Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic that affects all of a person’s senses and produces powerful hallucinations. Sometimes taken as a tea, the hallucinogenic effects of ayahuasca are highly variable and depend on the person’s environment and previous experiences.
Before you attempt ayahuasca use, it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of what to expect from a traditional ayahuasca ritual. This article will provide some useful information on ayahuasca’s mechanisms of action, benefits, safety, and historical significance. If you’re considering embarking on an ayahuasca journey, be sure to read to the end to learn more!
What Is Ayahuasca?
You may have heard of DMT (dimethyl tetrahydrocannabinol), an alkaloid found naturally in many animals and plants. When used on its own, DMT produces a hallucinogenic experience with very differing effects from substances like psilocybin mushrooms or LSD.
DMT and b–carbolines are the main active substances in ayahuasca. Both increase the production of the chemical harmfuline, which plays an important role in the regulation of nerve cell growth and promotion of neurogenesis.
Curiously, DMT is naturally produced and released in the pineal gland of our brains, though the extent of the compound’s presence is still under research. The pineal gland is a part of the brain that controls introspection and emotional processing.
Through subjective epiphanies, this substance offers a greater sense of awareness to many who choose to venture through its spirit. Some even report that the use of ayahuasca can promote contact with deities.
How Is Ayahuasca Used?
The Ayahuasca brew has been used by Amazonian tribes and South American indigenous peoples for thousands of years as a way of opening the mind, healing mental illness and achieving a deeper, more connected sense of spirituality. Various religious communities in North America also employ it.
Ayahuasca has received much attention for its enlightening properties. Richard Evans Schultes (a Harvard biologist) published the first scientific research piece on ayahuasca. His book “Plants of the Gods” introduced the scientific public to this plant.
In a gradual manner, ayahuasca has since been legalized in the United States strictly for ceremonial and religious purposes. People now travel to South America to experience the famed therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca retreats.
Ayahuasca is commonly taken in the form of tea. The leaves and stalks from the psychotria vine are used in the preparation. The main ingredient is Psychotria viridis or ‘chacruna’, but other plants may be used.
To Quechuan people “ayahuasca” translates to “vine of death”. It requires several hours of preparation. The traditional ceremony of making the brew is led by a healer known as a shaman, or curandero. The brew must be boiled until it reaches a desired concentration for the healer.
What are the benefits of Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a highly versatile medicinal plant with several potential benefits. It can be used to treat anxiety, depression, addiction, or PTSD. Some seek out this medicine in search of an enlightening experience. Others want to heal their emotional and physical ailments by improving brain health.
Research has shown that it can reduce depression symptoms by up to 82%. In a 2019 study led by Fernanda Palhano-Fontes et al., 29 patients with treatment resistant depression experienced sustained ayahuasca benefits over a 21-day follow-up.
Researchers believe that the drug acts through several mechanisms, having a major increasing effect on serotonin (a mood-modulating neurotransmitter). Another compound found in ayahuasca is harmala alkaloids. These alkaloids are potent MAO inhibitors, which are common targets in pharmaceutical antidepressants.
People with substance use issues may also benefit from ayahuasca. In a study conducted by Jose Carlos Bouso and Jordi Riba at the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education in Barcelona, Spain, twelve participants with substance misuse problems underwent two ayahuasca ceremonies. These participants reported significantly positive changes after the ceremonies’ conclusion, including a sense of empowerment and hope.
The six-month-long improvements in quality, hope, empowerment were sustained. Additionally, the reduction in substance use was substantial. These participants reported significant reductions of their use of cocaine, cannabis, and other opiates. This suggests that ayahuasca is a beneficial treatment for people who have an addictive relationship with drugs.
One of Ayahuasca’s most prominent benefits is a boost in brain production of BDNF or abrineurin. This protein plays a crucial role in nerve cell survival and growth. Ayahuasca has also been shown to increase blood flow throughout the brain, which can help increase neural connectivity and reduce inflammation (a leading cause of neurological and psychiatric diseases).
A study conducted by Vanja Dakic et al. in 2016 demonstrated that human neural progenitor cells are 70% more enlarged after consuming ayahuasca. The main function of these cells is to replace dead cells in the CNS (central nervous system) or repair damaged ones. These findings suggest that the brain’s mindfulness ability and psychological health may be enhanced by ayahuasca through increased and strengthened neural connectivity.
Is Ayahuasca Dangerous?
Many people who have tried Ayahuasca have reported positive results. However, it is important to note that ayahuasca is not safe to consume on a daily basis. Though potential for addiction is remarkably low, ayahuasca may exacerbate the symptoms of certain mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or psychosis.
Psychotic reactions can also be a possibility. Although these reactions are transient and resolve themselves within a few hours, some people can suffer adverse effects. However, this risk is greater for those who have a history of psychotic episodes.
Ayahuasca should not ever be taken in combination with other medications, mood-modulating drugs in particular. Antidepressants can reduce its hallucinogenic effects, with certain medications increasing the risk of serotonin syndrome (too much serotonin in the brain). People with heart conditions or high blood pressure should avoid taking ayahuasca.
Some cases of ayahuasca-induced seizures and respiratory arrest have been reported. This is why it’s imperative that you consult a professional before you start taking ayahuasca. Some side effects may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and anxiety.
Ayahuasca Ceremony & Experience
The ayahuasca experience typically takes place over the course of several days with ceremonies most often scheduled for night times. The ceremony may begin with the lights turned off and led with the sound of healing songs. The ceremony’s shaman prepares participants with a talk before serving the brew.
Participants line up to receive their dose and proceed to lay down, typically on floor mats set up in rows along the walls of the room. The experience lasts anywhere from 6 to 8 hours and most often involves multiple ceremonies over the course of several days.
Participants in ayahuasca rituals report a cleansing or purging of the body, sometimes accompanied by an ‘ego-death’ sensation. Researchers have discovered a correlation in life satisfaction and the ego’s dissolution. Ego dissolution often leads to a sustained enhancement of mindfulness, especially when supplemented with appropriate integration measures.
The right setting and state of mind is essential to having a productive and safe experience with ayahuasca. Participants are usually asked to abstain from smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, or eating pork before participating in an ayahuasca ceremony. Two weeks prior to the ceremony, participants may be asked to refrain from engaging in sexual activity.
Certain parts of the experience can also be very uncomfortable. Some people experience vomiting or diarrhea. Journeyers also report feeling irritable, drowsy, or scared. These experiences are common. They cue an important perspective on the often necessary element of discomfort as a mechanism for personal growth.
Ayahuasca is a powerful and purpose-enhancing substance. If used correctly, it can help one access their inner self with much more openness and clarity. If you still have questions on safe use or are interested in exploring a therapeutic psychedelic experience, we empower you to book a consultation with one of our experienced facilitators.
Healing is not always comfortable, it involves these rites of passage that allow cathartic, emotionally-charged releases of repressed memories, feelings, and thoughts to percolate up to the surface of our awareness. It’s through these coming-to-knowings of ourselves that we can begin to heal the wounds of our past and thus the ailments of our present.