The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca

(Huasca, Yagé, Brew, Daime, La Purga)

A mixture of: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) & Harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (MAOIs)

Disclaimer: Ayahuasca is a potentially illegal substance, and we do not encourage or condone the use of this substance where it is against the law. However, we accept that illegal drug use occurs, and believe that offering responsible harm reduction information is imperative to keeping people safe. For that reason, this guide is designed to ensure the safety of those who decide to use the substance.

01. Overview

Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf. It is used in traditional ceremonies among the indigenous tribes of Amazonia. P. virdris contains DMT, a powerful hallucinogen, and B. caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which work synergistically with DMT to produce a long-lasting hallucinogenic experience.

Traditional ayahuasca healing ceremonies have recently become more popular amongst Westerners, leading to an increase in the appearance of ‘ayahuasca retreats’ where people far-removed from the traditional lifestyle can nevertheless attempt to receive the healing benefits of the sacred brew.

Various studies have shown that ayahuasca therapy may be effective in the treatment of depression and addiction, and as this ancient brew comes more into the limelight, we may see it become a widespread and accepted form of psychedelic therapy.

02. History & Stats

Summarized from Domínguez-Clavé, et al.[1] and McKenna.[2]

The use of ayahuasca is a widespread practice among indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin. Such practices were almost certainly well established in pre-Columbian times, with some speculating that the practice goes back to the the earliest human inhabitants of the region. Ayahuasca, along with many other medicinal plants, gradually became integrated into the ethnomedical traditions of the mixed populations following European contact in the New World.

The use of this psychotropic tea is experiencing unprecedented expansion worldwide, and is the object of increasing biomedical research. These plants were central to indigenous cultures in the New World and were used in medicine, religious ceremonies and rites of passage. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, small groups of indigenous people continued to use these plants in traditional ceremonies and other cultural practices.

These practices continued without external interference until more recent times, likely due to the relative isolation of many of these groups in the Amazon rainforest. In the 1980s, over 70 different names were recorded for ayahuasca preparations from disparate indigenous tribes, illustrating its widespread use by isolated groups. In Peru, knowledge of the brew has passed from the Amerindian shamans to vegetalistas (mestizo healers), who use it to diagnose and treat patients in the frontier cities of the Amazon.

In Brazil, the practice and use of ayahuasca has been blended with Christian and Afro-Brazilian religious beliefs, giving rise to the Santo Daime, the União do Vegetal, the Barquinha and other spiritual movements.[3] These new forms have contributed to the spread of ayahuasca use to mainstream South American society and greater awareness among other people outside of the continent.

While DMT is a schedule 1 drug in the United States, effectively banning it for all uses including medical and research purposes, several religious groups have litigated and won the right to use it in spiritual/religious practices.

Interest in Ayahuasca over time

Ayahuasca saw a surge in the number of related publications beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s with the psychedelic revolution. This was followed by a sharp decline, then a gradual increase in related-publications throughout the 1980s and 1990s. From the mid-2000s to today, we have seen an explosion in related publications.

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Not unsurprisingly, Google search interest has followed a similar pattern since the mid-2000s, peaking in April of 2016.

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03. Pharmacology

Ayahuasca is brewed using two separate plants: B. capii and P. viridis. The B. capii plant contains the MAOIs that allow DMT to have its psychoactive effect; these MAOIs include harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH), and harmaline, although other alkaloids are also present. The P. viridis plant contains the single major hallucinogenic alkaloid, DMT.[4]

The concentration of the alkaloids in brewed ayahuasca beverages is several times greater than the plants from which they are prepared. In a 200-mL dose, there is an average of 30 mg harmine, 10 mg THH and 25 mg DMT, though concentrations will vary based on the geographical region and preparation methods.

Receptor interactions

Ayahuasca likely alters serotonin activity in brain areas that have been implicated in introspection and emotional processing.[5]

The DMT in the brew interacts with serotonin receptors (specifically, the 5-HT2A subtype) that are the target of traditional drug therapies like SSRIs. 5-HT2A receptors are the main target for other psychedelics including LSD and psilocybin.

The MAOIs in ayahuasca mainly act to prevent the breakdown of DMT in the stomach; [6] although they may also have anti-addiction effects through their effects on the dopaminergic system. [7]

Drug interactions

Ayahuasca affects both serotonin and monoamine oxidase levels. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, should be avoided before a ceremony to avoid dangerous adverse reactions.[8]

The MAOIs found in the brew can cause severe reactions when combined with foods such as cheese, beer, wine, yogurt, coffee and chocolate and with amphetamine-like compounds such as ephedrine and MDMA. The best way to avoid side-effects associated with these substances is to fast for twelve or more hours before the ceremony.

These substances/medications should also be avoided before/during an ayahuasca ceremony:

  • antihypertensives (high blood pressure medicine)
  • appetite suppressants (diet pills)
  • medicine for asthma, bronchitis, or other breathing problems; antihistamines, medicines for colds, sinus problems, hay fever, or allergies (any drug containing dextromethorphan/DXM or with DM, DX or Tuss in its name.)
  • CNS (central nervous system) depressants (xanax, ativan, etc)
  • Vasodilators
  • Antipsychotics
  • Barbiturates
  • Alcohol

Ayahuascasaftey.org also lists many substances you should avoid or use caution with if you’re planning an ayahuasca trip.

04. Effects

Physiological effects

In one trial involving people who had previous experience with ayahuasca, who received 0.60-0.85 mg/kg, subjective experiences peaked between 1.5 and 2 hours after ingesting.[9] They reported perceptual hallucinations and rated their moods more positively. Blood concentrations of DMT peaked at about 1.5 hours after ingesting, which coincided with peak hallucinogenic experiences.

Diastolic blood pressure showed a significant increase at higher doses (0.85 mg/kg), while systolic blood pressure and heart rate increased moderately. Modified physical sensations and vomiting are reported relatively frequently as the most unpleasant physiological effects.

Psychological effects

A small control trial of 6 male participants with previous ayahuasca experience found that psychological effects were first noted 30–60 minutes after ingesting one of three doses (0.5, 0.75, and 1.0 mg/kg) and peaked between 60–120 minutes. All of the psychological effects resolved by 240 minutes (4 hours).[10]

Five out of the six reported a pleasant and enjoyable experience, while 1 reported a bad trip with disorientation and anxiety (mid-level dose, 0.75 mg/kg body weight).

The first effects reported by the volunteers were physical changes, including burning sensations in the stomach, tingling sensations, changes in perception of body temperature and skin sensitivity, and mild nausea. Hallucinations were typically intense and experienced suddenly. Most reported a degree of initial anxiety or fear, which faded in all but one case thereafter.

Visual hallucinations were experienced in all subjects and their intensity was dose-dependent. They did not persist throughout the entire experience, but usually came and went in waves. These effects ranged from increases in an object’s brightness and sharpness, or as vibrations in the visual field, to rapidly moving patterns, and scenes that were visible with eyes either closed or open at the medium and high doses.

Changes in auditory perception were also reported and were also dose-dependent. Volunteers reported enhanced hearing; i.e., they said that sounds became more clear and distinct.

Thought processes and cognition were also modified. The volunteers reported an enhanced rate of thinking which was generally focused on personal psychological content. They reported gaining new insight into personal concerns. Most also recalled personal memories related to recent personal matters.

Emotional reactions were intensified at higher doses. A common report was experiencing happiness, sadness, awe, amazement, sometimes simultaneously as contradictory feelings. At the medium and high doses, volunteers reported that the experience was similar to dreaming.

At the medium and high doses, transient changes in the sense of self and the passing of time were observed. A sense of bodily detachment was frequently reported at the high dose, while feelings of closeness to others, happiness, and euphoria were reported at the both the medium and high doses.

05. Ethical Considerations

Ayahuasca has been no exception to modern globalization. As the world grows more interconnected in unprecedented ways, it continues to be used in locations and contexts that are very different from the Amazonian tribal cultures in which it originated.

Kenneth Tupper (2009)[11] outlines some of the issues facing cultural practices in the face of growing popularity and globalization.

Some see “exotic” spiritual practices like ayahuasca as a replacement for the declining organized religions of the west, but they often only provide the appearance of authenticity compared to their familiar religious and spiritual practices. This has led to the perpetuation of the “noble-savage” stereotype whereby indigenous cultures are largely denigrated by Westerners, yet some select cultural practices are lauded.

One example is the so called neo-ayahuasqeuros — shamans who have very little or no connection to the indigenous cultures that practice ayahuasca ceremonies. While some adhere to traditional practices, a potentially lucrative market has attracted enough charlatans and hucksters (both non-indigenous and indigenous) to be cause for concern. Free market exchange for the purposes of monetary gain is often at odds with the traditional indigenous practices of the Amazon, introducing another layer of ethical complexity.

Another recent cause for concern related to charlatans masquerading as keepers of the tradition of ayahuasca are the reports of sexual predators pretending to be shamans. This is especially concerning given that the brew can be used to treat issues involving sexual trauma and/or sexual dysfunction and intimacy problems.

Biopiracy is an especially urgent concern of cultural appropriation with ayahuasca. Western pharmaceutical companies have recognized the biosphere as an important source of healing medicines and virtually never credited, let alone compensated, the people who have used these within the context of intergenerational traditional medicine. They’ve even gone so far as to seek out shamans who, unaware of companies’ real motivations, show them where these plant sources can be found and how they are prepared in order to gain “inside understanding” about the medicine.

Some point out, though, that the wisdom of the cultures of the Amazon basin will only be spread to all of humanity by bringing in outsiders. The force of globalization can’t be stopped at this point, and so ayahuasca and other traditional practices will continue to be spread across the planet. It’s up to us outsiders to ensure that it’s done in a more respectful manner than it has been in many cases to date.

06. Therapeutic Use

Many lines of anecdotal evidence suggest that ayahuasca holds promise as a healing tool for disorders like addiction, several mental illnesses, and immune disorders.[12] One recent study of an ayahuasca ceremony in Canada found significant effects on the treatment of addictive behaviours.[13]

With appropriate supportive settings that include talk therapy and social network support, regular and long-term ayahuasca use may aid in lasting lifestyle changes, most notably with respect to substance abuse and addiction.

In a qualitative study surveying a group of people who joined the religious group UDV, who regularly use ayahuasca in their religious ceremonies, a large number of the members had histories of alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other problem behaviors and lifestyles. These dysfunctional behaviors were virtually resolved after joining the UDV and attending regular ceremonies.

Ayahuasca may also help ameliorate serotonin deficiencies, which have been related to host of different disorders, including alcoholism to depression, autism, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and senile dementia. Some small studies (e.g., see reviewed in McKenna, 2004) suggest that long-term ayahuasca use can possibly increase serotonin availability in the body.

A recent study has become the first to analyse the antidepressant properties of ayahuasca in a controlled setting. 29 patients with severe depression were given either one session of ayahuasca or a placebo, then analysed for changes in their depression scores. One day immediately following the sessions, the ayahuasca group scored significantly lower on depression tests compared to the placebo group. After seven days, the placebo group had returned to a normal depression level, while the ayahuasca group were still on a much lower depression score.

It’s important to remember that if it does possess therapeutic value (which it almost certainly does), to obtain the most healing benefit possible one must take ayahuasca in a safe, therapeutic and supportive environment. Drinking the brew alone at home will most likely not help you out. We recommend considering an ayahuasca retreat, where you are surrounded by supportive people in a comfortable environment.

Other resources

07. Personal Growth

The use of ayahuasca as a tool for enlightenment and spiritual growth among Westerners has surged in recent years alongside other psychedelics. Some claim that on any given night, hundreds of private ceremonies take place in New York City alone.[14]

Many who seek experiences of personal growth with ayahuasca report a sense of connectedness and compassion with others around them.[15] Some report spiritual awakenings that lead to long-term, stable perspective shifts. This is likely a result of achieving a level of particularly intense level introspection that leads to profound self-awareness and clarity regarding personal issues and belief systems.[16],[17] Dennis McKenna also cites ayahuasca’s ability to make users feel more interconnected with the natural world as one possible avenue by which the discussion around environmental conservation efforts can be elevated and expanded.[18]

Ayahuasca has also seen a surge in popularity among entrepreneurs and creatives that is beginning to penetrate mainstream culture. As one New Yorker article puts it, “If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.” [19]

Tim Ferriss is also a vocal advocate of ayahuasca. After a particularly harrowing ayahuasca trip that included grand mal seizures and hyper-anxiety inducing hallucinations, Ferriss claims that “ninety per cent of the anger I had held onto for decades, since I was a kid, was just gone. Absent.” [20] He also claims that almost everyone of any influence in the startup industry uses ayahuasca at some point.

Other resources

08. Legality

Ayahuasca’s legal status is complicated. Although it contains the internationally prohibited drug DMT, in many countries it is considered a sacred preparation and is not subject to the same prohibitions as DMT.

In the US, two religious groups (the UDV and Santo Daime) have been given approval to use ayahuasca as part of their healing ceremonies.

Ayahuasca is legal in Brazil and Peru, and these are the locations of most retreats. Its legal status in other countries is murky, and there are many cases of people being arrested for religious use.

See here for our full article on the worldwide legality of ayahuasca.

09. FAQ

Can it be detected in a drug test?

DMT, the psychedelic compound in ayahuasca, is not included in a typical drug screen, nor is it included in any known extensive drug screens. It is also not chemically similar to substances that are typically tested for, so the likelihood of triggering a false positive for other drugs is near zero.

Will it make me sick?

Ayahuasca will often induce nausea or diarrhea in the early stages of the experience. This is why, traditionally, users will avoid eating or drinking for some time before the ceremony. It is considered a purification of the body and spirit, and a crucial part of the ceremony. There have been no reports of long-lasting harm from this aspect of the ceremony.

Do I have to travel to Peru for a ceremony/retreat?

Although traditional ayahuasca ceremonies are mostly found in central and south America, there are many places you can find the brew. Various religious groups use ayahuasca in their gatherings. The UDV, for example, is a christian organisation that uses ayahuasca legally in its ceremonies.

Will I have a negative experience?

Ayahuasca contains an intense psychedelic drug, and you will almost certainly not have a gentle experience. However, taken in the right context and with the right mindset, most people report the experience to be extremely meaningful. Ayahuasca can help you view various painful aspects of your life, allowing you to see how they can be made better. This experience may not be pleasant, but it almost always result in healing.

Can I mix it with other drugs?

Ayahuasca should not be mixed with Tramadol, as it can lead to Serotonin Syndrome. Be cautious if mixing ayahuasca with cannabis, amphetamines or cocaine. Click here for a detailed chart of safe drug combinations.

Does ayahuasca produce tolerance?

Ayahuasca tolerance is very mild: you can take another dose within a day, without significantly reduced effects. It also does not produce tolerance to other psychedelics.

Can I microdose with ayahuasca?

There is not much information about ayahuasca microdosing, as microdosing is most commonly performed with LSD and psilocybin. However, as it contains DMT, a classic psychedelic in the same family as LSD and psilocybin, it could be microdosed in a similar way. Click here for a detailed guide on microdosing.

10. Footnotes

[1] Domínguez-Clavé, E., Soler, J., Elices, M., Pascual, J. C., Álvarez, E., de la Fuente Revenga, M., … Riba, J. (2016). Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential. Brain Research Bulletin.

[2] McKenna, D. J. (2004). Clinical investigations of the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca: rationale and regulatory challenges. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 102(2), 111–129.

[3] Labate B.C. & Goldstein I. (2009) Ayahuasca – from dangerous drug to national heritage. Intl. J. of Transpersonal Studies, 28(1), 53-64.

[4] McKenna, D. J. (2004). Clinical investigations of the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca: rationale and regulatory challenges. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 102(2), 111–129.

[5] Riba, J., Romero, S., Grasa, E., Mena, E., Carrió, I., & Barbanoj, M. J. (2006). Increased frontal and paralimbic activation following ayahuasca, the pan-Amazonian inebriant. Psychopharmacology, 186(1), 93–98.

[6] Riba, J., Valle, M., Urbano, G., Yritia, M., Morte, A., & Barbanoj, M. J. (2003). Human pharmacology of ayahuasca: subjective and cardiovascular effects, monoamine metabolite excretion, and pharmacokinetics. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 306(1), 73–83.

[7] Brierley D.I. & Davidson C. (2012). Developments in harmine pharmacology. Prog. Neuro-Pharm. & Biol. Psychiatry, 39, 263-272.

[8] Callaway, J. C., & Grob, C. S. (1998). Ayahuasca preparations and serotonin reuptake inhibitors: a potential combination for severe adverse interactions. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 30(4), 367–369.

[9] Riba, J., Valle, M., Urbano, G., Yritia, M., Morte, A., & Barbanoj, M. J. (2003). Human pharmacology of ayahuasca: subjective and cardiovascular effects, monoamine metabolite excretion, and pharmacokinetics. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 306(1), 73–83.

[10] Riba, J., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., Urbano, G., Morte, A., Antonijoan, R., Montero, M., … Barbanoj, M. J. (2001). Subjective effects and tolerability of the South American psychoactive beverage Ayahuasca in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 154(1), 85–95.

[11] Tupper, K. W. (2009). Ayahuasca healing beyond the Amazon: The globalization of a traditional indigenous entheogenic practice. Global Networks, 9(1), 117–136.

[12] McKenna, D. J. (2004). Clinical investigations of the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca: rationale and regulatory challenges. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 102(2), 111–129.

[13] Thomas et al. (2013). Ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction. Curr. Drug Abuse Rev, 6(1), 30-42.

[14] Yakowicz, W. (2015, October 16). Silicon Valley’s Best-Kept Productivity Secret: Psychedelic Drugs.

[15] LaVecchia, O. (2013, November 21). Ayahuasca Can Change Your Life — As Long as You’re Willing to Puke Your Guts Out.

[16] Editor, A. B. A. R., & Post, T. H. (400AD, 26:54). Shaman Explains How Ayahuasca Can Facilitate A Spiritual Awakening.

[17] Cohen, A. (2014, April 21). My Journey With a Life Altering Drug: Ayahuasca.

[18] Hill, D. (2016, July 30). Ayahuasca is changing global environmental consciousness. The Guardian.

[19] The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.

[20] Carson, B., Sep. 8, 2016, 26, 047, & 5. (n.d.). This Silicon Valley angel investor loves a drug that gave him hours of seizures.

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