What is Ayahuasca: Psychedelics 101

"There are all kinds of ways to challenge ourselves. Some people do it by climbing a mountain or scuba diving. The most profound and challenging ordeal is to drink ayahuasca. It is in a way the ultimate adventure."

– Graham Hancock, British writer, and journalist


Ayahuasca is a psychedelic medicine indigenous tribes have used for thousands of years. Today, it’s garnering the attention of Westerners from all walks of life – from the Silicon Valley elite to urban psychonauts who are on a quest for deeper self-awareness and personal healing.

They’re venturing near and far to drink ayahuasca in ‘ceremony’, often traveling to retreat centers in the South American rainforest. Films like The Reality of Truth take us on trips deep into Peru to explore how plant medicine may help us access deep states of conscious awareness.

Ayahuasca is made from a vine in the Amazon

But it goes past the desire to expand consciousness. In recent years, people who struggle with severe depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, addiction, and even bipolar disorder claim that ayahuasca has immense therapeutic benefits. As a result, ayahuasca is now being studied, along with psychedelics, by research centers worldwide for its medicinal potential.

What is it about ayahuasca that has such a profound impact on people? Could this plant-based psychedelic be used as a medicine for optimal health?

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a vine that grows in the Amazon

The "vine of the spirits" – ayahuasca has been used for therapeutic and spiritual purposes for centuries. The indigenous people of Peru, Guyana, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, and Ecuador began using ayahuasca as a sacrament in the 1930s. Today, its properties are studied for its positive impact on mental health disorders, autoimmune disorders, and addiction. A recent study showed promise on ayahuasca’s immediate antidepressant effect for those suffering from severe depression.

Ayahuasca is ingested as a brew or a tea made from the banisteriopsis caapi vine, which contains DMT, and the psychotria viridis leaf, which contains plant-based monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs extend the effect of DMT, making ayahuasca a long-lasting and powerful psychedelic. Most often, ayahuasca is made from plants in the Amazon, although people outside of South America also cultivate these psychedelic plants. Interestingly, DMT is a naturally occurring chemical found in small amounts in the human brain.

Ayahuasca is a brew or tea made from vines and a specific leaf

What Are the Effects of Ayahuasca?

When taken in controlled doses, DMT significantly alters electrical brain activity, although the effects associated with DMT are different from other psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin.

A study published in 2019 was the first to show how DMT impacts waking brain waves, causing subjects to experience an immersive "waking-dream". Those who take DMT, specifically ayahuasca, often report intense hallucinations and emotional experiences, leading to significant breakthroughs. As scientists describe this experience, "it’s like dreaming, but with your eyes open."

Ayahuasca has been shown to modulate brain activity; impacting key neurotransmitters and gene expression. Ayahuasca may not just treat psychology and emotional well-being, but it may also support brain health, protecting brain cells while stimulating new cell growth.

What Are the Therapeutic Benefits of Ayahuasca?

The Ayahuasca vine

The neurological effects of ayahuasca are both vast and complex. For example, there is evidence that ayahuasca alters thinking style, impacting areas such as judgment and reactivity. This suggests that consumers may experience greater acceptance of their thoughts and feelings, specifically benefiting those who have persistent negative, unhealthy thoughts – such as those with depression.

As stated by Cambridge University Press, when individuals suffering from treatment-resistant depression take ayahuasca, they can experience rapid antidepressant effects. Published in Psychological Medicine, this study concluded that when ayahuasca is dosed within an appropriate setting, it holds safe, and therapeutic value for those with depression.

The same is true for PTSD, as ayahuasca has become a popular alternative among those who have tried traditional treatments, such as medication and therapy, without much success.

People take ayahuasca for a variety of reasons, including to heal past trauma

Regarding addiction, ayahuasca may exert significant anti-addictive properties, based on how it influences dopamine and serotonin levels while interfering with synaptic plasticity, which contributes to learning and memory. Psychological insights also increase, helping individuals process repressed trauma while enhancing their decision-making skills.

Are There Any Risks Associated with Ayahuasca?

Taking ayahuasca can be a very intense experience, and in some cases, individuals may experience psychological stress, higher blood pressure, and elevated heart rate.

Ayahuasca is most often in the form of a tea or thick brew

When consuming ayahuasca, it is common that consumers ‘purge’, or vomit. It is also known to cause sweating, shaking, crying, and even defecation. Often, purging is looked upon as a cleansing of the body, mind, and spirit. To many, it’s seen as a necessary part of the process when consuming this psychedelic. Many shamans consider the purge an essential part of one’s journey and spiritual awakening.

For the most part, when taken in a responsible, controlled environment, ayahuasca is safe. As stated by York University, this substance is most dangerous when individuals have a pre-existing illness, such as a heart condition.

In the few reported cases of death, such existing conditions are believed to play a role and other possible drug interactions. Ayahuasca is not intended to be taken with other recreational drugs, antidepressants, nicotine, or caffeine. There has never been a death during a clinical study.

Where Can I Legally Seek Treatment with Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is currently illegal to consume, sell, possess, import, or distribute in the United States. However, there are judicially granted exceptions for select churches, and in some cases, these legal battles reached the Supreme Court. There are similar exceptions being made in other Western countries, including Canada.

If you seek a retreat center outside of the United States that offers ayahuasca ceremonies, it is vital to do your homework.

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