In his book, The Fellowship of the River, family physician Dr. Joe Tafur discovers the healing power of ayahuasca. What began as a personal quest to heal from depression while in medical school turned into a new path that Tafur would eventually incorporate into his own practice and study of epigenetics.
Discussing his experiences helping a Peruvian shaman open an ayahuasca retreat center, he says, “I observed people get better from things that I knew we really struggled with in Western medicine.”
In his book, Tafur discusses the range of ailments seekers flew to South America looking to heal. “Depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, migraine headaches, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, someone with unexplained chronic pain issues, and a chronic cough that wasn’t getting better with medical attention.”
Though we wouldn’t typically group those illnesses together, Tafur observed that this Amazonian plant medicine effectively treated all of them. “All of these people got better from what, according to our system, are very different problems,” says Tafur.
The Power of Emotional Healing
Incredibly, ayahuasca treatment (which involves more plants than ayahuasca) helped everyone in some capacity even though their diagnoses differed. This indicated that a physiological link exists between them. “And in every single case,” Tafur says, “profound emotional healing was key to the shift in all of them.”
Emotional dysfunction underlies a variety of mental health disorders. The modern pharmacology of psychiatric drugs is based on a belief that such disorders are a result of “chemical imbalances” in the brain. We’re coming to understand, largely thanks to scientific research being conducted on psychedelics, how large a role emotions, including unresolved trauma, play in overall health. Taking care of our emotions–be it through therapy, psychedelics, meditation, or a combination of practices–is both preventive and curative medicine.
Epigenetics and Disease
Dr. Tafur wanted to better understand the biology of trauma and healing considering what he observed with the ayahuasca protocol. This led him to investigate the burgeoning field of epigenetics. Trauma imprints itself on genes. We now know trauma is passed down through generations. This epigenetic system begins with this layer on top of the genes. We can’t necessarily change the actual gene but many factors, from environmental to traumatic, can affect the way the gene expresses itself.
If researchers find that psychedelics produce a biological shift on the epigenetic level, it would be one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of our time. That’s exactly what Dr. Tafur and the Modern Spirit research team, led by Principal Investigator Dr. Rael Cahn MD Ph.D., aim to do.
New Study Aims to Evaluate Epigenetic Change After Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy
Through his organization, Modern Spirit, which is working in collaboration with MAPS and USC, Tafur is helping to raise money for an epigenetics study that is evaluating patients going through the MAPS MDMA clinical trials. The objective is to collect saliva samples in order to evaluate the epigenetic change pre- and post-treatment.
“Evidence indicates that people are imprinted with traumatic experiences. In the healing of such trauma, we would expect there to be a shift in their epigenetics as well. That would help to explain the biology behind why somebody that had treatment-resistant PTSD for 20 years does not have PTSD anymore,” says Tafur.
“That’s why getting this breakthrough therapy treatment approved by the FDA is so important to us,” he continues, “because we’re among a large group of people who are really taking a look at the role of trauma in mental health disorders. In the case of PTSD, that’s obvious. However, there’s a growing body of evidence that depression, anxiety, and addiction are also trauma-related.”
We sat down with Dr. Joe Tafur to discuss epigenetics and the upcoming study.
RS + Dr. Joe Tafur Interview
RS: What is epigenetics?
JT: For example, all your cells have the same DNA. But they’re programmed differently through this epigenetic machinery, which sits upon the genes, altering their expression. Epigenetics is a form of cellular memory, programming, and even conditioning for the cell. And you can manipulate it.
When they cloned Dolly the sheep, they took a cell from her mammary gland. Then they deprogrammed it, made it a pluripotent stem cell, and used that to replicate an entire sheep. That’s an extreme example of the possibilities of epigenetics.
Then in the case of two twins with identical DNA, sometimes subtle or overt differences develop between them. In other words, their epigenetics have been altered by the environment. So the epigenetics can respond to the environment within the life span, which alters the way the genes are expressed. Epigenetics is a whole new kind of biology that we’re discovering with adaptive and maladaptive possibilities.
RS: Maladaptive—like trauma, correct?
JT: This would be trauma. There was one study for which researchers took a mouse and exposed it to a particular smell every time they stressed it out. After enough conditioning, the smell alone would initiate a fight-or-flight response in the mouse’s biology. That got passed down several generations. So the smell triggered future mice. That is an example of inter-generational epigenetic maladaptive changes.
Epigenetics seems to be a major player in how childhood stress would lead to or contribute to depression, anxiety, or addiction later in life, and even a predisposition to PTSD. So many of the approaches to mental health focus on behavior: do this, don’t do that, change this, etc., without understanding that there might be an underlying thing to address, an accumulated maladaptive stress response.
An abusive parent, for example. In the beginning, the system might try to condition itself and respond: “I’d better be more fearful” or “I better be more distrustful” but then there is no alleviation. So the adaptations accumulate and there’s no relief. In a situation like that, you can imagine the system becoming calibrated in a direction that is no longer ideal. Maybe you start to see immune function compromised because of a chronic stress response.
RS: Like the person in your book with the chronic migraines that you discovered were linked to her father?
JT: There’s research around migraines being a maladaptive stress response. I’m not saying that’s always the case in migraines, but it’s an interesting question to explore. When the person is exposed to high stress or is stressed, certain smells, sounds, or light will push them over the edge. This sensory overload leads to a sensory integration dysfunction which, at some point, might have been just some kind of maladaptive stress response of: “just get me out of here.” It’s not clear how it all connects, but there’s something there.
RS: What about other disorders and epigenetics?
JT: A few major disorders are getting a lot of attention for their epigenetic role. The first would be cancer.
There’s genetic expression involved. We hear about cancer genes being turned on and off. We know that environmental triggers– carcinogens–promote them to turn on. So epigenetics becomes a really big deal in cancer. It would explain how heavily environmental factors influence cancer.
Then diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and nutrition. Someone might start eating too much sugar, or too much this or that. Then diabetes type 2 gets triggered and we see it accumulating in the population. The younger generation starts getting it earlier. This would be another example of epigenetics.
We’re seeing biology that looks like a genetic illness because it’s inheritable. We don’t realize, however, that it could be something that was altered over the life span by environmental influences, nutrition, et cetera.
RS: We’ve talked about how psychedelic-assisted therapy helps people to deal with the underlying emotional trauma that may be the root of a lot of these problems. Based on your experience, what do you think it is about ayahuasca that enables that healing to happen?
JT: You’re getting the default mode network to quiet down, which allows emotional content to come forward. We’re seeing some kind of mystical or extraordinary perspective as a context in which to work through issues. That is all facilitating, in some cases, some sort of emotional breakthrough. An emotional breakthrough provides what feels like an energetic shift in the person. That would be similar to the emotional experiences that led to the imprinting of trauma in the first place.
In the epigenetics study, we’re looking for an aspect of the biology that’s responsive to that kind of experience.
RS: Is this a correct statement to make? We know that trauma imprints itself onto the genes, but we don’t have enough evidence yet to conclude whether psychedelics could be used to “reprogram” the behavior of the genes.
Joe: We know that trauma is linked to epigenetics and that epigenetics can be influenced therapeutically by antidepressants and psychotherapy. There’s some evidence that indicates that we could undo or reverse some of this damage, so to speak. We know that meditation also has an epigenetic effect, for example.
RS: Let’s talk about the epigenetics research project that you’re a part of.
JT: Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project is a research project that I and a few others started in collaboration with MAPS and USC. The university is gathering a collection of saliva samples from the MAPS MDMA trial centers. Once we have enough saliva samples before and after treatment collected, then we’ll analyze them looking for epigenetic changes. ASU and a number of other people are also involved. We’re raising money, and we need help. It’s a new science, so it is expensive.
RS: Where do you think your focus will be?
JT: We have several areas of focus. One example is the cortisol receptor gene area, which has been known to be affected epigenetically in many cases of PTSD. If we see a shift in that area, that would speak to some kind of alleviation of epigenetic tagging that was previously associated with the trauma. That would be a kind of reprogramming, maybe just temporarily, but still a shift at the biochemical level. That would open the door for psychedelic psychotherapy to enter the biochemical/biomedical model.
RS: Where are you in the process?
JT: We’re in the data collection phase. We want to move into the lab analysis phase as soon as we have enough numbers. People are still going through the trial which is what we’re waiting for. Once that’s done, we would analyze the samples over a period of a few weeks which would give us some indication if there is epigenetic change. So we would hope to be able to provide data this year. If we find something, it’ll be a major breakthrough for medicine.
Resources for Dr. Joe Tafur
Learn more about Dr. Joe Tafur at his website: https://drjoetafur.com
If you’re interested in contributing to this groundbreaking initiative, check out the crowdfunding campaign.