What is Ketamine Therapy? 

Have you heard all the recent buzz around ketamine? The increase in its popularity over the past few years is for good reason—it’s offering new hope to people suffering from debilitating mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD. It is also being used widely for self-care, overwhelm, quieting the inner critic, as well as to procure mystical experiences.

Ketamine therapy has been the subject of much attention in recent years. Research and clinical trials have expanded the entire medical community’s understanding of its potential applications. Ketamine therapy is proving to be effective for many individuals coping with treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, as well as anxiety, migraines and chronic pain.

If you’re totally new to this topic, an introduction can be helpful. Ketamine therapy is a structured treatment plan in which a physician prescribes multiple doses of ketamine over several weeks. Doses can be given via IV infusion, intramuscular injection, or oral sublingual absorption in the comfort of your own home. Over the course of the treatment plan, the practitioner supports the patient with ketamine assisted psychotherapy, talk therapy, journal writing prompts, and guided meditation exercises.  

The background on ketamine

Though you may have seen news warnings about ketamine’s recreational uses (which is often much higher than prescribed medical doses), the drug is FDA-approved for anesthesia and for treatment-resistant depression (ie. patients that have failed conventional anti-depressant therapy). In 1970, the Food and Drug Administration approved ketamine as an anesthetic for use during surgical procedures. Anesthesiologists noted again and again that their patients woke up after surgery and had the amazing added benefit of no longer feeling depressed. Many patients described mystical experiences after the surgery as well. 

In the decades since then, physicians and researchers have studied smaller-dose, off-label applications of the drug. Researchers have conducted over 300 clinical trials exploring treatment protocols and results. Most recently, in 2019, the FDA approved a ketamine nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression. It has been used for depression and anxiety off label for many years and the safety profile is unparalleled, and it has WAY less side effects than typical SSRI medications. It is even safe to be taken in conjunction with SSRI anti-depressants, which separates it from many other psychedelic medications being currently studied. 

Ketamine therapy and if it might be right for you

A recent study was released in the Frontiers of Psychiatry Journal showing that in a cohort of 664 at home sublingual ketamine therapy patients showed a 60% reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms (at least a 50% reduction in symptoms based on the PHQ-9 depression score and GAD-7 Anxiety scores) after only 6 sessions! This blows traditional antidepressant SSRI effectiveness out of the water!

What happens in ketamine therapy? 

A typical ketamine treatment plan includes a series of 6 doses over several weeks. A qualified physician designs a plan to fit the needs of each unique patient. In-office and at-home options are available, depending on the practice. IV infusions and injections are performed at a doctor’s office. In-home doses are administered in the comfort of your own home, by placing a lozenge under the tongue. While oral doses are generally less potent than infusions or injections, they are better tolerated by sensitive users. Treatment plans using oral doses are also less expensive, making it possible for more people to access ketamine therapy treatments.

For each treatment, there is some preparation to be done. The practitioner advises the patient to set an intention for the session, helping to focus on the desired results of each session. This step helps guide the experience in productive ways. If it is at-home Ketamine therapy, a “sitter” or trusted friend or family member will be with the patient throughout the experience, in case any needs come up (help to the bathroom, changing the music, etc). Upon receiving a dose, the patient sits in a comfortable position with eyes covered, wearing headphones that play music specifically curated for the experience. 

Ketamine is a dissociative drug, meaning that it creates the sensation of the user feeling separate from their body. A ketamine journey can produce sound, sight, and physical sensations in the patient. This perception can help users separate from entrenched thought patterns during the journey as well as later on. 

These sessions are short-term, lasting anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours depending on the patient and the dose. As the effects subside and the patient returns to their normal state, the patient is guided through talk therapy or prompted to journal to record and process the experience. At this point, the patient may have fresh insights into their existing thought patterns and how to adjust them. Users report feeling new sensations and the ability to consider existing thought patterns in new ways.

Over a treatment course, patients regularly attest to feelings of a stronger ability to self-assess and heal. These experiences can include feelings of boundlessness beyond the body as well as spiritual and cosmic connections. Patients can achieve states of contemplation beyond logic and reason and gain new access to their individual healing intelligence because of ketamine therapy. When you can access your intuitive knowledge about how to heal your damaging thinking, you are in a better position to combat your mental health challenges. 

What do patients say about their ketamine therapy experience? 

Patients across the country have seen success with this therapy. A Colorado ketamine therapy patient experiencing postpartum depression states that after she had “tried everything else,” ketamine therapy was “incredible, life-changing, [and] exciting.” She looked toward the future with greater anticipation and hope.

A California ketamine patient suffering from depression and anxiety described the profound feelings that came during a ketamine journey as the “ultimate peace.” This peace replaced the troubling depressive thoughts he had for years before this treatment.

A patient who recently completed ketamine treatment in Georgia explained that in addition to a “sense of euphoria,” the ketamine journey helps you gain perspective as you become “a third-person observer of your life.” This viewpoint enabled him to create more productive thinking processes.

How does ketamine work? 

Neuroscientific research on ketamine’s interactions in the brain is ongoing. At present, we know that ketamine functions differently than traditional antidepressants which target serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine. Instead, ketamine affects glutamate, a common chemical messenger in the brain. 

As a dose of ketamine enters the body, it begins to impact your brain’s function. Specifically, ketamine acts on the glutamate communication system. The higher doses used for surgical anesthetic purposes seem to prevent the production of glutamate. At the lower doses used for depression and anxiety, however, ketamine appears to increase glutamate production. This increased production triggers experiences like dissociation and hallucinations in the brain, while also helping to create new neural connections and pathways between neurons in your brain. This can be essential for individuals who have lost neural connections due to chronic stress or depression. As new neural pathways are forged, new thinking patterns are also created. Patients can begin to see themselves and their lives outside of their old patterns, thoughts and self-doubt. Then, they can use this new outlook to make new and more productive choices. 

Spiritual Healing and Beyond

While the treatment of mental health concerns is a marquee use for ketamine therapy, patients often report having deep spiritual and healing experiences during their journeys. These incidents are a complementary extension of the dissociative experiences that ketamine therapy creates. 

Patients have reported mystical, spiritual, and even religious experiences during their sessions. A well-qualified doctor or therapist is prepared to guide you through processing these thoughts so you can gain the most benefit in the short and long term. This is called Ketamine assisted psychotherapy, or Psychedelic assisted psychotherapy.

Ultimately, the insights gained during ketamine therapy can empower you to see the roots of your suffering and work toward a more meaningful and rewarding life experience. If you or someone you love is seeking alternative treatments for their mental health struggles, schedule a free ten-minute consultation with Golden Road Medicine to discuss if and how ketamine therapy can unlock these multitude of benefits for you.