Ayahuasca was first described outside of Indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had originally worked with the Kiowa in the U.S., participating in peyote ceremonies. Schultes was famous for ingesting all types of plants and their derivatives while traveling throughout the amazon. He was Wade Davis’ advisor, and sent Davis to the amazon to study coca. Ayahuasca is the Hispanicized style spelling of a word in the Quechua languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Speakers of Quechua languages or of the Aymara language may prefer the spelling “ayawaska.” This word refers both to the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means “spirit, soul”, “corpse, dead body”, and waska means “rope” and “woody vine”, “liana”. It is often referred to as “La Medicina”- the medicine.
People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, as well as attaining insights into their lives. Individuals also sometimes report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who act as guides or healers. In my experience, I did not sense other beings, but instead experienced aspects of my own mind which were very different from normal waking consciousness. I experienced profound emotional joy and bliss and insights into my life goals and behaviors. I will describe my three experiences (all somewhat different) in upcoming posts.
Ayahuasca is made by mixing Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the family Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis, a leafy plant, and cooking it down to create a dark, bitter tasting liquid. Banisteriopsis caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and MAOIs. The MAOIs in B. caapi allow the primary psychoactive compound, DMT (which is introduced from the other primary ingredient in ayahuasca, the Psychotria viridis plant), to be orally active. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are chemicals which inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression.
Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna. It contains about 0.10–0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT). DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria viridis) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. DMT can produce powerful psychedelic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations.
DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in rat brain, human cerebrospinal fluid, and other tissues of humans and other mammals. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena. A role of endogenous hallucinogens including DMT in higher level sensory processing and awareness was proposed by J. V. Wallach based on a hypothetical role of DMT as a neurotransmitter. Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM sleep – a function now lost. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal (Gable 2007).
People often report profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca. Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The first time I used the medicine I had diarrhea after the ceremony and vomited a little bit, the second time I had diarrhea only, and the third time had neither.
The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. A few deaths due to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. The deaths may be due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants, and in some cases possibly a result of the addition of toé in the brew. I made sure that this plant was not included in the mixture I was going to consume beforehand, as I had read is it dangerous to ingest it orally. The mixture I ingested only contained the caapi and Psychotria. MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome. Therefore, persons using prescription drugs for bipolar disorder or depression should discontinue use before using ayahuasca. However, persons using dopamine blockers, often used for some forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may not be under the same risk, but in my opinion should also discontinue use to avoid potential interactions.
Da Silveria et al. (2005) conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. Da Silveria et al. measured psychological functioning on participants who used ayahuasca in a culturally specific manner twice per month and started doing so just at the onset of adolescence. These included substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems.
MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria, which involves repeated episodes of depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.
The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. Some groups are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A Supreme Court decision allowed the União do Vegetal Church to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case the Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I went to Peru to use the tea legally; On June 24, 2008 the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that ritual ayahuasca ceremonies are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru and are to be protected.
All this sounds great, however there are problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing the tea who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans, if they really are shamans. In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses. I would like to warn people who want to experience the medicine to only use it under the supervision of someone they know they can trust. I got the name of my shaman from friends who had worked with him and had positive experiences. I would be more than happy to connect people with this shaman at their request.
Stay tuned for a post about my personal experiences with ayahuasca.
Below are some references for further reading. I would also suggest Wade Davis’ “The River.”
Barbosa, PC; Cazorla, IM; Giglio, JS; Strassman, R (September 2009). “A six-month prospective evaluation of personality traits, psychiatric symptoms and quality of life in ayahuasca-naïve subjects.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41 (3): 205–12.
Strassman R.J. (1996). “Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine” (PDF). Behavioural Brain Research 73 (1–2): 121–4.
Rick Strassman (2001). Dmt: the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of near-Death and Mystical Experiences.
Schultes R.E., Raffauf R.F. (1960). “Prestonia: An Amazon narcotic or not?”. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 19 (5): 109–122.
Robert S. Gable (2007). “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids”. Addiction 102 (1): 24–34