Art credit: Ben Ridgway
As the global pandemic grinds on, many plant medicine communities continue to hold ayahuasca ceremonies, despite their inherent risk of coronavirus transmission. Plant medicine practitioners often justify these choices based on one or more of the following beliefs:
- Ayahuasca brew is antimicrobial, and thus can kill viruses and bacteria upon contact; or can help to boost the immune system.
- Ayahuasca is a sacred Plant Teacher, and La Madre protects you from all harm (including COVID-19).
- Ayahuasca practitioners (or just the members of that particular plant medicine community) “live in light and love.” Thus, the power and purity of abiding the divinely high vibration Universal Love will protect you from illness.
- Fear lowers the immune system, making you susceptible to COVID-19. As long as you do not succumb to fear, you will not get sick.
Given that the last three of these commonly held beliefs are entirely faith-based, debating the objective truth of these theories will likely be exhausting and futile.
So we must instead focus on examining the first: The medically verifiable claim that ayahuasca can protect your body.
In this article, we’ll examine the available scientific evidence that ayahuasca, or its component plants, might have antiviral or antimicrobial properties, and explore how much protection ayahuasca might really give you from infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
Ayahuasca: Plants vs Preparations
Before we dive into the antimicrobial properties of ayahuasca, it’s important to keep in mind the 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.
While a plant growing in its natural habitat might be able to kill some of the viruses and infections that may threaten its survival, this does not mean that eating, smoking, or drinking a preparation of that plant transfers the same kind of protective powers to the humans ingesting it.
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.
What we don’t know is:
- Whether the immune-boosting and antiviral / antimicrobial properties of ayahuasca are strong enough to make a difference to someone who’s already sick.
- How an antimicrobial ayahuasca tea that is drunk will reach infections in other parts of the body, such as the infected person’s nasal passages and lungs.
- Whether the ayahuasca would be able to kill bacteria or viruses that are present on the rim of a shared ayahuasca cup.
Which brings us to this important point about group plant medicine ceremonies…
Ayahuasca, the Coronavirus, & Plant Medicine Ceremonies
Ayahuasca ceremonies have all the hallmark traits of super-spreader events, much like the church gatherings linked to COVID clusters around the world.
- People will often travel good distances to reach ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca retreats often attract participants from far-flung locations around the world.
- Participants gather in close quarters, either inside or outside, for 6-8 hours of sustained communal prayer.
- Music and singing more often than not, part of the all-night program. This might only involve the ceremony musicians, or it might involve the participation of the entire group.
- Purging often shows up as projectile vomiting, which can disperse virus containing aerosols and droplets farther than normal.
- Shared cups and blowpipes might also be used to administer medicines.
- Participants are in an altered state of consciousness, and will likely be less mindful of mask-wearing, maintaining a minimum distance of 6 feet with others, or bathroom hygiene.
Disease transmission vectors are plentiful in ayahuasca ceremonies, but the evidence that ayahuasca’s antimicrobial properties are strong enough to counteract the risks is pretty light.
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.
Ahmad et al (1992). Study of the in vitro antimicrobial activity of harmine, harmaline, and their derivatives. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 35(3), p289-294.
Moradi et al (2017). In vitro antiviral effects of Peganum harmala seed extract and its total alkaloids against Influenza virus. Microbial Pathogenesis, 110, p42-49.
Frecska et al (2013). A possibly sigma-1 receptor mediated role of dimethyltryptamine in tissue protection, regeneration, and immunity. Journal of Neural Transmission, 120, p1295-1303.
dos Santos et al (2011). Autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immunological effects of ayahuasca: a comparative study with d-amphetamine. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 31(6), p717-726.