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Ayahuasca – also known as yagé – is a plant-based brew known for its intense psychedelic properties and spiritual experience. It is a thick brown “tea” most commonly prepared from the leaves of the Psychotria Viridis (which contains DMT) and the bark of the Caapi vine (also known as ayahuasca vine).
Ayahuasca has been used for many centuries by traditional healers in the indigenous tribes of the Amazon as a sacred plant medicine and in spiritual ceremonies. In the Western world, ayahuasca ceremonies have gained popularity in recent years.
Recent studies have also suggested the benefits of ayahuasca in treating drug and alcohol addictions which could lead to its more popular consumption.
Origins & History
The true origins of ayahuasca are unknown. Widespread interest in the ‘magic’ brew and its debut in the Western consciousness began in the 1950s but it has long been used by indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Some researchers believe it dates back to prehistoric times, some 3000-5000 years ago. Others believe ayahuasca itself was only discovered in recent centuries but that its ceremony is based on more ancient traditions. As ancient Amazonians did not use written language to record their history, it may be impossible to prove its origins.
The earliest known date that ayahuasca was used in different regions of South America goes back as far as 900 BC. Some shamans claim they received visions about combining the two main plants to prepare the ayahuasca brew. Alternatively, some tribal natives believe that they were combined by accident and its entheogenic effects only discovered thereafter.
Nevertheless, ayahuasca remains an integral part of some South American tribal societies. In 2008, Peru’s government officially recognized ayahuasca’s status as “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples.” They claimed that its consumption was a legitimate gateway to the spiritual world, bringing wisdom and being integral to traditional Amazon medicine.
Ayahuasca first appeared in ‘Western’ sources in the 1700s, when two Jesuit Missionaries, Pablo Maroni and Franz Xavier Veigl, recorded their mystical experience with a South American brew during their travels. Another 100 years passed before explorer and botanist, Richard Spruce visited the Brazilian Amazon and attempted to define the scientific properties of the plants involved.
In 1979, Richard Evans Schultes, considered by many to be the first modern ethnobotanist, published his book “The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Properties” [link], exposing many of the plants used by indigenous South Americans. His work inspired other researchers to venture into the Amazon and seek out the mystical ayahuasca experience.
The traditions of ayahuasca were a natural fit for these alternative thinkers that made up the Beat Generation. The likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were already exploring the human condition in unconventional ways, not previously known in the literary tradition. The effects of ayahuasca would only enhance this thought and their writings during the late 70s and 80s documented their travels to South America to experience.
Following in these early footsteps, ‘ayahuasca tourism’ has become well established in South America. The trail between Peru and Colombia is well-travelled, with tens of thousands of foreigners coming to the region to take ayahuasca. For Amazonian communities, it’s been a mixed response. For some, they’ve found the non-native interest in their local knowledge profitable and a stimulus for their local tourism. It’s also been a gateway to accepting traditional medicines into western consciousness.
However, other locals have been resistant to the interest due to ayahuasca sacred origins and the belief in its appropriations in Western use. The sustainability of the harvesting of the ayahuasca vine is another concern. Nevertheless, interest in ayahuasca has been increasing, with specialized retreat centers appearing around the region hosting enthusiasts for a complete experience.
Most recently, it has started to cross over the continents, with rising popularity in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn. The openness of public figures like Susan Sarandon, Tim Ferriss and Chelsea Handler on their experiences with ayahuasca has propelled its popularity and it has been taken in intimate ceremonies in the US, led by an individual who may call himself a shaman or healer.
Preparation of Ayahuasca
The most common ingredients of ayahuasca are the caapi vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi) and chacruna (Psychotria Viridis). The chacruna contains the hallucinogenic DMT, which is not normally orally active, and the caapi vine provides MAOIs that prevent the DMT’s digestion and allow for the psychedelic experience of ayahuasca.
For the preparation, the vine is pounded to remove its outer bark and soften up the rope-like fibers within. It is then placed in a large cooking pot where the chacruna leaves are added. The ingredients are continuously added one by one until the pot is filled and then water is added. Depending on the size of the pot, some 40 lliters of water can be added.
The mixture is then cooked over a fire for up to 8 hours, allowing for the liquid in the pot to evaporate. It is then strained, filtering out the vines and leaves, leaving about a liter of liquid, referred to as ‘la medicina.’
The tea is then usually served by the shaman who not only prepares the brew for the user but guides them through the spiritual journey that ensues.
Ayahuasca is a pharmacologically complex brew and is not yet entirely understood. Its pharmacologically most important components however are DMT from the psychotria vidris and harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine from the Banisteriopsis caapi. The latter act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and therefore block the rapid digestion of the not normally orally active DMT. As a result, DMT can access the systemic circulation and central nervous system and interact with 5-HT2A subtype serotonin receptors in the brain, causing vivid hallucinations and significantly altering logical thought and emotional processing.
MAOIs are also the reason for many of the contraindications of ayahuasca, causing life threatening interactions with many illicit and prescription drugs, supplements, and foods.
After drinking the brew, it can take between 30 minutes to 2 hours for the effects to kick in and usually last 4 to 6 hours. An individual’s sensitivity to ayahuasca can vary by size, weight, health, and their previous use of ayahuasca and other drugs. Experienced users report that sensitivity to ayahuasca increases over time of use, presumably as physical and mental resistance to its effects decrease and the individual is more willing to fully step into the experience.
Physiological effects of ayahuasca include
- Intense, repeated vomiting
- Moderate increase in blood pressure and heart rate
- Increased body temperature
The vomiting and diarrhea specifically, but also sweating and crying are also called purging and considered to be an essential part of the experience, cleaning the body out and preparing it for the medicine’s healing effects.
Subjectively, ayahuasca is known to cause intense visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of euphoria, but can also induce overwhelming fear, anxiety, and paranoia.
While the effects may resemble those of other hallucinogens, ayahuasca ceremonies have been described more as a spiritual awakening. Users claim to open up channels to the spirit world and access to a higher intelligence – not merely through visual and auditory stimuli. For some, it is a transformative experience, helping to heal past trauma, reach a new level of enlightenment and changing their perception of reality and the world around them. For others, especially the unprepared, it can be a terrible experience that affects both mind and body, sending them into disarray.
And yet, the after-effects can be felt long after the ceremony, including a level of calm and transcendence. The “medicine” itself is said to work in the body for months after ingestion, which is why the “dieta” doesn’t stop after the ceremony (see below). Coffee, salty, sugary, and frozen foods are recommended to be avoided for weeks or even months after drinking ayahuasca, do allow the vine to do its work.
The strength of aya varies from batch to batch, making it difficult to predict one’s reaction to ayahuasca, even with some experience. Individual sensitivity also varies based on the factors mentioned above, and this should be considered before each session with the brew.
The use of ayahuasca traditionally follows a 2-4 week period of “dieta”, during which a variety of foods and drugs are avoided, including:
- Fatty, salty, sugary foods
- Red meat
- Overripe fruit
- Other drugs, medications and supplements
Most medications and supplements, unless specifically cleared with a doctor and the shaman should also be avoided – especially the MAOIs in ayahuasca have a large list of serious contraindications. The dieta also prescribes refraining from some media consumption including news and stressful, negative movies, as well as all sexual activity.
Adhering to the dieta is the foundation of a safe, pleasant experience with ayahuasca, and its importance should not be underestimated. For more information on potentially harmful interactions, consult the Ayahuasca Safety website. [http://ayahuascasafety.org/?page_id=13]
People with certain mental health conditions or family history of them are advised to avoid using ayahuasca as it can intensify the symptoms of anxiety and paranoia. To a lesser extent, this also applies to cardiovascular diseases and some other conditions.
In some cases, overdosing has resulted in ongoing nausea, frightening visions, intense intoxication, increased risk-taking, panic, psychosis and in some extremely rare cases, death.
Ceremonial use of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is almost exclusively used in a ceremonial context. Ceremonies are usually led by a shaman who is trained in an ancient tradition such as Shipibo, although there are some modern or “self-initiated” shamans. As such, an ayahuasca ceremony can be a powerful spiritual experience that brings together the plant spirits, the shaman and the magic of the brew.
Ayahuasca ceremonies usually start just after dark, as ayahuasca is associated with the night and moon, and its pharmacology closely related to the release of melatonin. Ceremonies may start with a guided group meditation and participants naming their intentions for the night. The shaman then serves the tea to each participant.
For some, the shaman will sit quietly with the user in the dark until the effects of the ayahuasca effects start to kick in. Some will start to sing or make ethereal sounds. Traditional medicine songs called icaros, but potentially modern ones too, usually accompany the experience throughout the night. The waving of leaf fans and the administration of rape (blowing tobacco and other plant powders into the participants’ nostrils), bodywork, and other techniques might be used. In a responsible setting, the shaman and his/her team should be available at all times to ensure the safety and comfort of the participants and help when needed.
Visions generally start about an hour after the brew is drunk. As the visions increase, so too does the song of the shamans; icaros calling on the healing spirit. They are evocative and haunting, enhancing the whole experience. Users are opened up to a spiritual world, seeing visions of landscapes, animals, deceased relatives and other spirits. Repeat users may find it easier to navigate these visions but the nature and intensity of the effects have been known to be unpredictable.
Traditionally, ceremonies are held in remote locations in the Amazon (Peru, Brazil) but with the rise of ayahuasca tourism has come for specialized retreats in other countries too, including Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador. There is also a vibrant scene of underground ceremonies in Western countries such as the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. Retreats can last from a weekend to up to 14 days, involving multiple ayahuasca ceremonies alongside a program of yoga, meditation, art therapy and other mindful practices to enhance the spiritual and healing experience. Ayahuasca retreats sometimes feature other sacred ceremonies, for instance with San Pedro or Kambo.
The evidence is mounting that ayahuasca has the potential to treat addiction, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Studies dedicated to discovering the effects of ayahuasca have been increasing in recent years.
The Federal Drug Association of the United States approved the first trial for clinical study only in 2017. It could not come any earlier, with thousands of people heading to the Amazon each year to partake in ceremonies, and illegal ceremonies being held in major cities around the US, Australia, Canada and Europe. Neuroscientist Leanna Standish is focusing her studies on the hypothetical use of ayahuasca to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Studies in the UK have also found scientific evidence for the use of ayahuasca to help fight depression. Due to the lack of long-term effects on cognitive function and mental health problems, ayahuasca was more effective than LSD and mushrooms, both with similar usage in mental health treatment.
One Brazilian study found a significant correlation between reduced alcohol and tobacco addiction and the regular use of ayahuasca compared to the general population. This may however be related to the communal aspect of the studied religion or other factors and not be a direct affect of ayahuasca use.
The ayahuasca vine specifically (caapi) is also suspected to have additional medicinal properties independent of its combination with DMT.
This page was written by Tiff Ng and Michelle Retzlaff.