Image credit: Noa Knafo
Ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms or “magic mushrooms” share many common attributes. They are both extremely potent psychedelics that can, if used in a nurturing context and with a proper mindset, induce remarkable otherworldly visions and profound personal transformation. They also both have long histories of sacramental use in these purposes, and are used in similar ceremonial ways in modern-day retreats.
Magic mushrooms and ayahuasca actually share more similarities than meets the eye, even right down to their chemical makeup. So, let’s take a closer look at the common features and distinctions between these two powerful plant allies.
History of Ayahuasca and Magic Mushrooms
Ayahuasca has a long, even purportedly ancient history of traditional ritualistic use by indigenous societies of the South American Amazon. Based on recent excavations that unearthed a pouch with traces of harmine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), core constituents of ayahuasca’s plant ingredients B. caapi and P. viridis or D. cabrerana, it’s assumed that the sacred concoction may have been brewed by shamans as far back as 1,000 years ago. Some researchers put its origins even further back into the past; an intricately ornamented vessel found in Ecuador, known as the Quito bowl, is thought by some to have served for ritual consumption of a sacramental brew at between the years 500 BC and 500 AD.
The problem with historically dating ayahuasca, though, is that it’s a liquid. By definition, this makes it difficult to trace, as cups and cauldrons can’t be fully indicative of the purpose of ayhauasca brewing. As a liquid, it’s also tough to unequivocally portray in arts and crafts. We know, for example, of the ancient use of harmine and DMT for ritual snuffs due to traces of these compounds we have found in insufflation devices. However, when exactly the indigenous peoples understood that their combination yields the ayahuasca as we know it today, we can’t be certain.
What we can make out, based on the culture of traditional ayahuasca today, is that the brew called ayahuasca, or yagé, yajé, caapi, hoasca, natem, pilde, or by any of the myriad other local names, had likely been prepared without the DMT admixture plants for a long time until this particular combination was discovered. B. caapi is the primary plant that bares the name of aya waska (“vine of the soul”) and makes up the fundament of the brew, which is known to then be mixed with any of the dozens of different plant ingredients that can modulate its effects.
As for its use, the brew has been traditionally employed for purposes of magic, healing, purging, divination, hunting and agricultural strategizing, and strengthening of communal bonds. The last several decades have seen a major growth in interest toward this sacred brew by Western visitors, who now travel to the Amazon to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats with intentions of spiritual growth and healing, and, often, a thirst for mystical visions and encounters with spiritual entities.
Magic mushrooms, likely owing to their distinct shape among sacramental plant medicines, have left a discernible record of symbolic representation in ancient ornamental work. In Mayan artifacts and artwork we can see many depictions of mushrooms, which are thought to have been ritually used in this culture some 2,000 years ago. There is further archaeological support for the thesis that religious rituals with sacred mushrooms have been practiced by pre-Columbian cultures throughout Central America for at least 3,500 years. The Aztecs would call these psychedelic fungi teonanácatl, which translates to “God flesh.” Finally, the mushroom motifs in Central Saharan rock art appear to indicate ritualistic use of magic mushrooms in local hunter gatherer societies some 7-9,000 years ago.
Psychedelic mushrooms indeed seem to have a history of sacramental use spanning way back into ancient times. It’s thought that their consumption precipitated communication with deities. Like ayahuasca, there are also records of them being used for healing, specifically as medicine for fever and gout.
In the 1960s counterculture movement, the popularity of magic mushrooms underwent a sharp rise, along with other psychedelics, most notably LSD. Since the global ban on psychotropic substances imposed in 1971, magic mushrooms still remained a popular recreational psychedelic, especially in the UK, where they were legal until 2005, and in the Netherlands, where they were outlawed in 2008. The Dutch, however, kept magic truffles legal, and these mycelial clumps with highly similar psychedelic effects have been doing a great job in lieu of their mushroom counterparts’ market withdrawal.
Nowadays, psilocybin ceremonies and retreats are sought out by those in need of spiritual healing and evolution, a break from the daily grind, or just some inward exploration, but perhaps more intense than what a meditation retreat could offer. Magic mushrooms present a good option for those yearning for a psychedelic experience, but who may not feel ready for one as challenging as ayahuasca can get. Psilocybin retreat centers can be found in the Netherlands, Jamaica, and, to an extent, in Mexico.
Chemistry of Ayahuasca and Magic Mushrooms
Although structurally very different, ayahuasca (when brewed with DMT) and magic mushrooms are quite similar chemically. Both have tryptamines as active compounds, but ayahuasca’s ingredients also include a host of alkaloids that enable the tryptamines to take effect.
Ayahuasca is usually brewed with two kinds of plants: the vine B. caapi, which contains β-carboline alkaloids, and the shrub P. viridis or D. cabrerana (depending on local availability), which contains molecules of DMT. When taken orally, freebase DMT is quickly broken down in our stomachs by monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzymes. The alkaloids in the vine act as inhibitors of these enzymes, which allows the DMT to pass to the brain intact and achieve its psychoactive effects.
The main active ingredient found in magic mushrooms is 0-phosphoryl-4 hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, known by its shorter name: psilocybin. Once psilocybin has been ingested orally, it gets transformed into 4-hydroxy-N-dimethyltriptamine – psilocin, which is a more potent hallucinogen. Psilocin is basically DMT with 4 hydroxy radicals that keep the molecule from being broken down in our bodies.
However, ayahuasca is more than DMT. The B. caapi vine contains numerous alkaloids that, aside from inhibiting the MAO enzymes in our stomachs, have psychoactive features of their own. The most present and well-researched ones are harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine. These compounds add distinct dimensions to the ayahuasca experience, and induce the purging which the brew is well-known for.
Scientific research of harmaline has found that it can, when ingested on its own, induce visions that resemble those experienced during ayahuasca journeys. The motifs include images of birds, snakes, and big cats, and can occur in users with no prior experience with ayahuasca nor knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian lore. As per the belief of indigenous Amazonians, it’s possible that the DMT admixture plants merely catalyze and amplify the visions that the B. caapi vine already contains within, and that the vine itself is responsible for most of the brew’s effects.
Beneficial Effects of Ayahuasca and Magic Mushrooms
Ayahuasca is well-known as one of the most potent psychedelics available to human experience. The most distinct effects usually associated with an ayahuasca journey include otherworldly visions, psychological and physiological cleansing, and profound emotional and spiritual insight and growth.
In the Global Ayahuasca Survey, taken by over 4,000 ayahuasca drinkers from over 50 countries, results were staggeringly positive, with over 85% of respondents reporting profound life changes as a result of drinking the brew. These changes included resolution of difficult relationships, meaningful academic/career shifts and new ventures, decrease in substance use, relocation, an increase in environmental consciousness and involvement with ecological and social issues, and others. Aside from these, many drinkers have reportedly experienced significant relief with chronic psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even autoimmune diseases. That these kinds of profound transformations take place over the course of one or several ayahuasca sessions, and seem to be of sustained duration.
More methodologically sound studies have also shown ayahuasca’s clinical potential for treating depression and promoting mindfulness, which is thought to make up the core of improvements in psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, grief, and PTSD. A thorough study of ayahuasca’s CNS effects and psychophysiological mechanisms of action indicates that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the brew’s therapeutic potential.
Magic mushrooms may not usually induce as subjectively intense of an experience as ayahuasca can, but their beneficial effects have been shown to be on par. A survey of eight well-controlled studies conducted on healthy individuals reported that psilocybin “induced profound changes in mood, perception, thought and self-experience,” and that “most subjects described the experience as pleasurable, enriching and non-threatening.” Another study found positive changes in empathy, creativity, and subjective well-being.
Psilocybin has also demonstrated massive therapeutic potential against a range of mental conditions including cluster headaches, OCD, treatment-resistant depression, terminal illness-related anxiety, and dependence on various substances. These incredible and often sustained changes are also usually catalyzed by a single or a few doses of psilocybin.
Subjective Experience with Ayahuasca and Magic Mushrooms
All in all, ayahuasca and magic mushrooms appear to have similar beneficial effects on users, with ayahuasca having a slight physiological edge due to its purgative features (it has been found to be effective in removing various microbes and parasites from the body). Their main differences lie in the subjective experience.
At standard doses, all other things considered, ayahuasca journeys tend to be longer and more intense than magic mushroom trips. Mushrooms are known to be taken recreationally, in a variety of contexts that include hikes, raves, urban exploration, social events, and others, whereas ayahuasca experiences typically leave no room for anything else. The ritualistic circumstances of its consumption are well-established and well-suited for the state the brew usually induces; lying down and purging being about the only activities possible to perform under its effects.
Ayahuasca also usually provides a more all-encompassing somatic experience. The sensations in the body can get intense and even overwhelming, and they range from heavy nausea through visceral energetic shifts to effervescent pleasure. Mushrooms typically cause a feeling of melting into the surface one is laying on, with occasional moments of profound bliss and awe.
Because of its heavy body load, ayahuasca often comes with pre-journey dietary recommendations. These don’t only include food, but a host of other behavioral, medicinal, and spiritual guidelines. Conversely, magic mushrooms don’t require any specific preparation, and are rather safe to consume under any more-or-less regular conditions.
As for the psychedelic experience itself, unless you consume a higher-than-usual amount of magic mushrooms (around 5g is considered a strong dose), ayahuasca takes the cake in terms of visions, potential for ego death, facing the dark sides of the self, and the sheer depth and breadth of spiritual reconnaissance one can perform in the altered state.
The visions on ayahuasca compared to those on magic mushrooms can seem like something coming from other realms of existence. While mushroom visions usually include colorful undulating light fractals, ayahuasca visions can introduce deities, spiritual entities, extremely elaborate multidimensional landscapes and dwellings, and various other elements that can appear as if they exist completely separately from our reality.
Further on, while mushrooms can often be quite gentle and encouraging, ayahuasca is notorious for “forcing” the drinker to face the errs of their ways. This is not to say that magic mushroom trips can’t get dark and serious, just that ayahuasca may be thought of as particularly good at digging up suppressed thoughts and memories and quite explicitly requesting better performance.
All this gives ample opportunities for seeing our egos for the socially conditioned constructs they truly are, and deciding to shed the parts that are not serving our true human purpose. While magic mushroom trips commonly don’t bring much more than ample giggles and a few realizations (according to the late great Terence McKenna, people just aren’t doing it right), it’s rare that an ayahuasca journey doesn’t end up to be a life-changing experience.
However, with great change comes great responsibility. Ayahuasca takes a certain level of devotion and clear intentions in order to catalyze the profound insights necessary to spark such spiritual growth. And only after the ceremony itself is where the journey truly begins. In order to really initiate change, the experience itself needs to be attentively integrated into daily existence. And while this is true for any psychedelic, and especially entheogenic experiences, there’s no denying that magic mushroom trips can often present the user with a far lighter spiritual load to process in comparison to ayahausca.
So, Ayahuasca or Magic Mushrooms?
Ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms are two historically, chemically and experientially similar tools that both hold the potential for immense psycho-spiritual healing and growth.
Due to the sacramental approach that pervades in the context of its use, ayahuasca is often considered a more potent substance. However, knowing that they are commonly misnomered as a recreational psychedelic and that they actually contain a similar active compound to that of ayahuasca, magic mushrooms may, if used properly, have extremely profound and transformational effects. They are also more convenient, due to their ability to grow almost anywhere, and they don’t beckon a ceremonial approach.
In the end, the deciding factor should likely be the degree of immersion you want from a psychedelic experience, and the seriousness of intention and investment you are ready to put in. Whatever the choice, though, be sure that, with the right mindset, profound change awaits.