Ayahuasca: The Chemistry, Effects, and Brain Science

Ayahuasca
By Tessa Eskin

Ayahuasca, also known as caapi or yajé, is a psychoactive brew with deep traditional roots in the Amazon Basin of South America. The Quecha term translates to “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead”, carrying a 3000-year history in shamanistic ritual. The ‘master plant’ is a tool for psychological healing, a gateway through which one may encounter the mythic subconscious. This entrance to the spiritual world reportedly supplies users with wisdom and “existential intelligence” stemming from their own psyche.

Traditionally, ayahuasca was used as a medicinal unifier of mind, body, emotion, and spirit. Amazonian warriors ingested it after returning from the hunt to alleviate aggression so they could peacefully reintegrate into society. This was a foreshadowing, perhaps, of ayahuasca’s potential for PTSD treatment in today’s world, especially for soldiers struggling to return to normalcy.

English botanist Richard Spruce discovered the brew in the mid-1800s while travelling through Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuadorian Amazon while compiling his botanic inventory. Today, people consume ayahuasca as a spiritual cleansing treatment, taken in a sanctioned environment and accompanied by a guide or shaman. The potent dose of imagination and visual creativity forms a metaphysical terrain, a therapeutic space for symbolic untangling and integration. Many Latin American countries currently use ayahuasca to treat addiction, with clinical research fast catching up.

Brew Preparation 

Ayahuasca is comprised of two plants, commonly the Banisteriopsis cap, containing MAOIs, and Psychotria viridis, containing N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT, or the “spirit molecule”, is found in most mammals and plants, producing a potent psychedelic response when ingested, with intense visions and hallucinations.

Many believe that the pineal gland produces DMT when we dream and releases it during birth and death. A DMT release is fast-acting, generally lasting only 20 minutes. Ayahuasca combines this with the MAOI component, preventing enzymes from breaking down the DMT release so the effects last for hours.

The preparation (and ingestion) of ayahuasca is steeped in ritual. The process begins when the curandero (healer) gathers the vine fragments, then washes and pounds them with a wooden mallet. Often the curanderos will sing icaros to communicate with the spirit of the vine as they pulverize the vines. They then place the vines in a cauldron with the washed leaves of P. viridis, cover both. The curandero boils and concentrates this mixture for at least eight hours, then filters out the plant material and blesses the medicinal brew.

Ayahuasca’s Effects

The effects of ayahuasca largely depend on dosage and individual chemistry. The experience generally takes place in a sacred space, with a small group lead by a healer. The trip begins with visualizations and a physical wave that usually involves nausea and vomit. Many consider these purgative effects themselves healing, combining the physical and psychological with a cleansing of repressed emotions and toxins.

The experience becomes gradually more surreal, with visuals of brightened colors and geometrical shapes that form entoptic images. Many report a flying sensation before returning to a state of hallucination as they near the end of their experience. This final hallucinatory wave often includes communication with friends or family, sometimes from beyond the grave. 

Many describe the experience as an immersive “waking dream”, with strong emotional responses and psychological breakthroughs. Some liken it to an entrance into an alternate dimension—the spirit world. Recent studies tracking brainwaves of subjects on DMT showed that the brain responds as if in a vivid and intense daydream, a cross-section of the conscious and subconscious. The trip often features a strong flow of energy within the body, communion with ethereal entities, and ego death.

Neurology 

A recent study showed that ayahuasca promotes neurogenesis. This refers to the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Researchers tested this on mice, who showed improved performance in memory-based tasks. The study revealed that the newly formed neurons had become functionally capable of elevating cognitive ability.

The DMT in ayahuasca activates a receptor called sigma-1, a “multi-faceted stress-responsive receptor” promoting cell survival, neuroprotection, and neuroplasticity. These findings imply the possibility of stimulating neurogenesis without interacting with serotonin. This translates into a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia while bypassing the hallucinatory effects of ayahuasca.

The study showed that DMT combined with MAOIs results in an anti-amnesic effect. This explains how ayahuasca assists with PTSD, often associated with memory repression. By stimulating synaptic plasticity, the neurogenesis and “dopaminergic neurotransmission” processes dampen fear responses, thus reprogramming triggering memories.

This new understanding of the sigma-1 receptor has led researchers to explore ayahuasca as a treatment for a range of conditions related to cellular memory dysregulation. This includes PTSD, addiction, and dementia, as well as cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative pathologies.

The breakthroughs of ayahuasca, both personal and scientific, underscore the vital importance of further research. The therapeutic, spiritual, neurological, and physiological benefits are manifold, and we’ll see more clinical trials emerge as research zeroes in on practical therapeutic applications.

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