Ayahuasca, also known as iowaska, yagé, natema, or hoasca, is currently one of the most potent and popular substances in the psychedelic world. While ayahuasca occupies a medicinal and religious role in indigenous cultures of Amazonia, recent scientific research shows the potential benefits of its use in Western cultures, specifically in the treatment of certain diseases and psychiatric conditions.
Over the past several decades, ayahuasca has been increasing in popularity throughout the world. Currently, it is used as a sacrament in three Brazilian churches, offered as an exotic experience in South American countries, and is increasingly popular among earnest, intentional spiritual seekers. In addition, ayahuasca has gained the attention of the scientific and medical community for its widespread therapeutic applications.
Recent research continues to show that ayahuasca has positive applications in the realm of medical therapy and holistic health. The scientific interest in ayahuasca is almost certain to grow as the potent Amazonian tea makes its way further into modern therapies.
How Does Ayahuasca Affect the Body?
The main ingredients of ayahuasca are the psychoactive alkaloid DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine) and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). This combination, when consumed, produces an altered state of consciousness. The DMT is the primary visionary component, and it is a common chemical that is abundant in numerous plants and animals as well as present small quantities in human fluids and tissues.
Ayahuasca Can Positively Affect Immune Cells
Studies have demonstrated that DMT influences the distribution and quantity of immune cells in the blood, which can have both anti-viral and anti-tumor properties. This means the consumption of ayahuasca can potentially improve the consumer’s resistance to viral infections and certain cancers.
Some of the immune cells in the blood are called lymphocytes. The DMT in ayahuasca influences the distribution rates and populations of lymphocytes in such a way that it can be considered a possible anti-infection mechanism. Increased lymphocytes improve the body’s ability to fight disease and keep non-regular cell processes, such as tumor formation, in check.
Ayahuasca May Be Able to Treat and Prevent Cancer
Multiple case reports have investigated ayahuasca’s role as a potential cancer therapy. These published studies have studied ayahuasca in relation to prostate, brain, ovarian, uterine, stomach, breast, and colon cancers.
The role of ayahuasca in cancer treatment is due to the psychoactive alkaloid DMT and its interaction with the sigma-1 receptors on cells. It is believed that DMT can stimulate beneficial cellular immune processes that can have potential anti-tumor effects.
These studies are encouraging further research into the potential of ayahuasca as an approved medical aid in cancer treatment and therapy.
Ayahuasca Increases Mindfulness
Ingesting ayahuasca often results in an introspective, dream-like state with an emphasis on personal memories and emotions. Because of this, some research has focused on whether the introspective visions resulting from its consumption might cause ayahuasca to improve mindfulness exercises.
In one study by Soler et al (2016), twenty-five individuals were given a dose of ayahuasca in a controlled setting. The participants took two questionnaires (The Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire and the Experiences Questionnaire) both before the consumption of ayahuasca and 24 hours after consumption.
After taking ayahuasca, all the individuals scored higher on portions of the questionnaires that indicated increased self-reflection and increased decentering abilities. These results not only reflect the common goal of most standard mindfulness training but also were at levels that conventionally could only typically be achieved after considerable amounts of mindfulness practice.
This research indicates that ayahuasca has therapeutic potential and could be used in lieu of, or in addition to, conventional mindfulness training.
Ayahuasca Enhances Creativity and Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking is a thought process that involves non-linear exploration of ideas, encouraging a free-flowing and spontaneous creative process. Creative divergent thinking can permit more flexible and adaptive thought processes and new emotional and behavioral strategies.
One study specifically investigated whether ayahuasca could encourage divergent creative thinking. In this study, the research team visited spiritual ayahuasca workshops and invited participants to take creativity tests before consuming ayahuasca and also just after ingesting it, during the height of the psychoactive effects.
As measured by one of the tests administered, ayahuasca consumption significantly increased divergent thinking and decreased convergent thinking. The finding means users may be more likely to explore creative mental patterns and non-linear thought processes that allow for more flexible psychological approaches to problems.
Based on this research, ayahuasca may have a potentially beneficial role in psychotherapeutic interventions by encouraging divergent thinking methods, which then increase psychological flexibility.
Ayahuasca Improves Dysfunctional Emotional Processes
Since previous studies showed increased mindfulness after ayahuasca consumption, subsequent research sought to investigate whether ayahuasca intake could help regulate emotions, specifically for those users with traits of borderline personality disorder.
In these studies, volunteers took several medical questionnaires before ayahuasca consumption and 24 hours afterward. The questionnaires aimed to identify any effect of the ayahuasca on emotional dysregulation and mindfulness. A small number of these participants were identified to have borderline personality disorder traits before consuming the ayahuasca.
After ayahuasca consumption, the majority of the participants showed increased levels of awareness, observation, non-judging thinking, and non-reacting. There were also significantly improved levels of decentering. The group with borderline personality disorder traits demonstrated improvement in emotional control but not necessarily in mindfulness exercises.
Due to the improved levels of acceptance, decentering, and emotional awareness, ayahuasca is being actively considered as a therapeutic aid in populations with emotional dysregulation, such as those with borderline personality disorder.
Ayahuasca Can Decrease Suicidal Tendencies
As suicide rates have increased in recent decades, there has been a strong push in the medical community to encourage research into therapeutic interventions. One study by Zeifman et al (2019). specifically looked into the potential of ayahuasca as a therapeutic aid for those with suicidal tendencies.
In this study, participants who had been diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression were given one controlled dose of ayahuasca. Suicide risk was assessed by trained professionals before the dosage occurred, as well as one day, two days, and a week after the treatment.
Overall, the participants who were given the ayahuasca showed significantly decreased suicidal tendencies. This provides promising support for ayahuasca’s role in being a suitable intervention for suicidal ideations and suggests more research is needed in this area.
Ayahuasca May Help with Depression
Ayahuasca’s natural psychedelic properties cause altered perceptions of personal well-being, and some studies have investigated whether it could have an antidepressant role.
In one small scale study, six participants who were in an inpatient psychiatric unit with reported depressive episodes were given a dosage of ayahuasca. Their depressive scores were analyzed prior to treatment as well as one day, one week, and three weeks after consumption of ayahuasca.
It was shown that ayahuasca significantly reduced rates of depression as measured through multiple models, including the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale, and the Anxious-Depression subscale of the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale.
This study also showed that the participating patients did not have significant score changes on the Young Mania Rating Scale. This indicates that consuming ayahuasca does not result in episodes of mania or hypomania in patients with mood disorders.
This particular study thus indicated that ayahuasca has potential antidepressant effects in patients with depressive disorder and might have a beneficial therapeutic role in this patient population.
Ayahuasca Has Beneficial Anti-Inflammatory Properties
The psychoactive alkaloid DMT present in ayahuasca has been shown to have a potentially beneficial interaction with the sigma-1 receptor, which can help with immunomodulation. According to an extensive study by Szabo et al (2014)., this relationship between DMT and the sigma-1 receptor can be capitalized upon to produce a pharmacological treatment of autoimmune disease and chronic inflammatory conditions.
Administering DMT containing substances, such as ayahuasca, has been shown to positively alter the distribution of lymphocytes in the blood and tissues, which has a significant influence on immunomodulation processes. As such, ayahuasca may have a beneficial role in helping modulate inflammatory responses.
The study by Szabo et al (2014) showed that DMT inhibited inflammatory processes by reducing the secretion of inflammatory components in the body. In addition, it showed that the DMT in ayahuasca also increased the production of anti-inflammatory components. This indicates that DMT can have a vital role in actively inhibiting inflammatory responses.
Short-term treatment with DMT containing substances, including ayahuasca, can thus suppress negative inflammatory processes in autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Ayahuasca Has a Positive Influence on Mood
Several studies indicate that the visionary effects of ayahuasca often have a positive effect on overall mental well-being and mood.
In a study conducted on a handful of experienced hallucinogen users, the effect of the DMT present in ayahuasca was analyzed to determine the neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, autonomic, and subjective influence.
Specifically, studies like this one and others, including a very recent 2021study, have demonstrated participants who were administered doses of ayahuasca reported increased feelings of relaxation and an improved, positive mood. Studies such as this one also indicated that ayahuasca consumption did not significantly increase the risk of negative psychoactive effects, which means it has a relatively safe profile when considering its therapeutic use.
In addition, another study showed that first time users of ayahuasca also show positive reactions. Participants reported increased feelings of tranquility, calmness, and a reduction of minor negative psychiatric symptoms. Even up to two weeks after consuming the ayahuasca, participants reported feeling more serene and indicated a higher capacity for joy.
Ayahuasca Can Help Confirm a Sense of Identity
In one particularly interesting study, scientists set out to determine whether drinking ayahuasca could have a strong positive effect on the perceptions of identity, as suggested by previous research. In order to establish this, the study interviewed 17 self-identified gay and lesbian participants who reported having consumed ayahuasca within the last three years.
Gay and lesbian populations often have trouble feeling a definite sense of identity due to strong cultural and religious influences that can run counter to their own values and lifestyle. As such, the study determined this would be a valuable population to analyze in regards to feelings of positive self-identification after consuming ayahuasca.
Participants in this study consumed the ayahuasca in ceremonial contexts, such as shamanic rituals. All of the studied individuals reported increased affirmation of their sexual orientation and improved perception of their identity after the ingestion of the ayahuasca. In addition, participants also reported feeling other positive effects of the ayahuasca in their life not directly tied to their sense of identity.
While many studies have evaluated the short-term effects of ayahuasca, some have analyzed the long-term effects of the drug within populations that regularly ingest the brew. These populations tend to be those in Central and South American countries who practice religions that feature ayahuasca as a central sacramental component, such as Santo Daime church. Among these populations, ayahuasca is consumed twice a month, on average.
In one study, 127 individuals who fell into the previously discussed population of chronic, long-term ayahuasca consumers were compared to a similarly sized population of those who had not consumed ayahuasca. These two groups were assessed based on personality, life attitudes, and neuropsychological performance.
Among those individuals who regularly ingested ayahuasca, it was more commonly reported that they felt a greater sense of self-direction and scored significantly lower on all psychopathology measures. Long-term ayahuasca users demonstrated more prominent feelings of spiritual orientation and life purpose. They also reported improved general well-being.
This study also included a one-year follow-up evaluation, which showed that there was no deterioration in findings or the development of negative psychological reactions or cognitive impairment. This study thus gives promise for the consideration of ayahuasca being safe for long-term or repeated use without diminished returns or developing negative side effects.
Ayahuasca Can Reduce Dysfunctional Behaviors
The Hoasca Project compared 15 adult users of ayahuasca with 15 adult non-users. Long-term ayahuasca users were shown to score slightly higher on cognitive tests than non-users, and in addition, these ayahuasca users reported less dysfunctional behaviors such as alcoholism, violence, and infidelity. On the whole, ayahuasca users reported living happier lives with a greater sense of purpose.
This study also demonstrated no notable negative effects of drug toxicity or any other adverse health effects stemming from regular use of ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca Can Enhance Musical Abilities
As demonstrated in a study described by Benny Shanon, musicians who have consumed ayahuasca showed a greater ability to skillfully improvise in playing. In addition, the musicians showed an overall improvement in the ability to play their instruments. Shanon also reported this effect on himself after consuming ayahuasca and playing the piano.
Ayahuasca has been commonly associated with inducing synesthesia, especially in regards to music. This results in feelings of tempo or musical shifts in relation to visual image and movement. This can result in a heightened experience of creativity and expression after consumption of ayahuasca. Musicians who perform during ayahuasca ceremonies often report reaching new levels of skill in their musicality, as well as increased receptivity to musical sensations, such as tone and tempo.
One of the most promising areas of research involving ayahuasca consumption is in regards to its beneficial role as a cessation aid for substance abuse. In an observational study spearheaded by Dr. Gerald Thomas, the long-term effectiveness and safety profile of ayahuasca use were studied in populations that reported suffering from dependence and addiction.
In this study, ayahuasca was shown to help reduce substance abuse as well as increasing overall hopefulness, mindfulness, and improved quality of life. Participants reported a decrease in self-harm tendencies and compulsive behaviors. Participants also self-reported significantly decreased use of tobacco, alcohol and cocaine use.
Studies like this are encouraging and indicate that ayahuasca, perhaps even on a microdosing scale, can have a positive influence on those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
Ayahuasca is Not Addictive
Due to the repeated use of ayahuasca within religious ceremonies and rituals, some studies have investigated whether there is a risk of addiction and dependence. The question was asked: do regular users of ayahuasca show the drug abuse-related issues that occur with the use of other hallucinogenic drugs and psychoactive substances?
The study by Fábregas et al. (2010) demonstrated little evidence that ayahuasca use could lead to chemical dependence. Users showed much lower scores on the ASI Alcohol Use and Psychiatric Status subscales. Overall, users of ayahuasca in this study did not participate in any other illicit drugs, with the exception of cannabis.
The ritual use of ayahuasca thus was demonstrated to not have the typical negative psychosocial effects that are commonly observed in recreational drugs.
Ayahuasca Improves Creativity in a Variety of Settings
In another study by Frecska et al (2012) , the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking were used to determine whether creativity levels were affected after participation in ayahuasca ceremonies.
Participants in the study completed the tests before attending an ayahuasca ritual, as well as after the ceremonies. These subjects and their results were compared to a control group of participants who took the tests without having recently used any psychedelic substances.
Those who ingested ayahuasca demonstrated significantly higher rates of novel problem-solving and higher scores in visual creativity after having consumed the brew compared to their own baseline and compared to the control population of non-psychedelic users.
It is thought ayahuasca may increase visual creativity by increasing the entoptic visual phenomenon. Entoptic visual phenomenon is those visualizations that originate within the eye and brain and are not direct translations of the environment around the observer. Therefore, ayahuasca users may perceive more unique visual phenomena, which result in more creative interpretations and thought processes.
Future Research Involving Ayahuasca
In recent decades, ayahuasca has shown increasing promise as a potential therapeutic aid in a number of medical conditions. These include chronic inflammatory conditions, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorders, Alzheimer’s, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many current research projects aim to confirm the beneficial effects of ayahuasca and promote its acceptance in the medical world, challenging the misunderstanding that it is merely a hallucinogenic drug. Currently, the DMT in ayahuasca is considered a Schedule I substance, meaning it cannot be legally sourced in most countries.
As described by Dr. Ralph Metzner in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, many researchers are pushing for ayahuasca to receive a more favorable classification by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in order to allow the substance to be more easily accessible for research studies and in order to qualify for NIH funds to help support research. Since research like the Hoasca Project, which started in the 1990s, established that ayahuasca could be considered safe, non-toxic and useful in therapeutic medicine over long-term use, there is a trend towards future research into the medical application of ayahuasca.
In the meantime, there are many new studies emerging on an almost weekly basis, including this study on the effects of ayahuasca on general quality of life, further research into ayahuasca’s anti-inflammatory properties, the use of ayahuasca in treating Parkinson’s disease, and its efficacy in reductions in suicidal ideations.
One major untapped trajectory of research is still simply to better understand the mechanism of action of ayahuasca and the DMT it contains. Once this mechanism is better understood, it might open the doors to reduced stigma, eased regulation and more research for ayahuasca’s therapeutic use.