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
Ayahuasca use has gained popularity over recent decades for its health benefits and introspective insights. Indigenous tribes in South and Central America have used ayahuasca as part of their religious ceremonies and to promote well-being for at least a thousand years.
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.
Current research is implicating ayahuasca in assisting to relieve symptoms of mental illness, addiction and trauma. Though more studies are needed, a picture is emerging of changing brain activity related to mood regulation, internal perspective and cognitive shifts related to feeling stuck and hopeless. Side effects, however, affect perception usually desirably for users (hallucinations, changes in brightness and sharpness, moving patterns), but can also be unpleasant like purging (vomiting or diarrhea), which is typically viewed as necessary in order for the medicine to work.
Ayahuasca is a Schedule I drug that is only legal in certain countries or through certain exceptions like religious freedoms.
It 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 are the Ayahuasca Effects?
Effects on the Brain
Ayahuasca, like other psychedelics, has interesting impacts on the brain. The brain’s activity on DMT can look a lot like our brain activity while dreaming. This might be part of the reason why people report experiencing intense visuals, strong emotional experiences and vivid waking-dream-like feelings that can evoke a sense of being in an alternate reality.
During a study at the National Institute for Health Research, results showed that, unlike other psychedelics that tend to change brain activity by reducing brainwaves, DMT creates order out of chaotic brain patterns, giving a sense of very active daydreaming. Alpha waves, which characterize our brain pattern when awake, drop off, and there is an increase in the theta waves, which are often associated with dreaming.
Interestingly, after ayahuasca use, there is increased connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which processes emotion and cognition, and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) which is central to the Default Mode Network.
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.
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.
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.
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. (7)
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.
Thoughts about ending one’s life are related to intense distress and internal pain and are strong symptoms of many mental disorders, addictions and trauma. Suicidal thoughts themselves are damaging and distressing as they can erode a person’s self-confidence, self-efficacy and desire to live.
Studies on ayahuasca’s effects on suicidality are limited, but one 2020 study by Zeifman et al. addressing symptoms of major depressive disorder showed that after one dose of ayahuasca, patients who were formerly experiencing suicidal ideation, including a past history of suicide attempts and hospitalization scored significantly lower on a scale assessing suicidality. Scores were measured before, and at several points during and after ayahuasca use. Lowered suicidality was immediate (40 minutes after administration) and long-lasting (even lower scores 21 days after).
The mechanisms behind this reduction in scale are unclear but have been suggested to be related to beliefs of entrapment, and being unable to change the situation. Psychedelic research has shown decreases in hopelessness and pessimism as long-term effects. Additional research points to increased acceptance after ayahuasca, in which suicidality has been suggested to be a means of “experience avoidance.”
Other brain changes that are associated with reduced depression and suicidality could be the beta-carbolines from DMT, in particular harmine, which has antidepressant properties and increased neuron formation. Ayahuasca can help regulate brain activity related to introspection, mood, and emotion processing.
One common way to use ayahuasca is at a retreat where individuals are given a brew under the guidance of a traditional healer or indigenous shaman. They assist the journey in connecting to nature and self through the use of ayahuasca.
Though there are ayahuasca retreats around the world, it can be difficult to determine the legality and authenticity of these retreats. It is also important to consider what you want and research any retreat you are seriously contemplating. Some retreats are not well-prepared in making sure your safety is a top priority, and you’ll want to find this out before you get there.
The most popular destination for a retreat is South America, where ayahuasca is both legal and grows naturally in the environment. There is a strong traditional medicine culture around ayahuasca and many practitioners have years of experience.
Factors that are important to consider will vary based on your own personal preferences, like if you’re fine with basic amenities or if you’d rather have something more luxurious; and what you’re hoping to get out of the experience, such as healing childhood trauma, or becoming more aware of your inner life.
Some recommendations to research for your retreat: that ayahuasca is legal where you’re taking it, the shamans are experienced and trained, someone can understand your language and translate for you, the retreat prioritizes safety, someone at the retreat has a medical background to ensure your physical safety, you know what is in the brew and how it will affect you, and finally that there are spaces with practitioners in order to process and understand your experience of ayahuasca after its effects.
Risks and Side Effects
Though there are mental health and spiritual benefits to taking ayahuasca, there are some side effects to be aware of. Most of the side effects are considered to be part of the experience and are not necessarily something to be discouraged by but rather made aware of.
The most commonly reported side effect of drinking ayahuasca tea is nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. This is seen as purging negative thoughts, emotions and traumas that have accumulated in the individual’s lifetime. Nonetheless, it can be a distressing experience and one should be informed of this risk before pursuing an ayahuasca experience. There may also be exhaustion in the subsequent days after the trip.
Psychological effects can include paranoia and panic, which can affect your trip in a negative way and impact any positive experiences you want to experience. However, this is not to state that the presence of these effects will nullify all positive takeaways from the experience. In a study of 40 subjects, 7 reported severe psychological reactions during their trip, including some psychotic symptoms. Upon follow-up, those with psychiatric conditions had improved and those without were not worse off than before.
Other reported factors are increased heart rate and blood pressure, and those with heart conditions should take precautions here as the side effects can be dangerous. As a hallucinogen, ayahuasca users also report changes in body perception like tingling feelings or dizziness, and changes in body temperature, but are temporary and last only as long as the trip.
In aiming to treat or heal mental illness, addiction or trauma, those with schizophrenia are cautioned to avoid ayahuasca as it may worsen symptoms and possibly bring on mania.
There are fewer reports of more severe side effects. However, these include seizures, respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest. In clinical studies, no deaths have occurred, but in other cases where ayahuasca is taken in ceremonies or unsupervised settings and where subjects’ medical conditions were unknown, there have been a few deaths.
An important note to keep in mind is that, in addition to body size, metabolism and existing conditions which can affect a trip, there is also a wide variety of ways in which ayahuasca as a plant is used. As a tea, there are different combinations of B. caapi and other ingredients that make up the concoction. How the ayahuasca is cooked, how old the plant is, what soil composition it grew in, and the time it was collected can drastically impact the effects that the tea has.
As a Schedule I drug, DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, is not legal in most countries in the world. However, there are some exceptions in countries where it is illegal and though DMT tends to be highly illegal, there is often considerable leeway for the naturally occurring ayahuasca plants. Most of Latin America class ayahuasca as legal and the plant grows naturally in these countries.
Countries including Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru have fully legalized ayahuasca. Indigenous cultures frequently use the ayahuasca brew as their traditional medicine. Colombia doesn’t have legislation around ayahuasca, but does have retreats that are generally left alone by law enforcement.
In Chile, DMT is a controlled substance, but ayahuasca is not specified as illegal or legal. In Latvia, cultivation is legal, though sale, possession and transportation are not. Portugal has decriminalized possession, but sale, transportation and cultivation remain illegal. Finally, in the United States, ayahuasca is illegal unless it is being used for religious purposes, and even in these cases, only select churches are given the privilege to host religious ayahuasca ceremonies.
A few countries have a tumultuous relationship with ayahuasca. The Netherlands only recently (2019) made it illegal, and no longer accepts religious exemptions either. Romania has legalized ayahuasca for scientific and medical research only and considers all other use illegal. In Spain, ayahuasca is controlled, and limited to pharmaceutical goods and research.
In some countries, DMT and ayahuasca or any other plant that contains DMT as an ingredient are illegal, with no religious exemptions. These countries include Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Romania, Norway, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Denmark and Australia. In some cases, possessing ayahuasca as a plant won’t convey prison time, but brewing it to create a DMT-filled tea is illegal.
The psychoactive chemical in ayahuasca is DMT. It is a serotonergic drug, and binds with the 5-HT2A receptor in the brain, other 5-HT receptor subtypes and some monoamine receptors. Those on antidepressants, particularly SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and anxiolytics, should be cautious of the drug interactions with DMT and ayahuasca. (20, 21)
Taking antidepressants or anxiolytics can result in serotonin syndrome, which can cause a rapid heartbeat, severe and long-lasting headaches, sweating, tremors, high blood pressure, and overactive reflexes. Severe serotonin syndrome can cause shock, muscular tension, renal failure, and seizures and may be fatal.
In ayahuasca, the beta-carbolines, like harmine and its derivatives, can inhibit the monoamine oxidase system, and this is necessary to produce psychoactive effects for DMT. DMT in the metabolic system, without an MAO inhibitor, is broken down in digestion and doesn’t achieve its typical effects. Psychotria Viridis is another plant in the ayahuasca brew that specifically helps DMT be absorbed in the body by its MAOI effect. Some antidepressants are MAOI-based and caution should be advised here, as the effects can be compounded, sometimes dangerously.
Those with cardiovascular issues, glaucoma, hypertension, recent surgeries, infectious diseases, tuberculosis, epilepsy or cerebrovascular accidents are not recommended to use ayahuasca. In addition, issues with the liver, gallbladder, kidney, pancreas, or digestive system should avoid ayahuasca or consult a doctor. If there are issues with vomiting, ayahuasca is not recommended.
Other psychoactive drugs or stimulants can conflict with the ayahuasca experience. Cocaine, amphetamines, and MDMA should not be taken with ayahuasca, as they can result in dangerous levels of hypertension. Cannabis is not recommended as it can interrupt the psychological experience of ayahuasca, and dampen the trip.
There are specific herbal medicines that are not recommended with ayahuasca. These include St. John’s Wort, kava, kratom, ephedra, ginseng, yohimbe, sinicuichi, rhodiola rosea, kanna, boswellia, nutmeg, scotch broom, and licorice root. If taking these as supplements, it’s important to stop for at least two weeks before taking ayahuasca.
How Much Does an Ayahuasca Ceremony Cost?
The price for ceremonies can vary greatly. Some retreats cost as low as $50 for one session to $3000 or more for a week or longer. There is also the cost of transportation if you are going to a different location for a ceremony.
Be aware that a cheaper retreat may end up cutting corners and might not provide the desired experience, and that a more expensive retreat may be better but might not be the kind of experience you want. Researching and talking to facilitators of the retreat you’re interested in is one way to safeguard against going to a retreat that could cause disappointment or harm.
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.
The broad answer is that this will differ for everyone, and is based on factors like who you are and what your goals are in using ayahuasca. That said, most retreats that are about a week long offer 3-4 ceremonies during that time. What you can learn from ayahuasca and how most retreats operate will be based on a set of ceremonies. This gives you enough time and visits with the plant that you may find questions from the first ceremony are answered by the fourth. However, if you are financially or temporally constrained, one ceremony may be enough but it will still be only part of your process and healing isn’t finished by the end of a retreat.
The healing properties that ayahuasca has on the mind and body can take time. Some people have breakthroughs right away, and others return to the plant over and over until they have the experience they’re looking for.
Dr. Gabor Mate, who was invited as a healer to participate in retreats, guided and watched others go through immense changes and breakthroughs that he himself would only experience after preparing himself enough that he wasn’t blocking his own healing.
What Does Ayahuasca Teach You?
The lessons that come from ayahuasca are different for everyone, but follow a similar theme of learning an important truth that enables someone to live a fuller, more complete and nuanced life.
One person reports being shown the ways that they hide from themself and the world, their limitations and let them have an honest look inside. They learned that, for them, their happiness comes from living with intention, well-being, hope and joy. In addition to these core beliefs that were enlightened by ayahuasca use, they found that their past didn’t define them, they needed to face their fears, their power was their authenticity, they chose to be inspired by love and not fear, and that their life’s purpose was personal expansion.
Another person, who thrives in the business world, reports a different set of conclusions from their ayahuasca ceremonies. They found insights that told them competition was an unhelpful illusion they’d perpetuated for themselves, and that leaders should be protecting those that work for them. They learned more intimately about the nature of karma and what they’re putting out into the universe, as well as the finding that business is not analogous to the marathon they thought, but rather more similar to a dance.
How Much Does Ayahuasca Cost?
Prices for ayahuasca alone, and not inclusive of a ceremony, shaman or accommodations, range significantly. In Peru, the brew is sold by the litre and can go from about 100 to 820 soles, or $30-$250.
DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, is not legal in many countries but can sell for about $150-$250 per gram on the black market. The quality of DMT has a significant range and is usually synthetically made. Many people report that synthetic DMT smells and tastes like burning plastic.
DMT strains that are not from the b. Caapi vine are the Mimosa hostilis plant ($150/gram) and acacia ($200/gram).
How to Get Ayahuasca in the US?
Two Brazilian churches exist in the United States that use ayahuasca, and are legally protected through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. These churches are União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime. There is quite a push to legalize ayahuasca and DMT use, especially for therapeutic purposes, but it is still illegal to possess, sell, grow and use.
What is an Ayahuasca Retreat?
An ayahuasca retreat is the guided use of ayahuasca and other plants by a shaman or traditional healer. The retreat is usually hosted for multiple participants, in a space that is surrounded by nature. The accommodations can vary depending on what you choose, but your meals and housing are always provided.
The retreat focuses on helping people realize and make profound changes in their lives, to affect their health, well-being and happiness. During the retreat, there are ayahuasca ceremonies and debriefing sessions to best facilitate an understanding of what ayahuasca is trying to communicate about you, your life, and the world around you.
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.
How was Ayahuasca Discovered?
In 1851, botanist Richard Spruce encountered ayahuasca through the b. Caapi vine.
However, ayahuasca has been used for over a thousand years, and researcher José M. Capriles found a pouch dated to be around 900-1,170 AD containing DMT, among other chemical substances.
Ayahuasca’s discovery is credited to unknown shamans, as the exact origin of ayahuasca practice is lost. Various researchers and scientists have observed the use of ayahuasca by Indigenous tribes but have no way of knowing who discovered the use of the b. Caapi vine and the p. Viridis (chacruna) plant and how they did so. Myths that belong to the tribes suggest that shamans gained instructions from the plant spirit.
Is Ayahuasca Legal in the US?
Ayahuasca is not legal in the US. It is still considered a Schedule I drug, and only two Brazilian churches (União do Vegetal and Santo Daime) are covered by the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act for its use.
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.
✍🏼 About the author
Kristin Bissessar is a writer who has produced a variety of content from small business copy, to medical ads, to blogs for a range of brands. She is passionate about advocating for better mental health solutions, both as someone with lived mental health issues and experience as a crisis mental health worker.