Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Could Aaron Rodgers’ Ayahuasca Use Help the NFL Explore Psychedelic Treatment for Players?

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says drinking ayahuasca didn’t entirely heal his family relationships, but it has helped him better understand himself. What implications does that have for the NFL and psychedelic healing?

“I really felt like I wanted to surrender and open up to the medicine for some healing to come through and some direction on how to kind of go about that. And it didn’t. It didn’t necessarily,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said in a recent interview. Rodgers says he made several trips to Peru, where ayahuasca is legal, between 2020 and 2022 in part to heal family trauma. Rodgers was estranged from his brother, Jordan, for years until recently.

“We sat three different nights with the medicine. I came in with an intention of doing a lot of healing of other relationships and bringing in certain people to have conversations with,” Rodgers said.

“Most of the work was around myself and figuring out what unconditional love of myself looks like of myself. In doing that, allowing me to understand how to unconditionally love other people but first realizing it’s gotta start with myself. I’ve got to be a little more gentle with myself and compassionate and forgiving because I’ve had some negative voices, negative self-talk, for a long time. A lot of healing went on.”

Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers | Courtesy Wikimedia

But beyond the emotional effects, ayahuasca—the shamanic South American plant brew used for religious and spiritual purposes—may have some other benefits for the 38-year-old League MVP for the last two years, including the potential to heal traumatic brain injury (TBI).

According to research by the American Academy of Neurology, TBI was found in 40 percent of retired National Football League players. TBI can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has been identified as a leading cause of early death, including suicide, in former professional athletes. Rodgers has suffered from at least two concussions in the NFL, including one in week 17 of the 2018-2019 season that caused him temporary vision loss.

Psychedelics and brain health

“What ultimately pushed me out was my seventh diagnosed concussion, and the symptoms,” Daniel Carcillo, former NHL player and founder of the psychedelic wellness company Wesana Health told Forbes last year. “I couldn’t look at my phone for a week because of the light sensitivity. I had a newborn son at home and I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted everyone to leave me alone.”

Carcillo has become a vocal proponent of both psychedelic therapies and traumatic brain injury awareness. Wesana was born out of the Stanley Cup winner’s own experience with psilocybin—both micro and macro doses of the magic mushrooms—following his last concussion.

“This definitely isn’t a miracle drug,” he said. “It’s a medicine that allows you to create good habits and then stay on those habits, but you have to do the work,” he says. His use of psilocybin is linked to improved brain scans. Carcillo says following 18 months of his psilocybin use, a qEEG scan showed no abnormalities. He says that in bigger doses, psilocybin has the potential to “change our perspective” on brain injury. “A lot of TBI patients want to become the person that we were before the injury, but I’m trying to show people that you can actually get better,” he said.

The NFL says Rodgers’ use of ayahuasca isn’t violating the League’s rules on drug use. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the ayahuasca wouldn’t have triggered a positive test result for either substance abuse or performance-enhancing substance policies. Packers coach Matt LaFleur said he hadn’t given the news much thought.

Daniel Carcillo
Daniel Carcillo, founder of Wesana Health | Courtesy

The lack of concern by the NFL is aligned with changing perceptions around psychedelic substances. Oregon recently became the first state to legalize therapeutic use of psilocybin, and several cities across the U.S. have decriminalized recreational use of psilocybin along with most other psychedelics including LSD, DMT, MDMA, and mescaline. Legal off-label use of the dissociative drug ketamine is behind a growing number of psychedelic wellness clinics including Field Trip Health as well as guided at-home options like Wondermed’s ketamine lozenge.

Carcillo’s work may be part of the reason the NFL isn’t investigating Rodgers’ use. Last year, Wesana Health partnered with the World Boxing Council (WBC) to help better understand TBI and the benefits psychedelics might offer. Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson helped coordinate the deal. Tyson is an investor in Wesana and has credited psychedelics (as well as cannabis) for helping him with his own injuries.

WBC agreed to give Carcillo’s Wesana access to its data on TBI injuries in boxers dating back nearly fifty years. Wesana will compare that to current boxers’ injuries with the hopes of eventually enrolling boxers into clinical trials looking at how psilocybin or other psychedelics impact recovery.

“We have been involved in research studies of the impact of TBI with partners since the 1970s and Wesana’s approach holds strong potential for curing this debilitating condition and improving brain and mental health,” Mauricio Sulaiman, WBC’s president, said in a news release at the time of the announcement.

Athletes turn to psychedelics

Rodgers isn’t the only NFL player to admit to using psychedelics. Former Denver Broncos’ and Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback Jake Plummer, who now grows legal medicinal and culinary mushrooms outside of Denver, recently admitted to his use of psilocybin.

“The times that I have used it therapeutically, it’s been very mind-opening to the wonder of everything around, just to the wonder of existence and everything around us, how amazing everything is,” he told the Denver Westword. “We’re searching for this answer to go to heaven to be with God. But maybe we, on Earth, are on heaven and are God ourselves. Once you open your mind to that, you really can’t go back to believe much of anything other than ‘Wow.’”

Jake Plummer and his mushrooms
Jake Plummer and his mushrooms | Courtesy Del Jolly

Kerry Rhodes, also formerly with the Arizona Cardinals, told HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel in 2021 that ayahuasca helped eliminate his chronic headaches and pain, helped him recover his memory, and quelled fears over developing CTE.

Former NFL offensive tackle Eben Britton recently detailed his experiences with psychedelics in the book The Eben Flow: Basic Tools To Transform Your Life. “Plant medicine has been such a profound healing modality for me in my life,” he told The Dales Report this spring. “What’s really interesting about the athlete’s experience, especially if you’re an athlete engaging in a very physical sport… the day you step on the field, or you step into competition, is the day you stop emotionally developing.” 

Athletes including 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater, former NBA player Lamar Odom, and rugby champion Anna Symonds, have all credited psychedelics for helping them heal.

Last year, four separate systematic reviews were published that Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), says show the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapies for key categories including end of life care, brain injury, neurodegenerative disorders, mood disorders, smoking cessation, and addiction or dependence. “Dozens of studies make a compelling case for rapid expansion of research into psychedelic-assisted therapies for serious mental health conditions,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian.

“Evidence indicates that psychedelic use is associated with pro-social, personal growth benefits including increased nature relatedness, potentiating conflict resolution and sustaining compassion among first responders,” he wrote. Doblin points to Indigenous communities around the globe that have used psychedelics in spiritual ceremony and healing for millennia with little risk of addiction or other health issues as a result.

Legislation in states including Florida, Hawaii, and California, among others, could bring further deregulation and increased acceptance. Coupled with the growing body of research pointing to the long-term benefits of psychedelics, there’s every likelihood that the NFL will soon look at the substances in a new light.

“The big message was unconditionally loving myself is the key to being able to heal all relationships.”

-Aaron Rodgers

After years of skepticism, the League finally acknowledged the link between football injuries and CTE. The 2021-2022 NFL season saw 187 concussions—a number that’s down 29 percent from the 2015-2017 season. In 2016, the NFL pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience-related topics. “This is in addition to the $100 million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research,” the League said in a statement.

The League has also made nearly 50 rule changes since 2002 in order to better protect players from concussions. In a statement, the League said it enforces “a concussion protocol for players that has been instrumental in immediately identifying and diagnosing concussions and other head-related injuries.”

nfl-sustainability
Courtesy Shutterstock

For the athletes that have used psychedelics, there’s more to the healing than just concussion recovery, though. It can help tackle the many issues that come with being in the spotlight, such as working in an industry that’s often aligned with aggressive male stereotypes. The NFL has been accused of racial bias, misconduct, and sexual assault. Less than a year ago, Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman, Carl Nassib, was the first active NFL player to come out as gay in the League’s 100-year history.

Rodgers says ayahuasca helped him to fall in love with football, “a little bit deeper.” He emphasized that it’s not just the ayahuasca, but work he’s done on himself in recent years.

“It’s been therapy. It’s been meditation. It’s been changing habits that weren’t giving me any type of joy. Eating better. Taking care of myself a little bit better. Being more gentle with myself. All those things have allowed me to look at each day with a little more joy,” he said.

“The big message was unconditionally loving myself is the key to being able to heal all relationships — with them, past relationships with lovers, whatever it might be,” Rodgers said. “So that gives me a lot of hope in healing at some point.”

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