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By now, you’ve probably at least heard of ayahuasca — the powerful psychedelic brew from the Amazon.
The bitter-tasting brew turns two non-psychoactive plants into one of the strongest hallucinogenic compounds on earth. A single cup of ayahuasca tea can transport you into a vivid dream-like state that can last up to 6 hours.
Biohackers, Silicon Valley executives, and spiritual experience-seekers are travelling to the far reaches of the Amazon to try this entheogenic brew for themselves.
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Is ayahuasca safe? What are its alleged benefits?
Let’s start at the top.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic preparation of two South American plants — the ayahuasca vine and the Psychotria shrub (or substitute).
Drinking ayahuasca leads to intense visual and auditory hallucinations, introspection, and spiritual experiences. It’s consumed in a group setting and led by a special type of shaman called ayahuasquero.
Most people who have used ayahuasca claim it had a profound positive impact on their life — even if the experience itself was scary or uncomfortable. Ayahuasca forces you to face fears or confront internal struggles.
Many people who visit ayahuasca retreat centres seek spiritual growth, self-development, and treatment for mental health conditions like depression, existential anxiety, or addiction. Patients who recently survived terminal diagnoses or experienced life-threatening events often seek out ayahuasca to answer tough questions about the fear of death.
Ayahuasca changes your perspective of the world, helps you identify flaws in your character, and breaks toxic habits.
The most common reasons people use ayahuasca:
- Traditional ceremony or sacrament
- Seeking spiritual experiences
- Self-growth & development
- Treating mental health disorders & addictions
- Facing the fear of death or past traumas.
How Does Ayahuasca Work?
Ayahuasca requires two components to work — a source of DMT (the psychoactive ingredient in the mix) and an MAO inhibitor to protect the DMT from being broken down too quickly.
There are a few recipes for ayahuasca, depending on what plants are available locally. The most common is the ayahuasca vine and Psychotria Viridis.
1. N, N-DMT (Psychoactive Component)
The active ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine) — which is one of the strongest psychoactive compounds on earth. DMT is produced in small concentrations in the human brain, where it’s thought to be responsible for producing the dream states we experience while we sleep.
DMT works by activating the serotonin receptors. It targets several different types of serotonin receptors, each one offering a different effect on the psyche, mood, and mental health. The main target responsible for producing hallucinations and changes in perception of time and space are the 5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors.
There are a few different sources of DMT that can be used in the ayahuasca brew. The most common is Psychotria viridis (chacruna) — which is a member of the coffee family.
None of these plants have psychoactive effects when taken on their own. They need the second ingredient (MAO inhibitor) in order to produce any psychoactivity whatsoever.
DMT sources used to make ayahuasca include:
- Psychotria viridis (chacruna)
- Psychotria carthagenensis (Amyruca)
- Mimosa tenuiflora
- Mimosa hostilis
- Mimosa pudica
2. Harmala Alkaloids (MAO Inhibitor)
The second ingredient is the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) — which is a large, woody vine found growing deep in the Amazon jungle. This component contains a group of compounds called harmala alkaloids.
Harmala alkaloids have a variety of medicinal uses on their own by inhibiting an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase — which is an enzyme used to break down neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
This component is important for ayahuasca to work because it prevents the breakdown of DMT.
Normally, monoamine oxidase in the liver quickly breaks down DMT — blocking the psychoactive effects.
The ayahuasca vine blocks MAO in the liver and allows concentrations of DMT in the blood to increase — leading to psychoactive side effects.
3. Other Additives
The core recipe of ayahuasca includes just two plants — however, some people will add other plants to the brew to enhance its effects. Some of these additives are dangerous and should never be consumed for any reason — such as datura or Brugmansia.
Here are some of the most common additives used in traditional ayahuasca brews:
- Brugmansia insignis — a close relative of datura found in the Amazon
- Brugmansia stramonium (Datura) — a psychoactive plant species with harmful side-effects
- Calycophyllum spruceanum (Capirona) — added for protection in traditional ayahuasca brews
- Cedrelinga catenaeformis (Air Tree) — increases the purgative effects of ayahuasca
- Chullachaki caspi — adds a spiritual healing component to the brew
- Couroupita guianensis (Ayahuma) — traditionally used to heal “soul loss” due to trauma
- Ilex guayusa — a relative of yerba maté containing caffeine
- Justicia pectoralis — used as a general tonic herb
- Lupuna blanca — one of the largest trees in the Amazon, added for strength and protection
- Nicotiana rustica (Mapacho) — a type of tobacco high in nicotine
- Punga amarilla (Yellow Punga) — adds a protective element to the brew
- Remo caspi (Oar Tree) — added to “remove dark energy” in traditional applications of ayahuasca
The Benefits of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca should not be taken lightly — it’s a powerful entheogenic substance that produces intense, often terrifying hallucinations and experiences. The vulnerable mental state ayahuasca creates can lead to psychological trauma if you’re not careful. A focus on set and setting is especially important with this entheogen.
We’ll cover the risks of using ayahuasca in more detail later.
For now, let’s cover the alleged health benefits of ayahuasca and explore what the medical research says about this powerful plant medicine.
In summary, the health benefits of ayahuasca include:
- Treatment for addiction — including alcohol, illicit drugs, and tobacco
- Treatment for chronic depression
- Treatment for existential anxiety & other anxiety disorders
- May offer protective or restorative effects on brain health
- Useful as a tool for self-growth and exploration of consciousness
Ayahuasca & Addiction
One of the most common motivations for using ayahuasca is for treating drug addiction. There are countless user reports and case studies involving ayahuasca to cut cravings, reduce relapse rates, and improve mental health.
Despite how common this application is and the sheer volume of anecdotal reports for this use, there are surprisingly few scientific studies to back this up. One of the main reasons for this is likely the fact that ayahuasca is illegal in most parts of the world. It’s also difficult to quantify the results because every batch of ayahuasca is different. There are many underpinning factors that go into this effect.
There are several theories for how ayahuasca can manage addiction so effectively — all of which have been difficult to quantify. There’s a lot going on here.
The main theory for how ayahuasca is thought to work for addiction involves the interaction of the active ingredient — DMT — in the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a large-scale brain network responsible for managing our sense of “self” vs. “other,” as well as self-esteem and self-worth. It’s involved with the rumination of thoughts in the brain while we’re in a rested state (the “voice” in your head).
Hyperactivity of the DMN, as shown on brain scans, is correlated with addictive tendencies as well as other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety