Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Westerners have flocked to the Amazon for an experience of an ancient and potent hallucinogenic tea: ayahuasca. Used by the indigenous peoples of the region both a cure-all tonic as well as a sacrament for important spiritual, social and cultural events, ayahuasca has been popularized as a mind-blowing, life-altering experience that has the power to heal both physical and emotional ailments that Western medicine has failed to resolve.
Ayahuasca attracts Westerners to the Amazon for wide-ranging reasons. Some are in a last ditch attempt to heal serious illness or overcome addiction. Spiritual seekers are in pursuit of their next transcendental awakening. Business owners come looking looking for a creative entrepreneurial breakthrough. Others want to get over debilitating grief, emotional trauma, and anxiety.
An ayahuasca experience can be profoundly healing and positive, if approached in the right way. However, negative experiences abound, sometimes leaving ayahuasca ceremony participants in worse shape than before the ritual. These risks can be avoided with prior research and proper vetting of centers and facilitators.
To help you understand how this mysterious Amazonian brew works, here’s a beginner’s guide to ayahuasca, its effects, how the tea is for medicinal & spiritual purposes, as well as current scientific research on its therapeutic properties and potential applications.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an ancient alchemical decoction originating in the jungles of the Amazon. It is made using a vine which contains a powerful naturally occurring psychedelic compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine or simply DMT. The DMT is found within the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi (B caapi) it is mixed with one of several other plants including Psychotria viridis (P. viridis). The admixture plants contain several alkaloids that function as monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOI’s. The main alkaloids present in these are harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine. These MAOI’s work synergistically with the DMT to create an intense psychedelic experience.
The B. caapi is crushed along with the P. viridis then covered with water and gently boiled for several hours. This entheogenic brew is taken in order to commune with the matriarchal spirit of the jungle. She is often referred to as, madre ayahuasca or mother ayahuasca.
The name Ayahuasca is derived from two Quechua words, Quechua is a common language widely used throughout the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca is known by many names in south America a few of the more common ones include Yagé, Caapi, La Purga, Natema, Mihi, La Medicina, Daime, Vegetal, Hoasca, Oasca or simply Aya. The word “Aya” means “Soul or Dead” and the word “Huasca” means “Vine or Rope”. The literal translation for Aya-Huasca is, “Vine of the Dead”, “Vine of Spirits” or “Vine of the Souls”.
This ancient drink is deeply rooted in the religious beliefs of many indigenous and mestizo groups. It is central to their healing ceremonies. Traditional ceremonial use of ayahuasca like peyote and mushroom use was persecuted by missionaries and health officials who were ignorant to its medicinal benefits.
Ayahuasca is said to heal many ailments including depression and cancer as well as PTSD. It is also used to restore the immune system and is used to clear the body of parasites. Ayahuasca has incredible transformative effects, it fortifies not only the body but the mind and spirit as well.
Physiological Effects of Ayahuasca
The most common physiological effects of ayahuasca is the purge or la purga. This is one of the most important parts of the ceremony. The purge is said to cleanse the person who is drinking. The purge is part of the learning process because the purge actually teaches you.
Other physical effects include “Nausea, diarrhea, vibrating/ shaking, both chills and sweats, body aches, involuntary movements, and other symptoms that resemble food poisoning or the flu”. During an Aya journey you will experience difficulty walking or getting around. You may also experience sedation and some people even fall asleep. You can expect the physical effects before you have any visual hallucinations. The onset typically begins within 20 – 60 minutes. See below for a clinical example.1
In this example eighteen volunteers with previous psychedelic experience were given 0.6 and 0.85 mg of DMT per kilogram of body weight. The ayahuasca was documented to produce significant perceptual hallucinations which peaked between 1.5 and 2 hours after ingestion. The volunteers reported having an increase of positive mood. The blood concentrations of DMT coincide with the peak hallucinogenic experience starting at around the 1.5 hour mark.
Diastolic blood pressure levels had a significant increase of 9 mm Hg at 75 minutes with the higher doses of 0.85. On the other hand systolic blood pressure and heart rate were only moderately and non significantly increased.
The psychological effects of ayahuasca typically begin within 30-45 minutes after ingestion and will peak within the first and second hour. For the come down expect another 1-2 hours and after effects or afterglow can last anywhere between 1 and 8 hours or in some rare instances even days after. The effects of ayahuasca differ drastically from person to person.
Some of the psychological effects that have been reported include, “Mild to extreme euphoria,” loss of ego or dissolution of ego. Profound feelings of connection with the universe and a renewed sense of love, empathy and compassion for everything living in it. A sense of peace will fill your soul and teach you acceptance of others including plants, animals and the world at large. You may have a “Profound life changing spiritual experience.” Often times people find relief from depression and experience deep emotional healing of past traumas as well.
Powerful visions that are typically reported include “Snakes, big cats, insectoid aliens and female goddesses” perhaps Madre Ayahuasca herself. You may experience “Meaningless visual noise, auditory hallucinations or sound distortions.” Time and space will make no sense at all and you may experience extreme time dilation. As noted on erowid there is an “Increased likelihood of embracing magical thinking and paranormal ideation.”
MUST READ: Should You Drink Ayahuasca Alone?
Some of the negative effects that one may or may not experience and may or may not go away during the ceremony include, “fear, paranoia, the feeling of losing one’s mind, feeling as though one is dying, unwanted overwhelming feelings, unwanted or unexpected life changing spiritual experience, personal revelations or reliving of past traumas. Please see below for a clinical example. 2
The following is from a single blind placebo-controlled clinical trial which involved six healthy males that entered this study with previous experience in the use of ayahuasca tea. The clinicians administered three doses in pill form of 0.5, 0.75 and 1.0 mg per kg of body weight. The volunteers reported that psychological effects began between 30 – 60 minutes. The effects began to wear off at the 4 hour mark.
Out of the six participants only one reported having an unpleasant experience from a medium dose of 0.75 mg per kg of body weight. His report included “Disorientation” and “Anxiety” while the other five reported “Liking”, “Good effects” and “High” visual analog scales.
Five of the six volunteers reported initial anxiety or fear that eventually subsided. They also reported that physical changes occurred before the psychological effects began.
The researchers described Ayahuasca as “inducing changes in the perceptual, affective, cognitive, and somatic spheres, with a combination of stimulatory and visual psychoactive effects of longer duration and milder intensity than those previously reported for intravenously administered DMT.”
You can find anecdotal reports all over the web about people that have taken ayahuasca in a ceremonial setting. They tell stories about experiencing revelations, spiritual awakenings or a sudden understanding of their purpose on the planet. There are many reports of people that change their careers or end toxic relationships after an ayahuasca ceremony. 3, 4
History of Ayahuasca & Geographic Location
The northwest region of the Amazon Basin where Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil come together is regarded as “ground zero” of traditional ayahuasca use. Nearly all of the indigenous groups from these areas use ayahuasca ceremoniously. 5
Assigning an actual number to the Amazonian ethnic groups that use Ayahuasca is not a straightforward task, as it is often difficult to define whether two neighboring communities with similar customs and similar tongues constitute one ethnic group or two; Amazonian peoples themselves usually do not traditionally concern themselves with such definitions, as their traditional loyalties and identification have usually been to their own immediate village, and ethnic/tribal identity is a new concept that is developing in modern times as Amazonian peoples organize for their rights.
Mestizo traditional usage has centers in Iquitos and Pucallpa, Peru. Outside of these areas, a large majority of indigenous people also use ayahuasca. The traditional usage of ayahuasca has been expanding outside of “ground zero” and has now made its way around the world.
Sadly, the true origins of ayahuasca use may never come to light. Ralph Metzner wrote a book called, “Ayahuasca: Sacred Vine of Spirits.” In his book he talks about how no one actually knows for certain where the alchemical formula for brewing ayahuasca was first discovered. What we do know for sure is that it had already spread among a wide variety of indigenous tribes within the Amazon Basin by the time western ethnographers stumbled upon it in the mid 19th century.
Metzner wrote about Plutarco Naranjo’s work regarding the prehistory of ayahuasca. He notes, pottery vessels, anthropomorphic figurines, snuffing trays and tubes, etc.” He goes on to note that “plant hallucinogen use was well established in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 1500-2000 B.C.” Unfortunately these findings have nothing to do with ancient use of ayahuasca. As yet, there is nothing concrete to establish prehistoric use of ayahuasca. It is more than likely however that pre-Columbian cultures already knew how to brew ayahuasca.
There is plenty of evidence showing that they were experts in the use of several other psychotropic plants. We can deduce that the recipe for ayahuasca was discovered deep in the Amazon jungle. Where and by whom? We may never know but indigenous and mestizo ayahuasqueros even today believe that this knowledge was given to them by the “Plant teachers.”
Current Use of Ayahuasca & Ayahuasca Culture
(Indigenous, Curanderismo, Santo Daime, UDV, Barquinha, Umbandaime & Other Syncretic Spiritual Lineages, Western Neo-Shamanic Groups)
Currently ayahuasca is a booming business and that can spell trouble for an unsuspecting seeker or initiate. Unfortunately, the high cost of ayahuasca retreats has spawned several charlatans, frauds and sexual predators. Despite a few bad seeds in the world of ayahuasca, there are still plenty of good, honest, traditional or traditionally trained ayahuasqueros.
There are many indigenous and mestizo groups that use ayahuasca as medicine. Many of the groups that are found in Peru are Vegetalistas. There are several others found in countries all over the Amazon Basin. Some are known as oracionistas and they focus on healing through prayers taken from books such as, La Santa Cruz de Caravaca.
Two of the more popular groups are from Brazil. They are the Santo Daime and UDV or União do Vegetal. Both have won court battles in order to use ayahuasca in a legal ceremonial/ religious setting. These two and other groups combined Christianity with ayahuasca use. This helped spread ayahuasca use to the rest of the world.
All of these groups believe with unwavering conviction that most of their knowledge is derived from the ingestion of sacred plants. Which they aptly named plant teachers or doctores meaning doctors.
In the western world ayahuasca is exploding in popularity. Many underground ceremonies are taking place every weekend all over the U.S. There are even legitimate options for you as well and if you feel called to ayahuasca, you should consider going to a place with years of experience. There are churches that serve ayahuasca as a sacrament such as the UDV and the Santo Daime Church. Alternatively, you can book a trip to the Amazon to experience an authentic ceremony in a traditional setting.
There is something interesting that’s happening in the western world. There is a sudden surge of gurus and neo shamans or urban shamans taking people on ayahuasca retreats. A lot of these people seem to be the real deal but some of them are just doing it as a source of income and those are the dangerous ones. You really want to go with someone that has gone through traditional training or at the very least has humble intentions. You should know that your shaman has been to hell and back and would travel back in there to pull you out so to speak.
Ayahuasca is different than most other psychedelic experiences — it is very powerful and long lasting. For this, a trained facilitator such as a licensed clinician or experienced shaman/ medicine person is your best option.
Some Westerners have actually gone to live in the Amazon to learn how to serve ayahuasca from indigenous and mestizo people after a profound ayahuasca experience of their own. Training to become an ayahuasquero is no easy feat. It requires years of training that includes a strict bland, plant based diet, sexual abstinence and a lot of ayahuasca which is taxing on the mind and body. These people come back to the states with traditional training and hold underground ceremonies for American seekers.
MUST READ: So You Want to Be An Ayahuasca Shaman?
Legality of Ayahuasca
There is a lot of confusion around the legality of ayahuasca, because the use and transport of ayahuasca is determined by an individual country’s laws around narcotics and controlled substances. Legality varies country by country. In some countries, ayahuasca, because it contains DMT, is a controlled substance that carries high criminal penalties. In other countries, decriminalization of personal drug use does not make a substance legal, and transportation is considered to be illegal.
Even in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia, where ayahuasca is considered a patrimony, legal usage for the indigenous does not automatically extend to foreigners in retreat centers, though authorities rarely prosecute. In Brazil, use of ayahuasca is legal in a religious context, however, therapeutic contexts (such as in the case of a psychotherapist administering ayahuasca to patients seeking addiction therapy) is not legal. Furthermore, in order to legally receive religious protection registration and documentation is required by the organization – not anyone can claim their ayahuasca use is religious.
Legal grey areas abound around the use of ayahuasca for religious and therapeutic purposes, and cases involving the transportation of ayahuasca tend to, by default, fall into the narcotics division of law enforcement.
While most countries, including the United States, signed the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, a United Nations Treaty, that includes:
The Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances notes that while many plant-derived chemicals are controlled by the treaty, the plants themselves are not
Yet, in most cases, countries maintain the right to have their national drug enforcement laws take priority over treaty agreements.
At the moment, in the United States, it is legal to buy and possess the unprocessed plant materials that make up ayahuasca. It becomes illegal when you extract the DMT from the plants. DMT is currently a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Anyone that has read any current scientific journal on DMT and the benefits of using DMT know that this substance is not addictive and it has several medicinal properties. That means that DMT like many other psychedelic substances does not fit the criteria to be on the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances.
In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Dr. Rick Strassman M.D. talks about how he believes that the source of human DMT is from the “Mysterious pineal gland.”
Wherever it comes from, it is definitely present in our bodies and science proves that. Humans, animals, plants and even sea creatures produce DMT.
Ayahuasca use is currently spreading throughout the western world in leaps and bounds regardless of current laws. In 1999, federal agents seized three drums of ayahuasca from the home of a UDV U.S. branch member. The UDV church responded by suing the U.S. attorney general along with other law enforcement officials. They held those people accountable for hindering the natural progression of their religion/ spirituality. This act was a violation of the RFRA or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They have gone back and forth in court but ultimately Jeffrey Bronfman the president of the UDV-U.S. and heir to the Seagram’s whisky fortune won the rights to use ayahuasca in ceremonial context. The case for UDV-U.S. is not officially over and there might even be a trial yet but the chances of the government winning are next to nothing. 6
Healing with Ayahuasca
As discussed above, there are real dangers when looking for an ayahuasca facilitator or shaman. The effects of ayahuasca are very powerful and will leave you in a vulnerable state. Because of this, you must have complete trust for the group of people you will be working with.
Throughout the upper Amazon, there is a common belief that human beings, in particular shamans, have powerful urges to harm others. There are basically two kinds of shaman — they are either healers or sorcerers. Healers are able to resist the urge to harm while the sorcerers either do not know how due to lack of experience, can not even if they try, or the darkest of them do not want to resist those urges. What separates healers from sorcerers is self control and discipline.
Self control of healers must be exercised in the form of keeping a strict plant based diet called “Dieta.” Healers must also resist the urge to use their magical darts (tsentsak) which are acquired at their initiation for frivolous or selfish purposes. It is the shaman who masters his desires and aims to heal with his tsentsak that gains the power to heal. Shamans who lack the self control to keep their desires in check become sorcerers. Healers learn to use their tsentsak to heal while sorcerers use their tsentsak to harm or kill.
Inexperienced practitioners are dangerous and could harm you just to see if they can. When they do, they begin down a dark path which is easy when compared to the path that healers must travel. The sorcerers can cause spirit possession or unknown illnesses due to their lack of experience.
Healers stay on a difficult path because they truly desire to heal with their powers. They receive gifts of healing and love magic from plant spirits. It is the healers that you must seek out if you are being called to ayahuasca. 7
Beyond all of the magic and sorcery, there is some sound science in regards to healing with ayahuasca. Dennis McKenna had a talk at psychedelic science 2017. He talks about a 1993 study of UDV members.They found tetra-hydro harmine upregulates the serotonin transporters in long-term users of ayahuasca. The UDV members were found to have a significantly elevated level of brain 5HT transporters. Ayahuasca upregulates those transporters.
Since there isn’t very much literature on elevated levels of brain 5HT transporters, they didn’t really know what their discovery meant. So they looked into the literature regarding deficits of brain 5HT transporters and other monoamine transporters. They found that deficits of brain 5HT have been associated with type 2 alcoholism, early onset alcoholism, violent/ homicidal behavior, suicidal tendencies and even binge eating. This is the key to understanding the therapeutic properties of tetrahydroharmine, one of the components found in the ayahuasca brew.
Harmine is one of the simplest B-carbolines. However, it has an impressive array of pharmacological actions. Behavioral and neurological effects of harmine include antidepressant, anxiolytic, increases BNDF in hippocampus, putative hallucinogenic, stimulates dopamine release, anti addictive, ameliorates withdrawal in morphine dependent rats, neuroprotective – activates glutamate transporter gene expression and Glu uptake. According to Dennis, “Harmine, just that simple molecule itself is deserving of more investigation.” 8
Ayahuasca definitely has some serious therapeutic value. There is lots of anecdotal evidence suggesting that it is indeed helping people with depression, PTSD, addiction and several other serious mental disorders. It also seems to help rid the body of parasites and it helps people resolve immune disorders.
The good news is that science is now backing up all of these anecdotal tales of miraculous healing. A recent study of 29 severely depressed people found that ayahuasca does indeed help lift depression. The group was split up with a placebo-controlled group. Both groups were given a depression test and after the first day, the ayahuasca group had a better score than the placebo group. After one week, the ayahuasca group scores continued to improve while the placebo group regressed all the way back to their normal depression levels. 9
MUST READ: Can Ayahuasca Heal Depression
Ayahuasca Risks & Medical Contraindications
Ayahuasca is a serious plant medicine — it requires your utmost respect. There are many dangers associated with ayahuasca. It’s not just the shaman you have to be mindful about. You need to change your diet and suspend prescription medications. And last but certainly not least, you must have the right set and setting for your journey.
To prepare you for all of this, there is a special diet called dieta that will help clean your body of toxins. You should seriously consider starting twenty days before, or at the very least, one week before your trip. The dieta is considered a good practice in order to prepare oneself physically, mentally and spiritually. This in turn will enhance your ability to receive the most benefits from the ayahuasca ceremony.
If you are not taking heavy prescription medications and are otherwise healthy and sound of body and mind and decide to ignore the dieta, you may not notice any negative effects. However, to reach higher states of consciousness the levels of toxicity in your mind and body should be relatively low. This is why dieta is so important — the good downloads go to those that practice discipline and a clean dieta.
The real dangers of ayahuasca come from the participants themselves and not being honest about prescription or illegal drug use and that can become fatal. Although rare, ayahuasca deaths related to medical contraindications have occurred.
It is extremely important to mention SSRI medications to your shaman. These medications can be fatal if mixed with ayahuasca.
You need to suspend MAOI use before going on an ayahuasca journey. These drugs can cause serious illness including, severe liver and kidney impairment, severe headaches, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease.
Brugmansia or Toé is a dangerous admixture that is used by some shaman. This plant looks like datura or angel’s trumpet and can cause permanent mental problems or be fatal if the dose is miscalculated.
5-MeO-DMT and Bufo alvarius is making its way into shamanic circles. Both bufotenine and 5-MeO-DMT may have deadly contraindications with the harmala alkaloids present in ayahuasca. Two known deaths have been recorded in the medical literature — harmaline and 5-MeO-DMT were found during their autopsies. 10
In conclusion, if you are seriously considering using ayahuasca for self healing, it is recommended that you do a lot of research before making any commitments. As mentioned above Lorna has already written a beautiful in depth article that can help you find the right ayahuasca practitioner. As we have already discussed, some shamans use dangerous admixtures in their ayahuasca brew. Ask your facilitator questions about the ingredients they use and get informed about what you are about to put into your body. Ayahuasca can be a beautiful experience if done correctly. On the other hand, it can become a living nightmare with lasting or or even fatal consequences. If you are planning on buying the ingredients to do this on your own at home, please understand that ayahuasca is different than most other psychedelics. Ayahuasca is typically taken with an experienced shaman because it is very powerful. Keep in mind that it can cause serious illness or death if mixed with the wrong foods, drinks or prescription medications so be very careful.
- Ayahuasca Effects
- Ayahuasca Effects
- The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca
- What indigenous groups traditionally use Ayahuasca?
- Self Control
- Dennis McKenna: Beyond Ayahuasca – Occurrence & Biological Activities of Natural ß-carbolines
- The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca
- The Uncensored Guide to Preparing for Ayahuasca Ceremony