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What Is Ayahuasca?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 05, 2022

Ayahuasca (pronounced eye-ah-wah-ska) is a plant-based psychedelic drug. It’s usually brewed into a tea or a concentrated liquid to drink. It can also be smoked. Other names include huasca, yagé, kamarampi, huni, brew, or ayahuasca tea.

It’s a mixture of two plants and contains chemicals that can affect your senses and cause you to get “high.” When you drink it, it can alter your ability to think, blur your sense of time, and heighten your emotions. You might also hallucinate, which is seeing or hearing things that don’t exist.

The word ayahuasca translates to “vine of the soul” in the Quechua language. For more than 1,000 years, indigenous populations from Peru, Ecuador, and other countries along the Amazon basin have used it for medicinal, spiritual, and ceremonial purposes.

But today, many Westerners travel to South America to use ayahuasca in the hopes of “spiritual cleansing” for personal, physical, and emotional growth. You’ll usually take ayahuasca under the supervision of a shaman – a spiritual practitioner. And experts are beginning to study its healing properties. Here’s a closer look at how Ayahuasca works.

How Does Ayahuasca Work?

The ayahuasca brew is usually made by boiling and mixing the broken stems of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves from the chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis). In some cases, it might also contain the leaves of the Diplopterys cabrerana plant.

The brew is a brown-reddish drink that may have a strong taste and smell. It contains psychoactive chemicals called dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). The MAOIs act as antidepressants. DMT is the psychedelic drug. When you take them together, the MAOIs work by blocking the enzymes that usually break down DMT before it reaches your brain.

Just like many other psychedelic drugs, DMT stimulates the brain’s serotonin receptors. This stimulation boosts your mood and enhances your emotions.

How Does Ayahuasca Affect You?

Within 30-60 minutes of taking it, it can put you in a dreamlike state. It may cause you to have strong psychedelic reactions that can last 4-6 hours. The effects might peak 1-2 hours after you take it. The drug can cause physical, emotional, and mental effects that vary from person to person.

Mental and emotional effects include:

  • Seeing vivid, colorful geometric patterns
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Feelings of connection and unity
  • Loss of touch with reality
  • Cheerful or peaceful state of mind (euthymia)
  • Awareness of sense of self
  • Observing or becoming aware of your own emotional state in a non-judgmental way
  • Anxiety
  • Panic and fear
  • Hearing sounds or seeing distorted images of things that aren’t there

Physical effects may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increase in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increase in body temperature

Some people who take ayahuasca as part of a ritual see these reactions as “cleansing” or “purging” and part of the healing journey.

Can You Use Ayahuasca Safely?

When you use a mind-altering drug, there’s always some level of risk involved. There is no proven safe way to use ayahuasca or any other psychedelic drugs. The risk of addiction from ayahuasca is low, but experts have not yet fully studied its long-term impacts.

Ayahuasca can affect everyone differently. It will depend on:

  • Your size, weight, and health, including mental health
  • Whether you’ve taken it before
  • If you use other drugs at the same time
  • How much ayahuasca you drink
  • The strength and makeup of the drink. This may vary from batch to batch
  • The environment in which you take the drug

If you have a serious allergic reaction to the drug, call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest hospital.

What Does the Research Say About Ayahuasca?

Research shows that the ayahuasca experience might act much like an intense form of psychotherapy and might have a link to improvements in some psychiatric symptoms.

Because of this, the chemicals within the drug have been used to try to treat mood disorders like depression, grief, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But experts need to do more research to understand it fully.

Some researchers suggest that brain-imaging studies have found that ayahuasca could potentially reduce activity in a part of the brain called the default mode network. They think this may let you observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. This is what some people may experience as healing. Other researchers say that certain chemicals in ayahuasca can also stimulate new brain cells to grow or repair damaged ones. Experts are studying this effect as it might help treat brain conditions that cause memory loss like Alzheimer’s.

Is It Legal to Use Ayahuasca?

The plants used to make ayahuasca aren’t illegal in the U.S., but DMT is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act and is illegal. It’s not approved for medical use in the United States. While the risk of addiction is thought to be low, it can be abused.

If you’re traveling to South America to try ayahuasca, the tourism industry built around the drug use isn’t illegal. But ayahuasca tourism is not well-regulated and you might face risks.

For example, the ceremonies and rituals usually take place in remote areas such as the Amazon jungle where you might not have access to medical facilities if something were to go wrong or you need help.

And if you try to bring some back into the U.S., you’re likely to get into trouble with border control or drug control authorities.

Can You Overdose or Have a “Bad Trip” With Ayahuasca?

For some, effects from ayahuasca might be unpleasant. The hallucinations might frighten you. They could cause confusion, fear, or paranoia.

In some cases, it can cause serious side effects like:

  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of muscle coordination (ataxia)

If you mix ayahuasca with other controlled substances, prescription medications, or over-the-counter drugs, the effects can be unpredictable and dangerous. If you have a bad reaction, call 911, poison control, or have someone take you to the nearest hospital.

Ayahuasca’s long-term impacts aren’t well studied. In general, ayahuasca doesn’t appear to be highly addictive. Even if you use it repeatedly, it doesn’t seem likely that you would build up a tolerance to its effects and your chances of becoming dependent on the drug are low.

Again, there is no proven safe way to use any psychedelic drugs, including ayahuasca.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Alcohol and Drug Foundation: “What is Ayahuasca?”

Frontiers in Psychiatry: “Ceremonial Ayahuasca in Amazonian Retreats—Mental Health and Epigenetic Outcomes from a Six-Month Naturalistic Study.”

Springer Psychopharmacology: "Sub-acute and long-term effects of ayahuasca on affect and cognitive thinking style and their association with ego dissolution.”

Drug Enforcement Administration: “N, N-DIMETHYLTRYPTAMINE (DMT).”

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “South America: Ayahuasca Tea.”

Recovered.org: “Ayahuasca.”

Current Neuropharmacology: “Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness.”

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