Salvia Divinorum – Mexico’s Most Mysterious Healing Herb
During the last few decades the wealthiest nations of the world have encountered a growing epidemic of depression, anxiety, and stress related diseases. Increasingly, individuals effected are finding that conventional medicines either do not help them sufficiently or come with too many undesirable and potentially dangerous side effects. In their search for potential cures existing beyond the local pharmacy, some sufferers have encountered the powerful plant medicines in use among disparate indigenous healing systems, many of these plants being psychedelic in nature.
The mainstream media, ever seeking the most sensational reports, has largely focussed on stories about people flocking to the Amazon jungle to drink the Ayahuasca brew, made from boiling a jungle vine, containing the Harmaline alkaloid and combined with leaves from a second plant containing the more intensely psychedelic alkaloid Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This powerful drink has been credited with miraculous cures of everything from suicidal depression to terminal cancer. Much of the media interest has centred on the growing number of celebrities trying the ‘vine of souls’, often as a treatment for substance addiction.
Not nearly as well-known as Ayahuasca, but every bit as miraculous, is a small leafy shrub growing in Southern Mexico’s Oaxaca province, Salvia Divinorum. The plant is a member of the mint or Lamiaceae family, closely related to better known plants such as common sage (confusing for some is that Salvia is the Spanish name for sage), among the indigenous Mazatec healing traditions it is best known as Xka Pastora, something akin to ‘leaves of the shepherdess’ though it is also known as Hierba de Maria meaning ‘herb of Mary’. These names clearly associate the plant with the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, and as such it can be assumed that Christianity’s influence in Mexico eventually brought about the loss of whatever traditional name the plant used to have among the Mazatec.
Despite the loss of the plants pre-Christian name the traditional use of its leaves in local healing practices survived, along with a number of ritual elements involved in its use. We have recently gained great insights into the plants traditional use, thanks largely to a small band of intrepid anthropologists and researchers linked to the Xka Pastora NGO founded by Ana Elda Maqueda, Ph.D pharmacology. The ritual use of this plant had remained highly mysterious for the many decades since being first announced to the world in 1938 by the anthropologist Jean B. Johnson, after he investigated stories of a Mazatec healing tea.
“I never noticed the transition. I was not aware that I had eaten an entheogenic plant, was in Mexico, was with friends, or had ever had a body. I was engulfed in a complex, fluctuating environment.” – Brett Blosser, Ph.D Anthropology
The Mazatec healers, Curandero’s and Curandera’s, work with a wide range of methods for
healing, included in their tool kit are three powerful psychedelic plants, psilocybin mushrooms, Morning Glory seeds and of course Salvia Divinorum. All of the plants have procedures for use, what we might call ceremony or ritual, to be honest I think procedures for use is likely a more accurate description of these culturally required processes.
Though individual healers will develop their own unique style of ceremony a typical healing session with Xka Pastora is held at night, ideally in pitch darkness, it is stated that the plant requests this due to shyness. The healer will arrange a shrine made up of their personal power objects, likely including representations of saints and an image of the Virgin Mary. Fresh leaves will have been picked, cleansed with sacred Copal incense smoke and then prepared for the patient in pairs, most usually 13 pairs of leaves that are free from damage.
Patients must follow a requisite period of preparation before the day of the healing (la dieta), lasting from several days to perhaps weeks during which they must not drink alcohol, have sexual interactions or consume a list of forbidden foods. These restrictions often continue for some days after the leaves have been consumed.
For the ceremony the leaves are blessed and then given to the patient to chew slowly, avoiding actually eating them, so that the power of the plant can enter the patient’s body through the skin of the mouth. In some cases the leaves are brewed into a very bitter tea rather than being chewed. Prayers will be uttered and songs will be sung, in many cases both healer and patient will be involved in the vocal part of the healing, though the healer will be guiding the session and requesting to spirit helpers that the patient be relieved of their existing health issues.
Mazatec healers claim that this plant has a long history of treating many ailments, including but not limited to the following: anxiety, depression, headaches, conditions of the nervous system, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, problems of the digestive and urinary system, rheumatism and alcoholism.
Modern Research and Usage
Detailed scientific investigation has finally begun to take place during the last few years including both animal testing and human participant trials. Pharmacologists now recognise this plant as nature’s most potent natural psychedelic, containing a unique active compound designated Salvinorum A, unlike most such plants it does not contain alkaloids, which effect serotonin and dopamine receptors, but rather the active compound interacts with opioid receptors. This in itself has opened the door to potential applications in treating substance abuse problems such as heroin addiction as well as certain neurological conditions. In fact there is already good scientific evidence emerging which supports many of the healing claims made by the indigenous healers.
At present most of the data emerging from human use of Salvia Divinorum, as oppose to chemical research, comes from non-traditional sources and largely from outside clinical trials. Unfortunately, outside of the Mazatec community, most use of Salvia is recreational and involves none of the culturally required practices, most notably the common method involved is smoking of the plant material, which has often been modified to enormously enhance the strength. This primary data source is problematic as smoking Salvia Divinorum tends to produce what are typically difficult to handle, or even extremely frightening experiences, the Mazatec healers do not advise using this method. The duration of the trip is much shorter, maybe just 15 minutes, but the intensity is also much increased. The negative nature of most smoking related reports has led to demonization and increasing calls for criminalization, even in Mexico.
There is little doubt that Salvia Divinorum, or Xka Pastora, is a healer of myriad debilitating conditions, potentially of many more yet to be confirmed. It may be that it can even lead us to a better understanding of various neurological processes and even the way in which consciousness interacts with the physical brain. The problem is that as long as it remains poorly understood by the world, typically misused and abused beyond its cultural home, it is on a fast track to being criminalised and perhaps then targeted for physical destruction. We might lose this gift to humanity just at the moment it is offered out to us all. There is however a last hope, we can together bring about more public understanding and bring attention to the true story of this plant and its incredible potential to heal.
What’s the Idea?
A team of film-makers and anthropologists from the UK, Mexico and Peru are running a campaign to raise awareness about this plant, this involves funding an ethnographic documentary about Salvia divinorum and the people whose lives are being transformed by it. To make this a reality they need all of our help, initially through supporting their indiegogo campaign for the independent documentary, which will tell the story of this wonderful plant before it is unjustly criminalized by the Mexican government.
Lessons in The Use of Mazatec Psychoactive Plants – Sage Wisdom
From local to global-fifty years of research on Salvia divinorum. – The National Center for Biotechnology Information
Salvinorin a and related compounds as therapeutic drugs for psychostimulant-related disorders. – The National Center for Biotechnology Information
Salvia Studies Hold Promise for Addiction – ABC News
Getting High on Salvia, for Science – News Week
Brain’s Reaction To Potent Hallucinogen Salvia Explored – Science Daily
Traditional Medicine from Southern Mexico Offers Help with Addiction – Xka Pastora (Scientific American)
Ethnopharmacology of Ska María Pastora (Salvia divinorum, Epling and Játiva-M.) – Sage Wisdom
Salvia Divinorum – Center for Substance Abuse Research
Why Is Salvia So Uniquely Terrifying? – Vice
Study Finds No Link Between Hallucinogens And Mental Problems – NPR