The Impact of Ayahuasca on Mental Health: Stories and Evidence

With the research available, ayahuasca, like other psychedelics, is showing promise in the treatment of mental health.

The material below is not intended to provide medical advice and we don’t encourage the illegal use of any substances. Ayahuasca is a potentially illegal substance, and we do not encourage the use of this substance where it is against the law. Due to the high demand for the subject, we created this article for educational purposes. The intent of the content is to help you start learning about the subject

What is Ayahuasca?

The active chemicals in ayahuasca are DMT and an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor). DMT alone is not enough if ingested, as the human digestive system breaks down the compound before it can reach the blood and brain systems.

Ayahuasca is traditionally consumed as a brew of the Banisteriopsis Caapi (b. Caapi) vine and the Psychotria Viridis (p. Viridis) plant. Traditional healers may prepare the brew for specific individuals and add other beneficial herbs. Other ways of consuming DMT are through smoking, snorting or injecting. These are usually done with synthetic forms of DMT, but not always.

What is an Ayahuasca Retreat?

Ayahuasca Retreats are spiritual retreats that make use of the psychoactive brew ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a spiritually enlightening and healing plant derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria Viridis leaf.

Ayahuasca retreats are typically group experiences that take place at a resort under medical supervision. The participants can reconnect with nature and their true selves thanks to the natural healing power of ayahuasca and other medicinal herbs.

William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac all wrote about their experiences with ayahuasca, most notably in Burroughs’ book The Yage Letters. Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary, two scientist-hippies, then travelled to South America to explore and sample the substance firsthand. These contributed to the acceptance of ayahuasca in Western culture, although it was never wholly mainstream.

Also, celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and Chelsea Handler have spoken out about their experiences with it. In an interview, Will Smith admitted to Oprah that he consumed Ayahuasca over 12 times during a retreat in Peru while having marital troubles with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith and that he saw his career and life being destroyed.

Ayahuasca retreats are gradually making their way into the mainstream. Until recently, you had to travel to South America to try it. Now, ayahuasca rituals are sprouting up in the United States and Europe.

Benefits and Therapeutic Use

The benefits of ayahuasca are still being researched and longer-term, more comprehensive studies are necessary. However, with the research available, ayahuasca, like other psychedelics, is showing promise in the treatment of mental health. The plant’s ability to help shift brain functioning, break out of rigid patterns and give the world a dreamlike quality is part of the reason many people are interested in experiencing ayahuasca.


Mindfulness, linked to meditation and mental well-being, is one of the effects of ayahuasca and DMT. While effects can be felt subjectively during the trips, the changes in thinking can also be observed well after. In a study examining cognitive functions like mindfulness and flexibility in thinking, results show that there was an increase in scores related to: observation, description, acting with awareness, and non-reaction.

Self-reports in this study show that participants had an experience of emotional acceptance, in relation to mindfulness. Decentering was a common facet that was reported as well, being the ability to have a detached view of events. The increase in factors like non-judging, acting with awareness and observing are correlated with a decrease in depression scores.

In cases of mental disorders like depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD, rigid thinking underlies a lot of problematic thoughts and behaviours. Ayahuasca’s ability to lend salience to thinking patterns suggests therapeutic benefits. However, more studies are needed to assess how long-term these effects are, as they may only be about 4 weeks of improvement from one dose.

Psychological Effects

The effects of ayahuasca can typically be felt 40 minutes after ingestion, with the peak being around 60 to 120 minutes. The trip itself lasts about 4 to 6 hours and is an altered state of consciousness.

Some of the psychological effects reported in a 2007 study by Mabit were a “powerful sense” of self-confidence, perspective and reinterpretation of intrapsychic conflict, and the revelation of intimate truths. For these reasons, ayahuasca can be an empowering factor to engage in psychotherapy.

The “transcendental circle,” as reported by Kjellgren et al. follows a predictable cycle of effects when using ayahuasca. The trip tends to start with changing perceptions, feeling vulnerable and influenced easily, and moves to feelings of paranoia, confusion, and fear as traumatic memories are sometimes relived and new insights occur. This stage ends with intense vomiting, and the following stage is characterized by a more expansive state, often connecting to the world in a spiritual sense and experiencing feelings of being one with the universe, feeling peace and ecstasy, and even understanding of death and what happens after. Sense of time is disrupted, though individuals are still able to speak and are aware of their environments.

PTSD Treatment

With PTSD, the brain on ayahuasca shows activation in the frontal and paralimbic regions, especially in the left amygdala and parahippocampal gyrus. These brain areas are known for their role in emotional processing and memory formation, in particular with the amygdala processing implicit memories that are subconscious and nonverbal, often difficult to actively recall, while the hippocampus processes explicit memories that are often easily recalled and can be verbally recounted. These centres are especially disrupted by PTSD, making painful emotional memories harder to access without also reliving it, and therefore, harder to resolve in later stages of therapeutic intervention.

What ayahuasca does is create more activity in the hippocampus, which allows for implicit memory formation to be changed under these conditions. The experience lends the individual control and power in the story of their trauma, and gives them a chance to change how they react to these memories.

One person with trauma reports that ayahuasca allowed them to relive their trauma, over and over, until they no longer had negative associations with it. To be sure, they also acknowledged being in a safe environment with guidance, and having to face fears of dying in order to make peace with it. It is similar to exposure therapy, where an individual faces the same fear stimulus and is able to diminish the response and symptoms that they’re experiencing.

Healing and Purge

The purge aspects of ayahuasca are often written off as unpleasant or negative side effects to try to minimize, avoid, or simply “get through.” Drinking the tea can come with vomiting and diarrhea, during or before the vivid visuals that are hallmarks of ayahuasca. The DMT in the ayahuasca brew isn’t cited to be the ingredient responsible for purging, but rather the MAOI from other plants in the brew that allows DMT to be active in the human body.

The gut, often referred to as a second brain, has some capacity for communication with the brain’s cognitive functioning, often like intuitive decision-making. Changes in the gut flora may also be associated with mood disorders, and ayahuasca, acting on the gut, may help to influence change overall.

In its ceremonial and traditional use, ayahuasca’s side effect of vomiting is not seen as a symptom or problem of sickness, but rather just a part of life like yawning or sneezing. Purging in these contexts was also good for dealing with parasitic infections. Visions may also be linked to purging in the use of ayahuasca, with strong visions inducing vomiting or positive experiences only coming through once purging has happened.

Treating Addiction

Ayahuasca’s use in treating addiction is similar in the way that it treats the symptoms and root causes of PTSD and trauma. Despite being a popular choice in medicine for people looking to treat their addictions, there are few scientific studies that address this.

However, a report from 1996 by Grob et al. compared 15 ayahuasca users with 15 non-users and found that though none of the current users met addiction criteria, they had substance abuse issues at a point in their life before ayahuasca. A study in 2008 by Halpern et al. shows similar findings with a sample size of 24.

Individuals who formerly suffered from addictions cite the power of the ayahuasca visions. The purge is seen more as body detoxification and visions as a strong part of psychological healing. Part of the effect is increased brain activity in regions of emotional processing of memory, lending individuals the increased ability to reprocess these memories and set new intentions for their lives.

In a year-long 2010 study, ayahuasca users also scored lower than control subjects on the Addiction Severity Index. They also took fewer drugs than the control group, even though they had a longer history of drug use prior to ritually using ayahuasca.

One study evaluated the drug dependence of 41 ayahuasca church members, noting that 90% of them had stopped taking drugs and were no longer dependent. Members had recovered from tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, crack, and other substances. However, it is unclear how much of the individuals’ recovery is due to church involvement or ayahuasca.


How to Prepare for an Ayahuasca Experience?

There are a few things to consider before an ayahuasca experience. Well before ingesting ayahuasca, perhaps a few months, some lifestyle changes can be helpful in making you ready for the experience. These include meditation to settle and focus the mind, yoga for reducing physical discomfort and cultivating discipline, spending time in nature to develop a relationship with the world around you, consuming foods and content consciously and doing your research on what to expect in general of a ceremony and what can happen at a particular retreat that you’re thinking of.

The next steps for preparing have to do with readying your mind and body in the weeks, days and hours before the ceremony takes place. It is recommended to avoid sexual activity, processed and sugary, salty or spicy foods, cut out addictive substances like alcohol or tobacco, and also taper or eliminate prescription drugs like SSRIs or MAOIs that can interact harmfully with the ayahuasca.

How Long Does an Ayahuasca Trip Last?

The ayahuasca trip duration varies depending on how you consume it. If drinking a brew, expect a trip to last about 4-6 hours, and take up to an hour to feel effects. If smoking or injection ayahuasca or DMT, the trip may last 30-45 minutes and come on much sooner, sometimes instantly.

The duration of the trip will be affected by how you take it, how much you take, and your body composition like height, weight, and health.

Can I Use Ayahuasca With Other Drugs?

Ayahuasca itself is typically a brew of the vine b. Caapi and plant Psychotria Viridis, two drugs that interact together in order to produce the effects of the trip.

Most retreats will advocate abstinence of certain foods, behaviours and substances, because of how these factors can influence your experience of ayahuasca. Not adhering to these suggestions won’t necessarily be fatal, but can dampen what you gain from your trip.

However, there are certain medications that should not be taken with ayahuasca because of how it will interact in the body and the severe side effects that can occur physically. Drugs that act on the serotonin system, like antidepressants, are not recommended. MAOIs and MDMA are also not recommended, for the same reason. These increase your chances of serotonin syndrome which can range from unpleasant to fatal.

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