
Moving toward healing and connection – on every level – is our natural state. Sometimes our bodies, minds, and spirits just need a reminder that we’re capable of it, and a guide to help us begin the journey back to a state of well-being.
Most of us have been offered few options to address our past experiences and patterns other than recommendations for talk therapy, psychiatric medication, meditation, or keeping a stiff upper lip. Some of these approaches may work for some people, but the vast majority of people are looking for more effective – and faster – relief.
Psychedelic medicines – and Master Plants in particular – have captured the imagination of medical and mental health professionals, largely because they’re blowing up much of what we’ve believed about not just our physical and mental health, but also our emotional, spiritual and even communal and ecological health.
In this book, I am inviting you to consider Master Plants as a profound way to open new portals to healing and connection. However, this is not a push-of-a-button, one-size-fits-all solution. Master Plants require a particular approach that includes the right support before, during, and after. They ask us to think beyond reductionism – breaking ourselves and the world around us into tiny, separate particles – and to embrace interconnectedness in the widest sense of the word.