What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic tea brewed from the Psychotria viridis leaf (Diplopterys cabrerana may be used as a substitute), the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and sometimes other ingredients. Those plant ingredients might include one of the Brugmansia or Datura species (especially Brugmansia versicolor or Brugmansia insignis), Justicia pectoralis, and Nicotiana rustica, known as mapacho.
People usually consume ayahuasca for spiritual or religious purposes to produce a non ordinary state of consciousness. The indigenous tribes of Amazonia typically use ayahuasca in traditional ceremonies.
B. caapi contains MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) such as β-carboline, which N, N-dimethyltryptamine or DMT requires to be active orally. P. virdris contains the potent psychedelic hallucinogen DMT. DMT and MAOIS such as β-carboline work together synergistically to create a psychedelic trip that is long-lasting and intense, preventing the body’s enzymes from breaking down DMT too rapidly. For this reason, it is possible to prepare a chemically similar preparation, sometimes called “pharmahuasca”, using DMT and some type of MAOI such as isocarboxazid.
Ayahuasca retreats and travel experiences have recently appeared as traditional ayahuasca healing ceremonies have grown in popularity among Westerners. These kinds of experiences permit those who are usually living a life that’s distant from traditional ways the chance to access the new beginnings and mental health effects that are generally considered to be ayahuasca’s benefits.
In fact, as more research into the treatment of addiction and emotional problems such as depression reveals a role for ayahuasca therapy, it could become a more accepted and even widespread type of psychedelic therapy.
Effects of Ayahuasca
Depending on where you are in the world, Ayahuasca is a potentially illegal substance. We do not condone or encourage the use of any illegal substance. However, information is imperative to responsible harm reduction and illegal drug use occurs. This guide is intended to offer accurate information to ensure the safety of anyone who chooses to use this substance.
Typically, people use ayahuasca for religious or spiritual reasons because it helps them achieve a higher or unusual state of consciousness. Research indicates a range of physiological and psychological effects from using ayahuasca.
Physiological effects of ayahuasca
Researchers found that among people with previous ayahuasca experience who received 0.60-0.85 mg/kg dose:
- participants peaked between 1.5 and 2 hours after ingestion
- participants reported perceptual hallucinations and other side effects
- participants rated their moods more positively
- DMT blood concentrations peaked with peak psychedelic experiences at about 1.5 hours after ingesting
- at higher doses (0.85 mg/kg), diastolic blood pressure increased significantly, while systolic blood pressure and heart rate increased moderately
- most unpleasant physiological effects reported relatively frequently are vomiting/purging and modified physical sensations
As mentioned, vomiting is common after ingesting ayahuasca and many users and shamans alike consider this to be a purge and a critical part of the process. This way of seeing the vomiting and sometimes diarrhea is in the form of negative or toxic emotions and energy that are built up in the body over time, finally released.
Psychological effects of ayahuasca
Research in this area remains nascent, but one published study saw each participant ingest three doses one by one: 0.5, 0.75, and finally 1.0 mg/kg. That study found:
Participants first experienced psychological effects 30 to 60 minutes after their dose, and peaked in 60 to 120 minutes. All psychological effects were resolved within four hours or 240 minutes. 5 of 6 participants reported an enjoyable, pleasant experience, but 1 reported a bad trip with anxiety and disorientation at the mid-level 0.75 mg/kg body weight dose and dropped out voluntarily at that point.
Initial effects participants reported were physical, such as changes in perception of skin sensitivity and body temperature, burning sensations in the stomach, mild nausea, and tingling sensations. Participants also experienced intense hallucinations, typically sudden and reminiscent of ayahuasca art. Most participants reported initial fear or anxiety that faded, but one participant experienced such feelings that were lingering.
All volunteers experienced visual hallucinations that typically came and went in waves and did not persist throughout the entire experience. The dose determined the intensity of the hallucinations for the participants. Effects ranged from vibrations in the visual field or increases in the sharpness or brightness of objects at lower doses, to scenes visible to the naked eye, open or shut, and complex, rapidly moving patterns at medium and high doses.
Participants also reported dose-dependent changes in auditory perception such as more distinct, clear sounds and enhanced hearing.
Thought processes and cognition were also modified. The volunteers reported an enhanced rate of thinking which was generally focused on personal psychological content. They reported gaining insight into personal concerns. Most also recalled memories related to recent personal matters.
Participants experienced intensified emotional reactions at medium and higher doses similar to dreaming. Feelings of happiness, amazement, awe, closeness to others, sadness, euphoria, and other feelings, sometimes simultaneously and contradictorily, were reported at medium and high doses.
Users reported transient changes in the passing of time and their sense of self at medium and high doses. Often, participants reported a sense of bodily detachment at the high dose.
After consuming ayahuasca, many report mystical experiences, strange hallucinations, and personal revelations concerning the real nature of the universe and one’s purpose living a good life in it. This is often described as rebirth or a near death experience and is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening.
Recently, Palhano-Fontes et al. found that ayahuasca produced significant antidepressant effects compared with placebo in the first controlled trial to test a psychedelic substance in treatment-resistant depression, suggesting the substance has therapeutic value in the right setting.
De Araujo et al. found that ayahuasca interact specifically with the brain’s visual cortex—so much so that the visual cortex is as active with eyes closed as it is when looking at photographs. This research indicates that ayahuasca heightens the user’s internal reality by activating a complicated network of memory and vision.
Risks of Using Ayahuasca
Taking ayahuasca can cause temporary—but significant—psychological and emotional distress. Although ayahuasca has never specifically caused serotonin syndrome except in connection with SSRIs and similar antidepressants, excessive use might lead to serotonin syndrome.
Certain negative, non-entheogenic, temporary side effects, primarily caused by the ayahuasca’s harmala alkaloids, include autonomic instability, diarrhea, dizziness, hyperthermia, motor function impairment, muscle spasms, nausea, excessive relaxation, sedation, sweating, tremors, vertigo, and vomiting, depending on dosage. Negative effects over the long-term remain unknown.
A handful of deaths linked to ayahuasca consumption have been reported. Some may be linked to interaction with drugs, such as recreational drugs, antidepressants, nicotine, or caffeine; unscreened preexisting conditions, especially heart issues; or from irresponsible or improper use due to possible drug to drug interactions or behavioral risks.
Ayahuasca and Personal Growth
Alongside other psychedelics, the popularity of ayahuasca as a tool for productivity, spiritual growth, and enlightenment among Westerners has grown in recent times. Ayahuasca is among the best kept productivity secrets of Silicon Valley, for example.
Many people who use ayahuasca to grow personally report a sense of compassion for and connectedness with others, as well as stable, long-term shifts in perspective fueled by spiritual awakenings. This might be the result of the intense introspection the drug induces that itself leads to deeper clarity and self-awareness surrounding belief systems and personal issues.
Tim Ferriss, Miley Cyrus, Paul Simon, Chelsea Handler, and Jim Carrey are all celebrities who have famously used ayahuasca.
All around the world, ayahuasca retreat centers are opening up, offering settings for ayahuasca therapy that claim to be optimal for self-improvement. However, the strict exclusivity and high price tag of many of these retreats spark concern about the right way to incorporate this traditional plant medicine into modern Western culture and its potential cultural colonization.
Chemistry and Pharmacology of Ayahuasca
As described above, people brew ayahuasca tea using two separate plants: P. viridis and B. caapi. The single major psychedelic alkaloid, DMT, comes from the P. viridis plant. The MAOIs that enable the psychoactive effect from the DMT include tetrahydroharmine (THH), harmine, and harmaline, and these occur in the B. caapi plant along with other alkaloids.
Ayahuasca as a brew is more powerful than its plant components alone because its alkaloid concentration is several times greater. Although concentrations vary based on preparation methods and geographical region, there is an average of 25 mg DMT, 10 mg THH, and 30 mg harmine in a 200 ml dose of ayahuasca tea.
Researchers believe that ayahuasca works in brain areas that have been implicated in emotional processing and introspection by altering serotonin activity. Like traditional SSRIs and related drug therapies, as well as other psychedelics including psilocybin and LSD, the DMT in ayahuasca specifically targets and interacts with the 5-HT2A subtype serotonin receptors.
Although their effect on the dopaminergic system may also produce anti-addiction benefits, the MAOIs in ayahuasca act principally to prevent the stomach from breaking down DMT.
Ayahuasca affects levels of both monoamine oxidase and serotonin. To avoid dangerous adverse reactions, avoid all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, before an ayahuasca ceremony.
It’s also important to follow a set ayahuasca diet before drinking the tea, whether or not you’re partaking within the context of a ceremony. Ayahuasca’s MAOIs can produce severe reactions in combination with foods such as beer, cheese, chocolate, coffee, yogurt, and wine, and with compounds such as MDMA and ephedrine. Fasting and avoiding all drugs and medications for 12 hours or so before taking ayahuasca is the best way to avoid side effects in combination with these substances.
Specifically avoid these medications and substances before and during an ayahuasca ceremony:
- Antihypertensives (high blood pressure medicine)
- Appetite suppressants (diet pills)
- Asthma or bronchitis meds, or other medications for respiratory issues
- Antihistamines and other medicines for allergies, colds, sinus problems, or hay fever, including any drug with DX, DM, or Tuss in its name or which contains DXM/dextromethorphan
- Central nervous system (CNS) depressants such as Ativan or Xanax
If you’re planning an ayahuasca trip, check Ayahuascasaftey.org for a list of many substances you should use caution with or avoid entirely.
Nomenclature of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is called by many names throughout Central and South America. “Ayahuasca” itself is the traditional hispanicized spelling of a Quechuan word. Quechuan language speakers—present in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—often spell it ayawaska in the modern Alvarado orthography.
In Quechua, aya translates to “soul, spirit”, or “dead body, corpse”, and waska means “liana”, a “woody vine” or “rope”. Thus the word ayahuasca translates from the Quechuan as “liana of the dead”, “liana of the soul”, or “spirit liana” and includes either or both the Banisteriopsis caapi plant and the tea brewed with it.
In Ecuador, the Achuar and Shuar people call ayahuasca natem. In Peru, the Sharanahua peoples refer to it as shori.
In Brazil, the Portuguese word for the woody climbing vine or liana is either cipó or caapi and both plant and the tea share the monikers. Brazil is also home to a larger, organized spiritual ayahuasca tradition called the União do Vegetal (UDV), and these people drink ayahuasca they brew and call vegetal or hoasca. Finally, for the Yawanawa of Brazil, ayahuasca is called uní.
Other names for ayahuasca include huasca, the tea, brew, yagé, la purga, Kamarampi, daime, and Huni.
History of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca has been in use for at least 1,000 years, as scientists confirmed with evidence of the substance found in a shamanic pouch in a Bolivian cave in 2010. There is also evidence of ayahuasca use from rock drawings in the Amazon, although it was just during the past few hundred years that Western explorers and scientists have been exposed to the brew.
According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a British explorer named Richard Spruce “discovered” ayahuasca along with the Tukanoan in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon in 1851. The plant explorer noted the indigenous people using the vine, called caapi, to induce an altered state of consciousness that he perceived to be intoxication.
Flash forward to the early 1950s, when beat writer and opiate addict William S. Burroughs read a paper by Richard Evans Schultes on ayahuasca. He sought out the brew while traveling through South America hoping to cure or relieve his addiction and wrote about his experiences in “The Yage Letters.”
Chilean-American psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo traveled up the Amazon River by canoe to study ayahuasca with indigenous people in South America. He returned with samples, and in 1974 he published a paper on the effects of ayahuasca’s active alkaloids in the first scientific description of its kind.
With the 1989 publication of True Hallucinations, a book by the McKenna brothers detailing their experiences in the Amazon, ayahuasca became much more well known. Dennis McKenna went on to study the pharmacology, chemistry, and botany of ayahuasca and has become an expert on the subject.
Several modern ayahuasca-based religious movements have arisen in Brazil. The most well-known of these are the União do Vegetal (or UDV) and Santo Daime. Most of these religious movements, including the UDV, exist integrated with Christianity, but many develop in an animistic context that may be shamanistic. Both União do Vegetal and Santo Daime now have churches and members all over the world.
As ayahuasca use has increased, Europe and the US have also begun to see the development of new, related religious groups. Various people from South America and other regions have teamed up to create ayahuasca healing retreats making a range of claims, such as being able to foster communication with the spirit world or cure illness.
More recently, ayahuasca use has been mainstreamed by anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis, actor and artist Jim Carrey, novelist Isabel Allende, actress Lindsay Lohan, actor, rapper, and producer Terrence Howard, writer Kira Salak, radio personality Robin Quivers, anthropologist Jeremy Narby, and travel writer Paul Theroux.
Preparation of Ayahuasca
If you’ve ever watched something like The Great British Baking Show, you know that as the skills of the participants increase, the numbers of ways to execute even a basic recipe also increase. This is also true with something like ayahuasca, and the ritualistic elements of the preparation add to the possible complexity and variation.
As a basic matter, the shaman macerates and boils sections of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, either alone or in combination with leaves from other plants, such as Diplopterys cabrerana (also called chacropanga or chaliponga), Psychotria viridis (chacruna), or Mimosa tenuiflora. Many ingredients are possible and they can vary significantly from one preparer to another. The resulting brew should contain the potent psychedelic component DMT as well as harmala alkaloids, which are MAO inhibiting and which are essential to making the DMT orally active.
It is possible to brew ayahuasca tea without DMT. Brugmansia, Justicia pectoralis, or Nicotiana rustica, also called mapacho or sacred tobacco, might replace the Psychotria viridis, or the shaman might choose to simply omit it.
Compared batch to batch, ayahuasca varies radically, both in psychoactive effect and potency. These changes are caused by the skill of the brewer or shaman, the nature of any admixtures, changes from the physical act of cooking, natural fluctuations in alkaloid content, and the intent of the ceremony.
Traditional ayahuasca making follows a ritualistic order. The user must pick the lower Chacruna leaf at sunrise, say a prayer, clean the vine meticulously with wooden spoons, and finally pound the vine with wooden mallets until it is fiber.
It is possible that the adherence to ritual in the context of using ayahuasca is a recognition of the possibility of variations between batches and other sources of uncertainty in the process. Following ritual adds to the likelihood of a better experience, and a more predictable outcome.
The ayahuasca tea’s actual preparation demands several hours to several days. Each form of plant matter is added separately to a large pot of boiling water. There is significant cooking time, to reduce the volume by half again each time something new is added. The ayahuasca is reduced significantly again once all ingredients are present, and this combined tea is the final product used in ayahuasca ceremonies.
Traditional Use of Ayahuasca
In a traditional context, ayahuasca is largely used as an aid to the spiritual practices of ayahuasca shamanism. This type of shamanistic belief system is associated with the cosmologies and philosophies of the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon.
Although the spiritual applications of ayahuasca are more famous, traditional users also benefit from its medicinal properties. As described above, the medicinal use of ayahuasca affects the consciousness for six hours or less, starting about half an hour after the dose and peaking at about the two hour mark. In certain situations, users might experience serious psychological stress, and ayahuasca also produces moderately increased diastolic blood pressure and heart rate. Due to these cardiovascular effects and the risk of stress, anyone who may be at risk of heart disease should take extreme caution with ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is known for its psychedelic effects, such as the mixing of sensory modalities, and auditory visual stimulation. Users report deep levels of introspection that can produce intense fear, elation, or clarity.
Ayahuasca can induce occasional diarrhea and often intense vomiting. These purgative properties are called the purge or la purga and have spiritual significance for many users, representing negative emotions leaving the body.
Ayahuasca use and dietary taboos are frequently linked. In a traditional setting, users tend to abstain from heavily seasoned and spicy foods, acidic foods (such as citrus), salt, excess fat, caffeine, and sex before, during, or after a ceremony with the goal of self purification.
Outside the rainforest, some recommend a diet low in tyramine, with the idea that tyramine and MAOIs could interact and trigger a hypertensive crisis. However, there is not much evidence to support this idea, and the highly urban ayahuasca church União do Vegetal of Brazil does not have any dietary restrictions in place, suggesting a lower risk on that point than perceived, if one exists at all.
Ceremony and the role of shamans
Curanderos, Shamans, and experienced ayahuasca users all agree that you should not consume ayahuasca outside the presence of one or more well-trained shamans. In some regions, people who are not shamans, sometimes called brujos for “witches,” who lure tourists into using ayahuasca—either to rob them or somehow hurt them spiritually.
In a true ayahuasca ceremony, shamans lead participants in consuming the ceremonial ayahuasca beverage in a rite, singing icaros to lead the participant, usually over the course of an entire night. Participants abstain from red meat, spicy foods, caffeine, and sex before the ceremony, during which the effects from the ayahuasca tea last for hours. Typically, the ceremony is accompanied with the purge, which includes vomiting and at times diarrhea; the traditional belief is that this is the actual release of pent up negative energy and emotions.
Generally, traditional ayahuasca brews are made with some local source of DMT and Banisteriopsis caapi as an MAOI. Several varieties of caapi exist with varying potencies, effects, and uses, often referred to as different “colors.”
There are a number of common DMT admixtures in use, including: the leaves of the Chacruna plant, Psychotria viridis; the leaves of the Amyruca plant, Psychotria carthagenensis; the leaves of the Chagropanga, Chaliponga, and/or Banisteriopsis rusbyana plants, all species Diplopterys cabrerana; and the root bark of the Mimosa tenuiflora or M. hostilis plant.
The Toé or Brugmansia plant; the hard bark of the giant Amazonian Huacapurana tree; Justicia pectoralis; yerba mate relative Ilex guayusa; the head of the Uchu sanango plant; and tobacco variety Mapacho, also called Nicotiana rustica, are also all common admixtures.
Many other common admixtures are in use for different reasons in various regions. According to the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants:
- The bark of the Ayahuma or Cannon Ball tree is thought to offer protection and is used to heal soul loss from spiritual trauma or fright, “susto.”
- The Mermaid Spirit or Bobinsana plant is used to heal relationships and emotions as it is thought to open the heart chakra.
- The smooth bark of the Capirona is used for balance, cleansing, and protection.
- The bark of the Chullachaki caspi or Brysonima christianeae tree is used to cope with physical issues and offers cleansing to the body.
- The bark of the Lopuna blanca tree is thought to offer protection.
- Bark from the Yellow Punga or Punga amarilla is used to protect and draw out negative energies or spirits.
- The bark of the Oar Tree or Remo caspi is used to move dark or dense energies.
- Bark from the Air Tree, Wyra (huaira) caspi, or Cedrelinga catanaeformis is used to transcend gastro/intestinal difficulties, induce purging, and induce tranquility to calm the mind.
Non-traditional Usage of Ayahuasca
The practice of drinking ayahuasca began moving to North America, Europe, and elsewhere in the late 20th century. The first ayahuasca churches were established in the Netherlands, outside Brazil but affiliated with the Brazilian Santo Daime.
Two of the leaders of the church, Hans Bogers and Geraldine Fijneman, were criminally charged with distributing DMT, a controlled substance. However, the case failed in 2001 because the prosecution could not prove that church members’ ayahuasca use constituted a threat to public health sufficient to warrant curtailing their religious freedom.
This important precedent from the Amsterdam district court verdict has allowed more churches to exist. Various groups, many not affiliated with the Santo Daime, have begun to use ayahuasca, with varying styles and approaches, some spiritual, others secular. In non-traditional contexts, people who work with ayahuasca frequently align themselves with the ideas of the ayahuasca shamanism practiced among the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon.
In North America and Europe today, people often prepare ayahuasca analogs by substituting in non-traditional plants with the same or similar alkaloids. For example, Mimosa hostilis is rich in DMT and can be used in place of chacruna, and the seeds of the Syrian rue plant can substitute for the ayahuasca vine. Australia is home to various DMT-rich species of Acacia and other indigenous plants which are widely-used among local ayahuasqueros.
The name itself, “ayahuasca,” specifically refers to Banisteriopsis caapi and the botanical that contains it. Any version made synthetically from an appropriate MAOI and typically DMT is called a pharmahuasca. The DMT remains the main psychoactive active ingredient, while the MAOI protects the orally ingested DMT in the gut and preserves its psychoactivity so it can be absorbed in the body. In contrast, compare the idea that “ayahuasca” refers to the vine and the brew itself to the common idea held among traditional Amazonian tribes, which holds that the B. Caapi vine is the gatekeeper, the “spirit” of ayahuasca, and the guide to otherworldly realms.
DMT sources that occur outside South America and may be used to prepare brews similar to ayahuasca include:
- The bark of Maiden’s wattle or Acacia maidenii—but realize that not all plants are active, meaning DMT levels may vary wildly from plant to plant
- Bark from Acacia phlebophylla and other Acacias
- Anadenanthera peregrina, the calcium or yopo tree
- Finally, root bark from the Illinois bundleflower, Desmanthus illinoensis, can produce a hallucinogenic drink called prairiehuasca when mixed with passion flower or some other native source of beta-Carbolines.
MAOI admixtures include seeds from Syrian rue or Peganum harmala, and synthetic MAOIs, particularly RIMAs.
Legal Status of Ayahuasca
Internationally, under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances DMT is a Schedule I drug. However, the UN acknowledges that neither plants which contain DMT nor their cultivation are subject to international control via Schedule I.
A 2001 clarification from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) states that plant preparations such as ayahuasca are also outside the articles of the convention. However, in 2010, that same board recommended that local governments consider criminalizing ayahuasca, creating legitimate concern about the potential for human rights abuses against religious freedom.
In the United States, DMT is a Schedule I drug under federal law. This means it is illegal to possess or consume DMT or things containing it; however, specific religious groups gained legal permission to use ayahuasca ritually.
In 2005 the United States Supreme Court allowed the União do Vegetal to import and use ayahuasca for religious purposes pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Gonzales case. Again in 2009, a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of ayahuasca users under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in a similar case concerning the Santo Daime religion in a local church in Oregon.
The Canadian Santo Daime Church Céu do Montréal received a religious exemption in 2017 to use ayahuasca in their rituals.
There were two official inquiries into ayahuasca in the mid-1980s in Brazil, after which religious use was legalized and the investigation concluded that ayahuasca has valid spiritual uses and is not a recreational drug.
Oakland, California, decriminalized natural entheogens via unanimous City Council vote in June 2019, ending any investigation or criminal penalties for use and possession of plant- or fungi-derived entheogens. A recognition of the ancient human practice of using entheogenic plants for a variety of reasons, this trend toward decriminalization continues, with Santa Cruz, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan following suit in 2020.
Where is ayahuasca legal?
Legal ayahuasca countries:
Decriminalized ayahuasca countries where there is little or no risk of a criminal penalty for the possession or use of a small or personal quantity of ayahuasca:
- Costa Rica
- Czech Republic
- Russian Federation
- United States: Oakland, CA; Santa Cruz, CA, ayahuasca retreats exist in parts of New York as well
Disclaimer: Remember, decriminalization of psychoactive substances isn’t the same as legalization. It’s not a free pass to use ayahuasca at will for any reason. The outcome depends entirely on the region or country and, importantly, on the amount of ayahuasca you possess or use. Although the most common outcome is confiscation, other, more severe non-criminal outcomes are still possible in decriminalized areas, such as suspension of driver’s license, imposition of fines, and even deportation.
Illegal ayahuasca countries
Ayahuasca remains controlled or illegal along with other psychedelic drugs and psychoactive drugs in each of these countries, although there may be circumstantial exceptions for religion or regional exceptions:
- United Kingdom
- United States (except for some religious use and where decriminalized)
Canada has not legislated for or against ayahuasca, and enforcement there remains unclear.
Ayahuasca, Intellectual Property, and Traditional Knowledge
Ayahuasca use, particularly outside South America, has prompted discussions concerning the protection of traditional knowledge and intellectual property. In 1986, the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) granted a patent on the B. caapi vine itself based on the idea that ayahuasca’s properties had not previously been described in writing.
Several public interest groups, including the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment (Amazon Coalition) and the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) challenged this patent in 1999. They argued the patent granted private ownership rights in sacred, widely-understood knowledge of a plant that is important to the healing and religious ceremonies of many indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
The PTO rejected the patent later that year in a decision on the basis of one of the petitioners’ arguments: that the knowledge of the plant was not “distinctive or novel.” The decision stopped short of acknowledging the idea patents might be prohibited by cultural or religious values surrounding a plant. The US Patent Office reinstated the patent in 2001 after an appeal. (The patent expired in 2003.) The patent holder, US entrepreneur Loren Miller, successfully argued that the law at the time did not allow COICA or other third parties to participate in that piece of the reexamination process.
Ayahuasca and Ethics
Globalization has affected all aspects of modern life, including ayahuasca use. The unprecedented creep of global interconnectedness has seen aspects of Amazonian tribal culture such as ayahuasca use transferred to unlikely new contexts such as urban centers around the world.
According to Kenneth Tupper, this leads to a host of issues for people engaging in their own, traditional cultural practices as globalization enables those very practices to become more popular with strangers who don’t fully understand them. This leads to the exotification of ayahuasca ceremonies and other spiritual practices and their co-optation for a veneer of authenticity in the context of organized Western religions. This in turn permits the ongoing denigration of indigenous cultures and the perpetuation of the “noble savage” stereotype, even as select cultural practices are heralded for their wisdom.
An extension of this problem is the rise of the self-taught ayahuasca shaman or neo-ayahuasqeuro—who may or may not adhere to traditional practices—with little to no connection to indigenous cultures that are home to ayahuasca culture. The market for ayahuasca therapy and ayahuasca experiences is potentially lucrative, introducing another layer of ethical complexity, as this appeals to many fraudsters and charlatans alongside those who truly understand the traditional indigenous practices of the Amazon. Equally disturbing: the trend of sexual predators masquerading as shamans.
An additional cost that might come with cultural appropriation as ayahuasca gains in popularity is biopiracy. Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of the potential value in the biosphere in terms of undiscovered therapeutics. Traditional medical practitioners are a fantastic resource for these companies.
Of course, as long as the world remains interconnected, people will travel to the Amazon basin. The cat, in other words, is out of the bag. The good side of this is that the wisdom of Amazon basin cultures, including ayahuasca and other traditional practices, will inevitably spread outward to all of humanity. The question is how that process will unfold and whether it will be respectful.
Benefits of Ayahuasca
Many ayahuasca users report that their experience created long-term, positive changes in their lives. Recent research indicates that ayahuasca may benefit brain health in particular in several ways, so these feelings of major change could be down to the ways ayahuasca impacts the neurological system.
May benefit brain health
Some research shows that DMT and β-carbolines—ayahuasca’s primary active ingredients—exhibit neurorestorative and neuroprotective qualities. More specifically, research indicates that DMT activates the sigma-1 receptor (Sig-1R), a protein that helps protect the brain cells by regulating the production of antioxidant compounds and blocking neurodegeneration.
DMT has been shown to protect human brain cells from damage caused by increased cell survival and lack of oxygen in a laboratory setting.
Ayahuasca’s main β-carboline, harimine, has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and memory-boosting benefits. Harimine can also help promote nerve cell growth and survival by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Additionally, research demonstrates that harmine exposure increases human neural progenitor cell growth by over 70% in 4 days.
May improve psychological well-being
Research indicates that ayahuasca may improve your overall psychological well-being and increase the brain’s capacity for mindfulness.
One study showed that stress and depression ratings decreased significantly immediately after the participants used ayahuasca. These effects—which are attributed primarily to the DMT and β-carbolines—remained significant 4 weeks after consumption.
Another study found that consuming ayahuasca once a week for 4 weeks was just as effective at increasing acceptance as an 8-week mindfulness program. As a component of mindfulness, acceptance plays a critical part in psychological health. Other research has also found that ayahuasca may improve mood, mindfulness, and emotional regulation.
May help treat anxiety, addiction, PTSD, schizophrenia, and treatment-resistant depression
Various research indicates that ayahuasca may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and addiction disorders.
One study showed that a single dose of ayahuasca significantly improved severity of treatment-resistant depression compared with a placebo. Other studies also indicate ayahuasca has rapid antidepressant benefits.
A six-study review concluded that ayahuasca can be used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, drug dependence, and mood disorders.
Ayahuasca appears to have promise for treating addiction disorders, including alcohol, crack cocaine, and nicotine addictions. One study followed people with severe substance abuse-fueled behavioral and psychological issues as they participated in treatment that included ayahuasca ceremonies. Even after 6 months, they reported a significant decline in their use of alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco, and demonstrated significant improvements in empowerment, hopefulness, mindfulness, and overall quality of life.
Researchers believe ayahuasca may have therapeutic potential for treating PTSD but research into this area is ongoing. Similarly, research indicates ayahuasca may benefit people with schizophrenia.
What is ayahuasca?
Technically, “ayahuasca” refers to both the plant that is used to brew the drink, and the brew itself. Specifically, the plant is the ayahuasca vine, or Banisteriopsis caapi. To make the traditional ayahuasca tea, pieces of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are mixed with Psychotria viridis leaves—also called the chacruna plant, which is derived from “to mix” in Quechuan. Ayawaska means “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead” in the Quechua language.
How do you pronounce ayahuasca?
Think of the Quechua spelling, ayawaska: EYE-uh-WAH-skuh.
What is yagé?
Yagé is simply another way to refer to ayahuasca. It is more common in Colombia and other parts of the northwest Amazon because it originates with the Tukano people.
Also, mostly for the same regional reasons, there can be minor technical variations between ayahuasca and yagé, such as the use of both the bark and core of B. caapi or just the core, or the use of chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana). Some also say mother ayahuasca in contrast to the masculine spirit of yagé, although the terms are mostly interchangeable in practice.
What is ayahuasca like?
One of the most common ways to describe the ayahuasca experience is years of therapy accented by vomiting, visions, and emotional catharsis, packed into a single night. To get an inkling of what ayahuasca visions might be like, view ayahuasca documentary films or the ayahuasca art of Pablo Amaringo (although not every ayahuasca user experiences these visions).
The shaman chants and signs to guide these visions in the context of the traditional ceremony. At the close of the ceremony, the user realizes they have engaged in what can feel like a brutally honest life audit and evaluation of relationships, choices, and behaviors.
Can ayahuasca be detected in a drug test?
The psychedelic compound in ayahuasca is DMT. DMT is included neither on a typical drug screen, nor in any known expanded drug panels. If it were chemically similar to substances that drug panels typically test for it might still trigger a false positive, but it isn’t, so there is almost no chance of any popped drug test from ayahuasca alone.
Will ayahuasca make me sick?
Especially in the early stages of the experience, ayahuasca does often induce nausea and/or diarrhea. Traditionally, many users fast before the ceremony for this reason—it purifies the spirit and body, but also probably allows the system to clean itself out. No one has reported any serious problems or long-lasting harm arising from the purge.
How common is ayahuasca death?
Ayahuasca death cases are infrequent, and typically attributed to medical contraindications, interactions with other substances, or pure mishap. Of course, there are dangers associated with ayahuasca. However, ayahuasca dangers can be managed by following best practices.
Do I have to travel to Peru for an ayahuasca ceremony or ayahuasca retreat?
In 2021, there are many places around the world to find ayahuasca, although the Peruvian Amazon is the location most associated with traditional ayahuasca ceremonies. Many religious groups such as the Christian UDV also legally use ayahuasca in their gatherings and ceremonies.
Where can I buy ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is not something you can go out and buy or order, except maybe locally in South America. If you do see ayahuasca tea for sale or related products online, be careful! Not only is it likely to be illegal, you can’t be sure of what’s in it. However, ingredients for ayahuasca—both the traditional version and modern alternatives—are widely available online.
How to make ayahuasca?
Various traditions hold their own recipes and rituals for preparing traditional ayahuasca, but it is typically a boiled mix of pieces of the B. caapi vine and leaves from the P. viridis plant or something similar. A range of non-traditional recipes for ayahuasca also exist, using local plants from different regions beyond the Amazon Basin. For example, the Illinois bundle flower and Syrian rue version of ayahuasca can be made here in North America.
From a chemical and pharmacological standpoint, ayahuasca has only two components: DMT and MAOI. These can both be found native to virtually every continent in a variety of plants.
How long does ayahuasca last?
Typically, the ayahuasca trip itself lasts from five to eight hours, although depending on several factors the brew affects people differently. Ayahuasca healing certainly lasts long past the immediate effects and for many users the benefits last a lifetime.
Will I have a negative ayahuasca experience or a bad trip?
There’s no way to predict how your ayahuasca experience will go, or to guarantee a great time—nor prevent a bad or painful trip. Ayahuasca tea contains an intense and potent psychedelic compound that is unpredictable, and each body and mind are different. However, most people experience something extremely meaningful by taking ayahuasca with support and in the right mindset and context.
Can I mix ayahuasca with other drugs?
It is best not to mix ayahuasca with any drugs, but certainly avoid mixing it with Tramadol, which can trigger serotonin syndrome. Avoid mixing ayahuasca with amphetamines, cannabis, or cocaine.
Can I microdose with ayahuasca?
Microdosing is most popular with psilocybin and LSD, so there is not much information on this. However, DMT is similar to LSD and psilocybin, so in theory you could microdose it in the same way.
Does ayahuasca produce tolerance?
Users can take additional doses of ayahuasca within a day without significantly reducing benefits, indicating ayahuasca tolerance is very mild if it exists. Ayahuasca does not create tolerance for other psychedelics.
Final Thoughts on Ayahuasca
We hope our massive guide to all things ayahuasca has been useful to you. Are you ready to pack a few decades of therapy into a night or two?