Earlier this year, I had my first experience with sacred tobacco while attending a ceremonial sweat lodge headed by a Lakota medicine woman. Before we entered the blazing hot tent where we would sit for several hours sweating out toxins, she gathered the fifteen or so participants into a circle and explained that before undergoing a ceremonial rite like this, tobacco is often used as a way to center and prepare yourself for the journey ahead.
“The unique thing about tobacco,” the medicine woman explained as she passed around a jar of tobacco ground and diluted in water, “is that, compared to other plant medicines, tobacco both grounds and stimulates you.” This contradictory combination of grounding and uplifting properties is what makes it such a potent medicine, she explained. It clears away superfluous energies and is a powerful aid for setting intentions, which is how the indigenous tribes of the Americas have used it for more than three thousand years.
The tobacco used at my sweat lodge ceremony was not the same as what you’d find in a pack of cigarettes from the corner store. This was Nicotiana rustica—what’s called mapacho in the northern Amazon and the main ingredient of the tobacco snuff known as rapé (pronounced “ha-peh”) found in the southern Amazon. This particularly potent variety of tobacco contains up to twenty times the amount of nicotine found in the variety of tobacco used for cigarettes, Nicotiana tobacum.
But is there any scientific backing to the claims that tobacco aids in setting intentions and clearing negative energies? Undoubtedly, most research on tobacco focuses on its widespread abuse around the globe, the link between smoking and cancer and pulmonary diseases, and the threat of addiction. This hardly seems the making of a spiritual tool, but the shamans who use tobacco for ceremonial purposes explain that, while any powerful plant medicine has the potential for abuse, tobacco—if grown and harvested responsibly without the use of pesticides—can have great benefits when used in a controlled ritual setting. A look into the research shows a complex relationship between tobacco and health.
The Ceremonial Uses of Tobacco
One of the most common uses of tobacco in a ceremonial setting is to cleanse a person’s energetic field, which is how we used it in my ceremony—to essentially clear the spiritual air so we could set intentions for the sweat lodge. We each snorted the tobacco juice with a powerful breath into each nostril. The left nostril went first, representing what we wanted to let go, and then the right nostril, representing what we wanted to let into our lives. For me, each snort came with an intense, immediate jolt to the nervous system, followed by a feeling I could only describe as sturdy but light.
As the medicine woman had explained, tobacco is both grounding and stimulating, which explained the balanced but energized feeling it leaves you with. This is why indigenous cultures of the Amazon have used the tobacco snuff rapé for generations as a precursor to ayahuasca ceremonies and as an initiatory spiritual cleansing to help a person mentally and emotionally prepare for their ayahuasca journey. For a similar reason, tobacco is also often used during an ayahuasca ceremony in the form of mapacho cigarettes. Burning the tobacco—turning it from earth into air—serves as a means of communication with the spiritual world and helps protect the ceremonial space from bad spirits.
Medicinal Ingredients of Tobacco
Any discussion of the medicinal effects of tobacco must start with the disclaimer that nicotine is indeed a highly addictive substance and that tobacco use has been linked to varied health problems. While there is always the potential for abuse with plant medicines, this is particularly true for tobacco given the addictive properties of nicotine, and so its use should be treated with the utmost caution and respect. Its role as a sacred plant in the indigenous tribes of the Americas is a ceremonial and structured one, and anyone interested in using tobacco and medicine will only receive its benefits by adopting that same view of respect and caution.
The particularly potent variety of tobacco called Nicotiana rustica contains high amounts of beta-carbolines, including the harmala alkaloids harmane and norharmane. These alkaloids are also found in the Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi, one of the principal ingredients in ayahuasca. They are MAO-inhibitors that stimulate the body’s central nervous system by inhibiting hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine. The presence of these harmala alkaloids supports evidence that tobacco has antidepressant properties similar to those of ayahuasca and other psychedelics. These biochemical qualities would help explain the “grounding” feeling experienced by many people.
Interestingly, the harmala alkaloids have been dubbed by studies as having neuroprotective, anti-cancer properties, contradictory to many studies done on tobacco smoking. While there is no cut-and-dry explanation for these contradictory results, some say the negative effects of tobacco lie in its other ingredients, while others blamed industrialized agriculture of tobacco and widespread use of pesticides and chemicals in the manufacture of cigarettes.
There’s no doubt that nicotine comes with a hefty reputation as a highly addictive substance, and any talk of the medicinal benefits of nicotine should be preempted with this disclaimer. However, studies show that nicotine has some effects that could be used for medicinal benefit, including increasing the flow of blood to the brain and activating the body’s central nervous system. One study showed that smoking nicotine had a positive effect on people’s attention and cognition, and this stimulating effect is what leaves a person feeling focused and alert.
Harnessing the Power of Tobacco Through Ritual
While tobacco remains a controversial substance—and with good reason—the long-standing ceremonial use of this sacred plant suggests we take a closer look at how we can harness its power for good rather than abuse and self-harm. Between the anti-depressive properties of harmala alkaloids and the stimulating and focusing effects of nicotine, research shows that tobacco has some powerful ingredients in its healing arsenal. As for the claims that tobacco can be a tool for spiritual cleansing and setting intentions, the scientific evidence certainly lays a physiological foundation that leaves a person feeling mentally and emotionally grounded and revitalized.
But with power always comes risk, and it’s important to treat tobacco with caution. If you’re interested in exploring the medicinal uses of tobacco, doing it in a ceremonial setting with a shaman, healer, or other experienced practitioner is an ideal way to introduce yourself to its long-standing sacred use. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of sacred tobacco, we can answer your questions and help find the right medicine for your needs.