Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew that originates in the Amazon, where it is still considered a central component in healing rituals among indigenous cultures in the area. Traditionally, ayahuasca use is most prevalent in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. Ayahuasca is also known as iowaska, natema, hoasca, daime, yagé, or yajé.
Ayahuasca is regarded by many indigenous populations as both a sacred religious element and powerful medicine. For centuries, it has been used medicinally in these cultures for both physical and mental ailments. Some studies compare the use of ayahuasca in these religious ceremonies to pastoral counseling or therapy.
What is the ayahuasca experience like?
Ayahuasca is a strong purgative, and almost every ayahuasca experience will include some form of purging. Purging can manifest through vomiting, diarrhea, shaking, sweating, crying, laughing, or the release of emotional trauma. The ayahuasca experience varies widely from person to person, but often includes heightened senses, changes to perception and vision, deep emotional insights, uncovering of repressed traumas, and a strong sense of physical wellbeing.
A brief history of ayahuasca
Ayahuasca has been used in indigenous rituals and shamanic ceremonies for at least 400 years, and possibly for millennia. The name ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language, a language thought to originate from the Incan Empire and still spoken in some South American regions today. The word “aya” can be interpreted to mean soul, or death, while “huasca” means rope, or vine. The most common translation of ayahuasca is thus “vine of the soul,” while some prefer the translation of “vine of death.” The latter interpretation is significant in light of the fact that many ayahuasca experiences and visions often include ego-death and sometimes closely resemble near-death experiences (NDEs).
Ayahuasca is one of the most potent psychedelic substances, and there are several areas of safety that should be considered, including physical safety, psychological safety, and potential abuse.
Physical overdoses with pure ayahuasca, i.e. ayahuasca that contains only banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca vine) and a single DMT-containing plant, such as psychotria viridis (chacruna) are relatively rare, but do sometimes happen. Overdoses may result in a complete loss of consciousness (blackout), severely impaired mobility, incontinence, extreme changes in blood pressure, heart palpitations or heart attack, and fainting. For this reason, it is highly recommended to drink with an experienced guide who is skilled and knowledgeable regarding dosage. Always inform your guide in advance of any health conditions you may have, including medications, chronic high or low blood pressure and heart problems. Solo drinking is not recommended.
Although severely negative reactions are relatively rare, there have been some recorded cases in recent years involving injury and even death in relation to ayahuasca. Most known cases involving severe negative reactions to ayahuasca involve extenuating factors, including the following scenarios:
- Additional ingredients have been added to the brew, such as tobacco, datura or toé (brugmansia)
- Interactions occur with other medications, such as SSRIs (antidepressants), leading to serotonin syndrome. For a complete list of medications that should be avoided, as well as dietary recommendations, go here.
- Participants have pre-existing health conditions, such as hypertension or heart problems.
Like all psychedelics, ayahuasca has the potential to trigger temporary states of mind that resemble psychosis. In some vulnerable individuals, this temporary state can persist for an extended time, even when the ceremony is over. Because ayahuasca has the potential to trigger psychosis, it is not recommended that people with a history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder drink ayahuasca. Always disclose your personal history to your facilitator or guide.
Potential for abuse
Although many guides, facilitators, shamans and retreat centers act in good faith and integrity, there have been reports of abuse in recent years, including sexual abuse during ceremony. Participants, especially women, should be aware of this possibility and take appropriate precautions. The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines has developed an excellent set of recommendations, which include:
- Research the reputation of the guide/retreat center.
- Drink with experienced female friends or experienced couples.
- Watch for signs of sexual interest, i.e. flirting, sexual talk, touching.
- Be aware that intimate touching, removal of clothing and all forms of sexual contact in ceremony are absolutely NOT considered “normal” behaviors in ayahuasca traditions.
- Protect your personal space, physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
- Be aware of and respect cultural differences.
- Steer clear of all sexual contact with guides or shamans, including consensual sex outside of ceremony.
- Remember that shamans and guides are humans, not saints.
- Get support if abuse occurs.
The full list of recommendations from the Chacruna Institute can be found here.
How Does Ayahuasca Affect Body and Mind?
According to research, 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 hallucinogenic component, and it is a relatively common chemical shown to be abundant in numerous plants but also in small quantities in human fluids and tissues.
Half a century of research has resulted in an insufficient explanation for how endogenous hallucinogens, like DMT, affect the body. It is believed it may interact with a specific receptor (the Sigma 1 receptor, or Sig-1R). This receptor is critical in helping tissues within the body withstand cellular stress, and it is involved in numerous diseases, such as cancer, depression, Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and dementia.
Due to DMT’s potential interaction with this Sig-1R receptor, there is a wide field of potential scientific application, and research is ongoing to determine whether it might hold a role in treating a range of diseases. Since the Sig-1R improves cell survival in times of stress and helps regulate immune processes, DMT may help stimulate cellular protective processes in the body.
These beneficial applications have been the subject of new research, and the role of DMT-containing substances, such as ayahuasca, is being explored beyond the label of hallucinogenic drug. Ayahuasca is being considered for use in medical therapies, especially since DMT may have a role in processes such as neuroprotection, neuroregeneration, and immunity.
Physical Effects of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca functions as a powerful purgative. One of the most distinctive attributes of the brew is the “purge” effect on the body, which can manifest in a range of ways for different people, including vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, crying, laughing, or shaking. The purge is often followed by a powerful sense of wellbeing and euphoria. Physical senses, such as smell and hearing, are often extremely heightened during an ayahuasca experience.
Psychological Effects of Ayahuasca
The psychological effects of ayahuasca are wide-ranging, but include colorful visual effects, elaborate visions, encounters with animals and/or otherworldly “entities,” and a deep state of self-reflection and heightened awareness. Users seldom lose consciousness but do experience an altered state of consciousness while under the influence of ayahuasca. According to a report by Jonathan Hamill and colleagues, the psychological effects of ayahuasca consumption begins about forty minutes after ingestion, with subjective effects fading after about four hours.