Ayahuasca is a tea or brew made by combining two different plants found in the Amazon. The tea is a very powerful hallucinogenic that has played an incredibly important role in the lives of the indigenous peoples of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil for thousands of years. Every region and every shaman has slightly different approaches to how they work with this plant medicine. Modern times and western interests are starting to influence and shift the use and perceptions surrounding ayahuasca.
What You Will Learn About Ayahuasca
- Ayahuasca is a brew made of two plants, one that contains an MAOI and one that contains DMT. When brewed together, these two substances interact with each other. The MAOI causes the body to metabolize DMT at a slower rate than normal giving it time to cross the blood-brain barrier and activate a wide range of serotonin receptors.
- Ayahuasca tea involves a less potent version of ayahuasca, although oftentimes these teas do not contain the substances they are advertised to have.
- The ayahuasca experience involves a strong psychedelic effect that typically causes radical shifts in perspective.
- Typically, ayahuasca brews use two plants, B. caapi and P. viridis.
- In most places in the world, ayahuasca is in a gray area of the law.
- Most ayahuasca rituals are conducted by an Amazonian shaman.
- Many users report similar visions while under the effects of ayahuasca. This includes various animals, otherworldly beings, geometric patterns, and Mother or Grandmother Ayahuasca. (Note: that this is a western term and not generally used by indigenous cultures)
- The primary psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT. It is consumed orally instead of vaporized or insufflated, causing the effects to last longer.
What is Ayahuasca?
The indigenous people of the Amazon have been using ayahuasca as a traditional medicine for thousands of years. Anthropologists and scientists have been unable to determine exactly when humans first starting making ayahuasca, but evidence points to its use as far back as 1000 AD. When consumed, ayahuasca produces a profound psychedelic effect lasting upwards of eight hours. Traditionally, ayahuasca is used by indigenous people to treat physical illnesses and remove parasites – physical, mental, and spiritual. It is also used in sorcery. Modern seekers are now also using ayahuasca to treat/heal mental illnesses and nurture spiritual growth.
How is Ayahuasca Made?
Ayahuasca consists of the vine of Banisteriopsis caapi brewed together with a DMT containing plant, most commonly the Psychotria viridis. The B. caapi vine contains an MAOI which slows down the way the body metabolizes the DMT in P. viridis allowing the DMT to become active. The specific plants used to create the brew vary depending on the shaman producing it. However, it always contains an MAOI and almost always contains DMT. Some shamans also can use (some people also use, not shamans)Peganum harmala instead of caapi and mimosa hostilis. Additionally, acacia confusa, the inner root bark, can be used instead of psyhotria leaves.
Some shamans do create ayahuasca brews with a strong tobacco plant, Nicotiana rustica, but this is less common. Rustica, or Rapé is also smoked or sometimes snuffed as a way to calm participants before the ceremony.
Each individual shaman uses different plants to create their ayahuasca brew, and sometimes even just makes a ground-up snuff with A. peregrina pods called Yopo. However, typical ayahuasca brews are made by grinding up the vines of a B. caapi plant with a DMT containing plant such as P. viridis leaves.
The effects of ayahuasca heavily vary from brew to brew based on the experience of the shaman producing it and the potency of the individual plants used.
Depending on the region, ayahuasca goes by a wide range of different names. There are dozens of names for the brew across the Amazon and now throughout the world. The term ayahuasca stems from the Quechua language. Other common spellings for ayahuasca include ayaguasca in Spanish, aioasca in Portuguese, or ayawasca in Quechua.
In the south-east region of Colombia, known as the Putumayo region, the indigenous people call the brew “yage”. Yage and ayahuasca differ slightly in the plants used to make the tea. Instead of P. viridis, yage is made from Diplopterys cabrerana leaves, which are known to be much stronger.
In Brazil it is, among many other names, called damie, uni, nixi pãe, caapi, and camarampi. It is important to note that ayahuasca recipes vary and may contain additional plants and at ratios decided by the shaman, whereas damie has a set recipe.
The etymology of the word ayahuasca is as complex as the brew itself. Many entomologists believe the word to mean something close to “liana of the soul” or “vine of the spirits.” This is the most common and widely accepted meaning of the word in Western society. Most scholars will agree “huasca” or “wasca” means vine, rope, or liana. There is however debate about the root meaning of “aya.” Some interpret the word to mean soul/spirit while others believe it refers to death.
Many indigenous shamans refer to ayahuasca as simply “la purga” due to the way it causes a user to vomit after consuming. These tribes believe the act of vomiting from ayahuasca cleanses the body from unwanted parasites, worms, and negative feelings.
The ancient history of ayahuasca is not known. There is plenty of archeological evidence dating back to 1500-2000 B.C. indicating the established use of hallucinogenic plants in the Amazon basin. However, there are no records or preserved remains to provide irrefutable evidence of when ayahuasca was first used. Since two plants, among the literally thousands of plant varieties found in the Amazon, need to be combined to create ayahuasca, anthropologist and ethnobotanists alike remain perplexed as to how the correct combination was even discovered.
Making the ancient history of ayahuasca even more complex is the fact that it is used across multiple indigenous tribes throughout the vast landscape of the Amazon. Indigenous people of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru all use ayahuasca – although the names and recipes for the brew differ from tribe to tribe. The history of how each group first obtained ayahuasca differs as well.
Many shamans across many tribes will say their ancient ancestors were told directly by the plant teachers of the Amazon exactly what plants to use and how to prepare ayahuasca. Although western researchers continue to search for the true origins of this tea, the indigenous cultures seem more than satisfied with the knowledge as it has been passed down to them from generation to generation.
The Introduction of Ayahuasca to the West
Ayahuasca first appeared to the western world by way of missionaries from Spain and Portugal in 1768. Jesuit Franz Xavier Veigl’s chronicles noted that natives in parts of South America brewed a tea that “serves for mystification and bewitchment.” However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the Western world would take notice of the tea. Explorer and botanist Richard Spruce visited the Amazon in 1849 and began to study the plants used in ayahuasca. Despite Spruce’s initial research into the plants, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that ayahuasca really began to get the attention of the western world.
In 1979, ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes published The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Properties. The curiosity behind ayahuasca rose through the work of Schultes. More Westerners began traveling to South America in search of its mystery.
Indigenous people utilize ayahuasca in a wide range of applications. With the true origins of ayahuasca unknown, it’s impossible to know what the original indigenous ceremonies were like. Additionally, with so many tribes over a vast area of land using these plant medicines, there isn’t one style of ceremony that can be seen as the original. Over thousands of years, uses and ceremonies have changed and adapted, even among the indigenous.
Typically, a shaman guides the experience during an ayahuasca ceremony. They assist participants on their journey, sing icaros, and protect against harmful spirits. Traditionally, shamans were and still are the village or tribe’s medicine man. People of the area seek out their shaman for healing across all realms. One of the predominant reasons indigenous people use ayahuasca is for powerful physical healing. The purging property of ayahuasca use causes a user to expel parasites and worms in the gut vomiting and diarrhea. It is common in this type of ceremony that the shaman and the patient both drink the tea.
Many ancient and modern shamans alike also use ayahuasca in the practice of sorcery. Individuals go to their shaman to send spells/cures to their enemies and/or to break the curses their enemies have places on them. This is a practice in the dark arts and not something all shamans will do. When a shaman releases a curse that has been placed on an individual, the energy goes back to the shaman who initiated the spell. Although practices vary, it is common during ceremonies used for sorcery that the person seeking the shaman’s help does not even drink the ayahuasca. In these ceremonies only the shaman drinks the tea as he is the one working in the spirit realm on their patient’s behalf.
Modern Ayahuasca Uses
Modern uses generally aim at alleviating the symptoms of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety. This has sparked an entire industry around ayahuasca tourism for individuals seeking the ayahuasca experience.
According to Evgenia Fotiou, an anthropologist, most of the individuals participating in ayahuasca tourism are white, male professionals with some level of higher education. In her thesis, From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru, she claims most of these individuals struggle with meaning in their lives. They seek healing from their strong sense of materialism and other ailments western medicine has yet to cure like treatment-resistant depression. This shows the vastly different use for ayahuasca in the modern age compared to how indigenous people previously used it.
Ayahuasca made its way into mainstream pop-culture in Universal’s 2012 film Wanderlust, demonstrating its huge growth in popularity. In the film, the characters played by Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd consume ayahuasca shortly after arriving at a commune-like community. After they ingest the ayahuasca, the film begins a classic, inaccurate Hollywood portrayal of the ayahuasca experience including immediate effects, chaotic images, and even random outbursts of singing.
Despite many western misconceptions, ayahuasca’s influence continues to expand. Seekers from across the globe continue to travel to the Amazon to experience the tea through an ayahuasca retreat. This caused an influx of ayahuasca retreat centers opening to accommodate these “spiritual tourists.” Many of these centers are owned and operated by westerners. Some of these centers have indigenous shamans, whereas others have white shamans who have studied with an indigenous teacher.
This rapid growth is controversial. Questions of sustainability come into focus as amazon resources are declining. However, expansion has provided much-needed income to many villages and tribes.
Ayahuasca has also been taken out of the Amazon. This is another aspect of ayahuasca that is controversial. Some shamans feel taking ayahuasca from the Amazon is robbing them of what is rightfully theirs. On the other hand, many feel ayahuasca being taken across the globe allows more people to have contact with its healing possibilities. There are now retreats worldwide offering ayahuasca ceremonies.
Additionally, the plants needed to grow ayahuasca are being cultivated in other areas. Dennis McKenna sees this as a way to develop sustainability – a chance for ayahuasca to survive.
Within the last 30 years, ayahuasca, clever little plant intelligence that it is, has escaped from its ancestral home in the Amazon and has found haven in other parts of the world. With the assistance of human helpers who heard the message and heeded it, ayahuasca sent its tendrils forth to encircle the world. It has found new homes, and new friends, in nearly every part of the world where temperatures are warm and where the ancient connections to plant-spirit still thrive, from the islands of Hawaii to the rainforests of South Africa, from gardens in Florida to greenhouses in Japan. The forces of death and dominance have been outwitted; it has escaped them, outrun them.Ayahuasca and Human Destiny
Santo Daime Church Uses
The Santo Daime, Forest Religion is a religious movement that began in the 1920s and 30s in the Amazon forest. The founder Master Irineu, as he would become to be called, was the son of a former slave. Master Irineu used the indigenous ayahuasca tea in a ritual way as part of a doctrine to bring together Catholic, Spiritist, Esoteric, Caboclo and Indigenous traditions. In the mid-1930s, reports of Master Irineu’s healing spread and more people sought this form of communion with ayahuasca.
To this day, Santo Daime churches use ayahuasca as their sacrament. Unlike the varied recipes from shaman to shaman, this sacramental ayahuasca is prepared to very precise specifications. Members of the Santo Daime churches only take ayahuasca in a ritualistic religious context.
Important Events, Findings, Studies
A random, placebo-controlled trial conducted in 2018 shows ayahuasca could be effective in relieving the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression. It showed a statistically significant lasting impact on the lives of the individuals who took ayahuasca instead of the placebo.
Individuals given ayahuasca were more likely to have lower scores of depression shortly after consuming ayahuasca, and for an extended period of time after the experience. They reported up to 82 percent experienced a reduction in the symptoms of otherwise treatment-resistant depression one day, seven days, and 21 days after the experience.
Other studies show ayahuasca’s potential for treating individuals suffering from anxiety, although evidence for this use is not as clear as its potential in treating treatment-resistant depression.
Laws and Legal Status
The laws around ayahuasca can be confusing at best. Grey areas of religious rights and confusing governmental language cloud many counties’ legal positions on the tea.
Central and South America
Ayahuasca’s legality in Brazil is somewhat uncertain. DMT (found in ayahuasca) is prohibited. However, ayahuasca is not specifically listed in Brazil’s drug control laws under Conselho National de Politicas Sobre Drogas (Nation Council on Drug Policy) or CONAD. In 2010, CONAD established the regulation of ayahuasca stating unacceptable practices to include: “tourism, commercialization, unauthorized production, and therapeutic uses.”
Despite this updated regulation prohibiting ayahuasca for tourism, many retreats in Brazil continue to advertise and accept westerners. Be mindful of attending a retreat in a country where legality is precarious at best. Ayahuasca ceremonies may be legal for some, but foreigners may not be protected.
Colombia does not have any specific regulations outlawing ayahuasca use within the country. However, some authorities still prosecute individuals, particularly tourists, for ayahuasca.
It is a very common misconception that ayahuasca is legal in Costa Rica. While Costa Rica does not have any set laws around ayahuasca, as in Brazil, DMT is a controlled substance, leaving ayahuasca in an undefined area of law.
As a native tradition in Peru, ayahuasca ceremonies are protected. It is one of the few countries where ayahuasca is considered legal. Traditional use of ayahuasca by the indigenous was officially recognized in 2008 as part of Peru’s national cultural heritage.
Austria lists DMT as a prohibited substance putting ayahuasca use in a gray area like most other countries. The city of Vienna even bans the selling of bark or leaves for ayahuasca brews, but still allows the sale of the seeds of these plants.
In 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drug use and personal possession. However, more than a ten-day supply of any substance is still illegal and can lead to imprisonment. Although there are no specific laws around ayahuasca, DMT is still considered a forbidden substance.
Spain considers ayahuasca a controlled substance making it illegal to possess, sell, transport, or cultivate in most situations. There are a few exemptions for medicinal and research purposes that allow the cultivation of plants used to make ayahuasca.
It is important to note that DMT, the active component in ayahuasca, is a Schedule 1 substance in the United States. However, the U.S. does grant some exemptions for special “religious freedom” cases. Exemptions have been reached through Supreme Court rulings or by way of DEA exceptions. Although there have been arrests in the United States for having ayahuasca, as of this publication, no one has been sentenced to prison.
Reportedly, ayahuasca ceremonies have been conducted in:
- New York
Obtaining ayahuasca has never been easier, so it’s up to the consumer to know and understand if their ceremony is held legally. Always do your due diligence before sitting in a circle in the United States to fully know if the event you are attending has obtained the proper exemption.
United States Ayahuasca Exceptions
Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal 2006
In Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), the court ruled that the federal government must allow the UDV to import and consume the tea for religious purposes under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. After ruling in favor of the three Santo Daime churches, Judge Owen M. Panner issued a permanent injunction barring the government from penalizing or prohibiting the sacramental use of “Daime tea,” which contains ayahuasca.
Church of the Holy Light of the Queen v. Mukasey 2009 & Church of the Holy Light of the Queen v. Holder 2011
After the arrest of a parishioner, a group of members of an Oregon branch of the Santo Daime church began judicial proceedings using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The church was granted exemption from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to use Daime in the practice of their religion. These church groups actively comply with DEA regulations for custom transportation permits and inventory tracking.
Before we can discuss whether or not ayahuasca is toxic, we first need to define what makes a substance toxic. The levels of exposure required for a substance to cause harm to a human or animal define its toxicity. Even water can be toxic in too high of a dose, and lethal snake venom can be non-toxic in a small enough dose. LD50 is a common measurement of toxicity, which measures the lethal dose for half of the tested organisms.
Only one study attempted to estimate the LD50 of ayahuasca using rats. They were unable to determine an LD50 due to the amount of ayahuasca brew that would have been required to find the LD50 in these rats. However, they estimated the LD50 at over 50 times that of a normal dose, or approximately 15.1 mg/kg of orally active DMT.
Another component of ayahuasca, harmaline, poses a separate risk of toxicity. A study conducted in 2002 on rats found an LD50 of about 2.70 g/kg of aqueous P. harmala seeds. For an average adult weighing 70 kg, or about 150 pounds, this would be a dose of 189 g. When making ayahuasca with P. harmala, a strong dose only contains five grams. Additionally, a review conducted in 2006 found that the safety of ayahuasca is comparable to codeine, mescaline, or methadone.
The MAOI component in an ayahuasca brew increases the risk of serotonin syndrome if mixed with other serotonergic substances such as other MAOIs, stimulants and a wide range of antidepressants. Serotonin syndrome is a potentially fatal side effect of overloading the nervous system with serotonin. However, most cases subside after a brief period of time.
Symptoms include: high body temperature, agitation, tremors, sweating, dilated pupils, and diarrhea.
Any substance that releases serotonin or dopamine would fall under this category. Thus it is important to know one’s medications and take the necessary precautions.
The most common serotonergic substances include:
As with all psychedelics, if one has a history of mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, psychosis could be triggered. Ayahuasca also increases heart rate and diastolic blood pressure which could cause problems if a user has pre-existing heart conditions.
As a safety precaution, if one has a pre-existing medical condition or is on any kind of medication, consult a physician and be forthright during the screening process (pre-ceremony) with the facilitator about one’s health history and medications.
Overall, ayahuasca is considered a safe psychedelic substance, assuming the user does not have any pre-existing conditions. Currently, evidence shows that there is little to no risk of becoming addicted to ayahuasca. Furthermore, there aren’t any reports of withdrawal symptoms. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, an overdose directly attributable to ayahuasca is extremely rare. Erowid only reports two cases of overdose caused by ayahuasca, one in 2004 and one in 2014.
Typically, prior to participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, a user will go on a special MAOI diet to prepare their system. It is important to clarify that cultures within the Amazon differ in opinion about the diet. Some do not feel it is important. However, most do consider the diet with some level of importance.
Generally, it is recommended that one abstain from certain foods and activities for two weeks for the ceremony. Following an MAOI diet prevents any interactions between the MAOI and anything you previously ate. The diet generally consists of avoiding the following foods:
- Aged cheeses
- Cured meats
- Fermented sausage
- Beef or chicken liver
- Shrimp paste
- Fermented soy products
- Some fruits
- Fava beans
- Caffeinated beverages
Furthermore, it is recommended that a user remain conscientious about what they are putting in their body figuratively speaking as well. For example, some retreat centers and ayahuasca “diets” include refraining from sexual activity.
Specifics aside, the purpose of the preparation phase pre-ceremony is to reduce the external stimuli that one puts into their body, because it can very well affect one’s experience. In our modern age, we are accustomed to taking in a considerable amount of information in our daily lives through technology, social interactions, media, etc. For example, if one were to watch a particularly powerful movie before going into the ceremony, those images may find their way into the trip.
Typically, ayahuasca begins to take effect less than an hour after consuming the brew. Most people will begin to see visuals such as particles of light and color with their eyes opened or closed. Generally, sensations begin to stir within the body as if it is expanding. Most consider this point to be the beginning of the journey.
Often the experience gradually climbs into a full psychedelic experience as the user begins to sensate their ego dissolving, and the world shifting in front of their eyes. It is not uncommon to encounter a guardian of some kind when a person is about to cross the “threshold” and start fully dropping into the experience.
This builds until the peak of the experience, which is approximately an hour and a half after the initial visual projections begin. The peak usually lasts between one and two hours at which point the comedown will start. The effects gradually diminish over the next two hours.
Ayahuasca acts within the body through a series of chemical reactions. The plant used as an MAOI acts through the harmala alkaloids by selectively inhibiting the monoamine oxidase A enzyme. Tetrahydroamine, which is also found in the MAOI containing plants, acts as a weak serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This all enables DMT to diffuse past the stomach and small intestine membranes, eventually crossing the blood-brain barrier.
Once DMT crosses the blood-brain barrier, it acts on a wide variety of serotonin receptors, including the 5-HT1A, 5-HT1B, 5-HT1D, 5-HT2A, 5-HT2B, 5-HT2C, 5-HT6, and 5-HT7 receptors. Scientists believe the strength at which DMT binds to the 5-HT2A receptor produces the majority of its effects. These effects last up to eight hours after ingesting the brew.
The effects produced by psychedelics have large variances, depending on the individual. A variety of factors contribute to what one will experience. For example, set and setting.
Timothy Leary conducted a study with 175 individuals to whom he administered psilocybin in a setting similar to a common living room. In the larger groups of eight people or more, the individuals felt less support from the group overall and had less pleasant experiences than those placed in smaller groups of six people or less. This is just one example, but demonstrates how set and setting can impact the experience and effects of a psychedelic experience.
Often times, sensations will come on while the substance is taking effect and throughout the experience. There are a range of effects possible. Every body is different.
While everyone’s experience with ayahuasca will differ, and the effects may shift throughout the experience, based on user accounts and studies these are some common effects:
- Loss of ego
- Feelings of connection to the universe
- Feelings of love and empathy
- Inner peace
- Acceptance of self, others, and the world
- Life-altering spiritual experiences
- Mentally therapeutic
- Purging such as vomiting and diarrhea, considered a fundamental aspect by many shamans
- Strong visual effects and hallucinations, both open and closed eye
- Auditory hallucinations
- Altered sense of time and space
- Paranormal ideation
- Body aches
- Sweats and chills
- Fear, paranoia, and anxiety
- Difficulty with balance
- Overwhelming feelings and sensations
Common Side Effects
The most common side effect of consuming ayahuasca includes purging. Typically, there is a period of nausea before the purging that subsides once that process is complete.
Shamans and users consider purging to be a fundamental aspect of the ayahuasca experience. Beyond the physical cleansing that occurs, purging is considered to cleanse the body of toxins, whether they be chemical, physical, emotional, or spiritual. There are many ways for the body to purge, though the most common is vomiting or diarrhea. Perspiration and crying are also forms of expelling toxins from the body. Users often feel as if they have been reborn after purging. Furthermore, the process typically kick-starts the full psychedelic experience of ayahuasca.
An ayahuasca ceremony is a journey of mind, body and spirit. Thus the experience tends to include strong visuals, though this isn’t the case with everyone. One may have a range of visions that occur with their eyes opened or closed. These include fantastical landscapes, spiritual entities, geometric shapes, and the spirit of “Mother Ayahuasca” herself.
Some visions may appear random, like “head salad,” during which the user may find themselves witnessing scenes and characters that seem to have no particular affinity with one another. However, some visions could stir deep emotional experiences and realizations. Personal visions from one’s life may resurface in order to guide the user into a process of working through emotional content towards a new resolution.
Properly integrating one’s experience is one way one of ensuring that adverse effects do not occur. However, as with most psychedelics, ayahuasca does carry a risk of developing PTSD and HPPD after consumption.
HPPD, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, typically causes light visual snow that distorts a normal person’s vision. However, in extreme cases, HPPD can result in full-blown hallucinations. There is a one percent chance of experiencing HPPD, and we do not currently have conclusive data surrounding PTSD and ayahuasca.
It is believed that PTSD particularly affects users who have difficulty integrating their ayahuasca experience into their normal lives. This is likely due to the lack of the right conditions being present: preparation, set and setting, guidance, and integration. Ensuring that the entire process, from screening to integration, is handled by a trained facilitator at a credible center. Furthermore, integration is just as important as the trip itself if one wants to reap the most benefit.
Ayahuasca has a far range of uses that have shifted throughout the years. Many indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon use ayahuasca for a variety of purposes. They typically have their own interpretations of the brew and ceremony. There are generally strong commonalities between the ceremonies, but differences do exist.
Ayahuasca is a broad healing tool that deals with a variety of “illnesses” at their root causes. Indigenous tribes use ayahuasca as a method of healing physical ailments such as parasites and various stomach problems. The purging causes the user to expel bad bacteria and parasites within the gut. However, ayahuasca is a substance with a historically rich range of applications–an instructional tool in one’s development, preparation for hunting, sorcery, and divination.
On the subject of ailments, the ayahuasca approach is holistic. These indigenous cultures do not typically approach medicine or health in the same way that Western medicine does. The spiritual, emotional, mental, and energy bodies are seen as being in a relationship with one another. In other words, ayahuasca is an integrative medicine that has broad applications across the whole organism.
Recently, with ayahuasca’s success in treating a variety of illnesses, both physical and mental, theories by respected physicians and researchers are being put forth that consider the role of trauma and emotional health on one’s health overall. In 2020, MAPS aims to launch a study that will specifically investigate if psychedelics, ayahuasca included, create change on an epigenetic level. Though the brew was used to clean the body of physical illness, the underlying causes of illness–in general–were considered to be multi-dimensional in scope.
Due to the wide range of parasites found in the tropical Amazon, parasitic infections regularly caused stomach issues in these tribes. Shamans of these tribes would then use ayahuasca to cause the person to vomit and have diarrhea expelling any parasites or bad bacteria in the gut.
Dr. Joe Tafur, a family physician and integrative medicine specialist, speaks to the potential capacity of ayahuasca as a healing agent for physical ailments. In his book, The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, he speaks about the profound effects that deep emotional healing had on a variety of illnesses. Thus the connection between trauma and health overall is an area of study that is gaining reputable traction.
Modern ayahuasca treatments are showing incredible promise in treating ailments that are regarded as mental health issues. As outlined in Dr. Tafur’s book, he found that the emotional healing that occurs produced a positive impact on mental wellbeing. A recent study conducted in 2018 found a strong connection between ayahuasca use and the alleviation of symptoms related to treatment-resistant depression. Other reports suggest ayahuasca could help with PTSD, addiction, and overall well-being.
In 2018, Antonio Inserra proposed ayahuasca could help patients suffering from PTSD through the way it acts on the sigma one receptor. The basis of this hypothesis involves the mechanisms behind memory consolidation, retrieval, and reconsolidation. These processes rely on synaptic plasticity and transcriptional modulation, which likely mediate epigenetic modifications. Some believe ayahuasca could cause epigenetic modifications altering memory retrieval to help patients suffering from PTSD.
Recently, psychedelics entered the spotlight as a method for treating a wide variety of addictions and ayahuasca is no exception. Several centers offering ayahuasca treatments for addiction claim higher success rates than those measured by modern psychiatric approaches. Despite this promising evidence, a lack of scientific studies prevents any conclusions from being drawn about whether or not ayahuasca is an effective treatment for addiction.
A 2016 study looked at the effects of a single ayahuasca dose on 17 patients with recurrent depression. They found an association between that single ayahuasca dose with significant score decreases in depression-related scales from 80 minutes after consumption to 21 days later. These patients only reported one adverse side effect, vomiting, which occurred in 47 percent of the volunteers.
An analysis from 2011 suggests how ayahuasca may combat the effects of recurrent depression. They suggest one of the main components of ayahuasca’s antidepressant effects could be from harmine, found in the plant that provides the MAOI component to the ayahuasca brew. Reportedly, the pharmacological activity of harmine includes antiplasmodial, antimutagenic, antigenotoxic activity, and antioxidative, antidiabetic, and antiplatelet properties. This array of pharmacological activity could be why ayahuasca reduced depression in various animal studies and during human trials.
Evgenia Fotiou, an anthropologist who studied ayahuasca retreats, found that most of the visitors of these retreats were non-religious and looking for meaning in their lives. As an overarching theme, Fotiou found that most visitors are seeking to reconnect with nature, their bodies, and their own sense of spirituality.
She states this understanding in her thesis From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru as well as other essays. In our modern age, loneliness and isolation is considered an epidemic. Fostering a relationship with nature, self and spirit could speak to its benefits to personal wellness and health habits. She further suggests that these connections raise awareness and inspire people to take better care of themselves.
According to Rachel Harris in her book Listening to Ayahuasca, individuals who consume ayahuasca report huge leaps in their personal spiritual journey. Various studies are being conducted at reputable institutions such as John Hopkins University and MAPS that explore the therapeutic benefits of the mystical aspects of the psychedelic experience. These investigations are proving to be extremely promising in showing that the spiritual and mystical aspects of the trip play a vital roles in encouraging personal growth and healing overall.
In one study, Harris found that most users undergo a huge shift in their overall perspective on the world and how they take care of themselves in terms of health and wellness. She suggests the experience is similar to a religious epiphany that radically shifts the way someone views the world.
After the initial experience, her study found that 75 percent of 81 subjects felt an ongoing relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca. This suggests that the bonds that forged with the plant spirit help sustain and maintain its benefits. The epidemic of loneliness and isolation purportedly facing the Western world is an issue of feeling disconnected. By developing a relationship with the plant, that in itself cultivates a bond that carries the benefits of the experience beyond the ceremony itself.
What is an Ayahuasca Ceremony?
The way an ayahuasca ceremony is performed has shifted throughout the years. The original indigenous ceremonies likely revolved around healing physical ailments, seeking a plant deity, and sorcery. Ayahuasca is still used in this way for many different indigenous groups throughout the Amazon.
As the popularity of ayahuasca has arisen around the world more retreat centers for “ayahuasca tourism” are popping up. These locations tend to focus on westerners, and thus the ceremonies focus on the intentions of this perspective and less on the indigenous reasons for consuming the tea.
A typical ceremony starts with the way the shaman picks the P. viridis leaf. They pick the leaves of the shrub, taking a moment to say a prayer. Then they meticulously clean the vine with a wooden spoon, followed by grinding it up with a wooden mallet. Once the ingredients are prepared, they’re placed within a large pot of boiling water until the water’s volume is reduced by half. Just boiling the water can take several hours, and the entire process of creating ayahuasca generally takes an entire day.
Leading up to the ceremony, shaman and participants will abstain from spicy foods, red meat, and sex. Nowadays, the practice of abstaining from these pleasures is commonly referred to as an MAOI diet. This helps a user avoid any potential interactions with the MAOI due to the food they ate leading up to consuming an MAOI.
The ceremony space is known as maloka. The maloka is filled with a circle of mats or mattresses. By the mat are items such as a towel for sweating, water, and a bucket to vomit in.
Drinking the Tea
A typical ceremony an non-indigenous person would find begins with a shaman cleansing the circle and blessing the ayahuasca brew. Each shaman will have their own particular spiritual rituals. The ayahuasquero will then serve each member of the circle, serving himself last.
Many people describe the taste as unpleasant and bitter. However it’s important to drink the cup and try not to vomit the tea up right away.
After the ayahuasca is in the system, consumers may experience visual hallucinations, although it is important to note that not everyone has visions. Participants may also experience the need to purge by vomiting or diarrhea. These physical responses are common and participants are encouraged not to hold these things back, but instead view them as part of the ayahuasca experience.
Users may also purge by screaming or crying. The maloka is typically filled with noise during an ayahuasca ceremony. Shamans sing icaros to those in the circle to help guide the energy. They may also beat drums or blow tobacco smoke on a person during the ceremony.
After the peak of the plant medicine, participants tend to feel calm and connected. Approximately 6 to 10 hours after the brew’s administration, the shaman will ring a bell and close the ceremony.
Events / Retreats
The surge in media attention surrounding ayahuasca and psychedelics in recent years caused a huge growth in ayahuasca tourism as an industry. Ayahuasca retreats can now be found throughout the world. These retreats use all types of marketing, from promoting sustainably produced ayahuasca brews to offering yoga and various other workshops to accompany your ayahuasca experience.
Before an ayahuasca ceremony, most shamans recommend avoiding any spicy foods, red meats, and abstaining from sex. The aim of such an MAOI diet is to avoid any interactions between the MAOI and what you previously ate.
The effects of ayahuasca last upwards of eight hours.
While the plants used to produce an ayahuasca brew can be purchased in some places online, most do not recommend this due to legal issues and the high potential of being scammed.
The plants used to brew ayahuasca can typically be purchased. However, creating an ayahuasca brew can pose legal issues. There are a wide range of ayahuasca retreats where the curious can partake in a completely legal environment.
Ayahuasca produces a profound psychedelic experience with closed and open eye visuals as well as a wide range of sensations.
Ayahuasca contains B. caapi as well as a DMT containing plant, most often P. viridis. Sometimes a shaman brews ayahuasca with a strong tobacco plant instead of a DMT containing plant.
When consumed the MAOI in ayahuasca slows down the metabolism of DMT giving it time to cross the blood-brain barrier and activate a wide range of serotonin receptors.
Ayahuasca is brewed by simply grinding up the two plants, then boiling them in a large pot of water for several hours until the water reduces in volume by half.
An ayahuasca tea includes the same two plants used to make an ayahuasca brew in a smaller container. However, most ayahuasca teas sold online do not actually contain the plants used to make real ayahuasca and sometimes contain plants that could cause adverse effects.
Ayahuasca use can be detected through the DMT for up to a couple days after use.
B. caapi, P. viridis, Mimosa hostilis, and Penganum harmala naturally grow throughout the Amazon.
Ayahuasca is legal in Peru, and many other countries have protections in place for real traditional ceremonies involving ayahuasca.
Kentucky Ayahuasca is the name given to a bank robber turned ayahuasca shaman based in Kentucky. He set up his own retreat for ayahuasca enthusiasts to take part in his ritual, which essentially contains nothing more than consuming ayahuasca. This example brings you about as far away from a traditional ayahuasca experience as one can get.