Art credit: Ben Ridgway
Ayahuasca has the potential to heal on many levels. From depression to eating disorders, ayahuasca is a plant medicine characterized by its capacity for deep introspection and spiritual revelations.
Plant medicine enthusiasts have started to suggest that ayahuasca can not only help to heal the mind, but also the body. In the time of coronavirus, can we really expect that ayahuasca could help protect us from viruses and bacterial infections?
Here we examine the evidence that ayahuasca, or its component plants, have antiviral or antimicrobial properties. Could drinking ayahuasca protect you from bacteria and viruses?
Ayahuasca: Plants vs Preparations
There’s an important distinction to keep in mind when we’re talking about the protective properties of any plant medicine. There’s a difference between the inherent properties of a plant that protects it from viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria growing on its leaves; and the effects of these plants on the human body after they are ingested.
Just because a plant can kill some of the viruses and infections that may threaten its survival, doesn’t necessarily mean that eating, smoking, or drinking the plant would have the same kind of protective powers in humans.
Different preparations of plants will also have different medicinal properties, depending on how the processing of the plant material has affected the molecules within it. Boiling or smoking plants will inevitably change some of their properties, perhaps in ways that we may find hard to anticipate.
Must read: Does tobacco kill bacteria and viruses?
Do the Ayahuasca Plants have Protective Properties?
The main component of all ayahuasca recipes, and the plant that gives ayahuasca its name, is Banisteriopsis caapi. It’s a large vine that can grow nearly 100ft long, usually winding its way up trees in the Amazonian rainforest to reach the sunlight.
However, ayahuasca brews typically contain other plants as well, including tobacco, Psychotria viridis, or toé. To keep things simple, we’ll focus on the two main plants used in the most commonly found ayahuasca brews: B. caapi and P. viridis.
Banisteriopsis caapi (the ayahuasca vine)
B. caapi contains a class of compounds called beta-carbolines. The three most common of these are harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, and these are known as the harmala alkaloids.
When ingested by humans, these three molecules act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This means they prevent the breakdown of important neurotransmitters in the body, including histamine, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.
All ayahuasca brews contain B. caapi, and this is where most of the purgative properties come from – put simply, the harmala alkaloids make you feel nauseous.
The purge that B. caapi induces is thought to provide ayahuasca brews with anti-parasitic properties; basically, if you puke and crap your guts out, there’s not much chance that parasites will manage to stick around.
The harmala alkaloids also have some psychedelic properties on their own; although the majority of the trippiness of most ayahuasca brews is due to the DMT contained within the most common admixture, P. viridis.
Although there have not been any direct studies of the antimicrobial and antiviral properties of the B. caapi vine itself, there has been research on the harmala alkaloids that are found within it. Harmala alkaloids extracted from the seeds of the Peganum harmala plant have been shown to have moderate antimicrobial properties against a range of bacteria in laboratory conditions (Ahmad et al, 1992), and also some limited antiviral activity against the common flu virus (Moradi et al, 2017).
It’s important to be cautious about these results for several reasons. First of all, P. harmala seeds contain a slightly different harmala alkaloid make up to B. caapi, so these results may not be directly translatable to the ayahuasca vine. Also, these findings are from laboratory studies, and we have no idea how well they would translate into humans, or what kind of quantities of B. caapi would have to be ingested to have antiviral or antimicrobial effects. For example, these antimicrobial properties of P. harmala are around a hundred times less powerful than typical antibiotics!
Psychotria viridis (chacruna)
P. viridis is the most common admixture in modern ayahuasca brews. This is likely because it contains DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a powerful psychedelic molecule that works in a unique symbiosis with the harmala alkaloids present in the B. caapi vine.
Normally, when DMT is ingested, it is quickly destroyed by the monoamine oxidase enzymes in the body. But when taken with substances that inhibit these enzymes (such as the harmala alkaloids in the B. caapi vine), the DMT in the P. viridis plant is free to travel around the body and have its profound psychedelic effects.
Most studies into the protective properties of DMT have focussed on the DMT molecule rather than the entire P. viridis plant. There is no evidence that applying the plant as a topical treatment, or as a brew of its own, has any medicinal benefits.
Ingesting the plant together with an MAOI seems to be the only reliable method of seeing effects. Although some people smoke P. viridis as a part of the changa smoking blend, this still requires the addition of DMT extract, as the plant itself does not contain enough DMT to be active when smoked in reasonable quantities.
Research into DMT shows that it may have some protective effects in humans through the Sigma-1 receptor. These receptors have been linked to anti-inflammatory and anti-ischemic effects: in other words, they reduce inflammation in our bodies and potentially help us recover from injuries (Frecska et al, 2013). It remains to be seen whether DMT has these effects in humans, but it’s theoretically possible.
There is no evidence that DMT itself could kill bacteria or viruses. Yet it remains to be seen whether the P. viridis plant itself has antimicrobial or antiviral molecules that could retain their protective properties when ingested by humans.
Could Ayahuasca Brews Kill Bacteria & Viruses?
Everything we know so far about the B. caapi and P. viridis plants suggests that their combination in the ayahuasca brew could have some limited antibacterial and antiviral effects in humans. However we know barely anything about how powerful these effects may be, how long they may last, or what quantities of ayahuasca are required to have measurable benefits.
One interesting preliminary study on the brew has shown that ayahuasca could potentially boost the immune system in humans. Ten people were given a dose of ayahuasca (made with B. caapi and P. viridis), which was shown to increase the number of certain immune cells circulating the body, and increase levels of cortisol – a hormone that regulates the immune system (Dos Santos et al, 2011). These effects appeared to last for several hours.
Although more research on the topic of ayahuasca and the immune system is needed, it’s looking possible that the brew could give you a temporary boost in your ability to fight off infections.
But let’s be realistic here! We don’t know whether the immune-boosting and antiviral/antimicrobial properties of ayahuasca really be enough to make a difference to someone who’s sick. And even more importantly, it’s unlikely that ayahuasca would be able to kill a virus that is hovering around in a shared ayahuasca cup. Which brings us to this important point about group plant medicine ceremonies…
Ayahuasca, the Coronavirus, and Plant Medicine Ceremonies
The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19) have reached almost all corners of the world, and could kill millions of people. So it’s no wonder that the issue of infection is relevant for plant medicine ceremonies, where dozens of people from all over the world gather to share substances, often from communal bowls or pipes.
We’ve written extensively about the issues with ayahuasca ceremonies and coronavirus before, but basically any plant medicine ceremony will likely involve shared instruments, shared liquids, possibly bodily fluids, and close contact with others. Ultimately, plant medicine ceremonies are a dream come true for viruses like the coronavirus, and the most sensible option is to shut them down until a vaccine or widespread testing is available.
There’s also no reason to think that any antiviral properties of ayahuasca would be strong enough to kill coronavirus, or that any immune-boosting properties would be enough to outweigh the effect of a massive dose of the virus from a shared cup!
So overall, ayahuasca should not be considered a blanket cure or preventative for all viruses. We barely know enough to say that ayahuasca has even a little bit of antiviral or antimicrobial actions! Stay safe and don’t assume anything about ayahuasca. We should know by now to not take anything for granted when it comes to the vine of the dead.