Ayahuasca is a brew or tea with psychedelic properties from the Upper Amazon in South America. It is typically made from two plants containing the psychedelic compound DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) from Psycotra Viridis, and another plant known as the ayahuasca vine ( Banisteriopis Caapi) that contains compounds called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that prevent DMT from being broken down. This combination allows DMT to have psychedelic effects when taken orally (because on its own it is broken down quickly in the stomach and not active) and prolongs the intense psychedelic experience. Sometimes other plants are substituted in or added to the mixture which has similar psychedelic properties. This tea has been used for centuries amongst the indigenous tribespeople of Amazonia for both shamanic and medicinal purposes, under the guidance of a traditional shaman, the traditional healer for both mental and physical ailments, in a ceremonial ritual.
More recently, ayahuasca has become more popular in the West outside of this traditional context. Ayahuasca retreats have become popular in places where it is legal to use the plants needed to make the brew and also in underground weekend retreat style ceremonies throughout many western countries, where many people come to the plant for its potential for healing and personal growth. So far research into the tea has shown its promising therapeutic potential for use in medical settings in the treatment of depression and addictions, often where other conventional treatments have failed. Anecdotal reports of healing from very difficult to treat conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme, and fibromyalgia have also been reported by participants.
DMT, the active compound, is a serotonergic psychedelic and binds to the 5-HT2A receptors creating an intense psychedelic experience that is different for each person but generally can include intense hallucinations or ‘visuals’, bringing up forgotten or buried memories, a slowing of time and change in your sense of self, and auditory hallucinations. With DMT-containing substances including ayahuasca, many people also report a deeply spiritual experience and the perception of the presence of other entities or beings. The experience can range from terrifying to euphoric and may in turns alternate between these 2 extremes in the same journey.
Often people describe the experience as the most emotionally intense or even overwhelming experience of their life, which is why set and setting and an experienced guide are highly important both during the experience and in the processing afterward. Ayahuasca is also known for the ‘purging’ element which can include intense nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This ‘purging’ aspect is seen traditionally as integral to the experience of the journey. However, partial or full fasting in the few days before the ceremony, which is part of the traditional preparation for the journey, may reduce the vomiting aspect. For these reasons, Ayahuasca is not generally taken for fun or ‘recreationally’ as are some of the other classic psychedelics like magic mushrooms or LSD. The most intense part of the experience lasts typically for 4 hours. In traditional settings, doing multiple ceremonies over a few days or weeks is done and may also include other psychotropic substances depending on the protocol and tradition.
Risks & Cautions: Ayahuasca and DMT are illegal in many countries outside of a research context. It is not addictive, when dosed appropriately with an experienced guide or shaman, the risks appear minimal to most people based on traditional use data. However, certain medications such as MAOIs (older medications sometimes still used for depression), other antidepressants, and psychiatric medicines may pose an interaction risk. Generally, a history of a psychotic illness or bipolar illness in yourself or a close family member is a contraindication to taking ayahuasca.