Your guide to ayahuasca

What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a plant medicine used in transformative ceremonies usually led by a shaman. It's a brew made out of two main ingredients: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria Viridis shrub. The indigenous people of the Amazon basin have been using ayahuasca as a traditional spiritual medicine for about 1.000 years already. Its main psychoactive component is DMT - which is also called the spirit molecule. Ayahuasca in the west got popular among people yearning for spiritual insights, answers about the purpose of life and how they fit in, dealing with a personal crisis or simply trying to quit smoking. It became better known with the emergence of psychedelic culture in the west as "a plant with near-mythical hallucinogenic and some say telepathic qualities".

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 Why use ayahuasca?

Some people believe that this traditional brew will help them to overcome mental conditions they are dealing with, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction or even anxiety and depression, in some cases. The medical science on this is debatable, to say the least, so it would not be advisable to use ayahuasca for these purposes unless you are advised to do so under controlled conditions by a medical professional. Also sometimes known as yage, the brew can lead to uncertain outcomes when it is taken recreationally or as part of a spiritual ritual. When travelling to countries like Brazil, Peru or Costa Rica – where the brew is more freely available – you are advised to only consume it under the guidance of an experienced shaman and only in the quantities that are recommended. This is because there are safety concerns surrounding the brew, which must be taken seriously and because everyone has different reactions to it.

When was ayahuasca discovered?

The first evidence of the use of ayahuasca dates back about 1.000 years. Ayahuasca ingredients and other shaman substances were discovered in a cave in Bolivia, meaning it was first used by people in the Andes. The word comes from the Quechuan language; "Aya" which means "spirit, soul", or "corpse, dead body" and "waska" which translates to "rope" or "woody vine", "liana". In the 16th century, Christian missionaries encountered indigenous people in the Amazon basin using ayahuasca. The American biologist Richard Evans Schultes was the first to examine ayahuasca academically. In the 1950s, American beat writer William S. Burroughs read a paper by Schultes and sought out ayahuasca as a way to cure opiate addiction. His search for it is documented in "The yagé letters". Later the McKenna brothers published their experience with ayahuasca in True Hallucinations, which made the plant more widely known for its psychoactive and mind-expanding abilities.

Where does ayahuasca come from, and how does it work?

South America is the traditional home of ayahuasca. The brew is made from the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine along with the Psychotria Viridis shrub although sometimes a substitute may be used for this plant. In addition, there are other ingredients that go into the brew, many of which are traditional local additives. The brew has been used for centuries by various people of the Amazon basin as a spiritual medicine. This is because when it is consumed in the right quantities for the individual concerned, it will provide a hallucinogenic effect. The aforementioned vine is responsible for this because it contains substances that are known in pharmacology as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). For example, just one such MAOI in the brew is called isocarboxazid. When they interact with orally-consumed DMTs – another chemical substance found in the brew – they generate a prolonged psychoactive state in the brain, much like the consumption of magic mushrooms.

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What does ayahuasca do to the brain, and how does this manifest itself?

Many people who consume the brew find that it will put them into an altered state of consciousness. This can go on for several hours and even longer in some cases, a bit like an LSD trip. The aforementioned DMT that is present in the beverage is known by science to have a psychedelic effect on the brain's ability to perceive the world around it. People who consume it will generally see mathematical patterns around them and reach a higher plane of consciousness even if they are not able to rationalise their whole experience once the trip comes to an end. That said, DMT is not long-lasting in the body, and it tends to get broken down quite fast, thereby reducing its hallucinogenic effects. When the brew is balanced with the right amount of MAOIs by a skilled shaman, however, its effects are longer-lasting. In short, MAOIs act as inhibitors, so DMT is not broken down so fast.

What does ayahuasca feel like?

As mentioned, people have very different sensations from consuming the brew. Overall, the effect is to create a rush or a sense of euphoria, which then subsides into a journey of inward discovery about one's self and consciousness. Many people report that the hallucinogenic effects of the brew make them feel at one with the universe. However, that can be hard to come to terms with once the tripping effects of the brew subsided. Although it will take some people as few as 20 minutes to start feeling these psychedelic effects, for others it will be an hour or more before anything noticeable happens. After that, the brew will provide a trip that lasts for anything from two hours to a whole day. Notably, several side-effects are commonly felt, such as diarrhoea, paranoia, vomiting and excessive sensations of fear.

How long are ayahuasca trips?

The effects of the medicine last between four and six hours for most people, while a ceremony can go up to six or nine hours, depending on the shaman. This might also depend on certain criteria in each individual, such as weight, height, health status, and one's tolerance and previous experience with taking ayahuasca. It should be noted that when used for personal transformation, spiritual development, or emotional, mental or spiritual healing, the longer-lasting effects of ayahuasca become deeply individualised. Many people often refer to a post-ceremony "afterglow" that can last for as long as up to 8 weeks after the experience.

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Why go on an ayahuasca diet?

If you are considering taking the brew at a retreat where you feel safe to do so, then it is advisable that you follow a recommended diet beforehand. In traditional South American cultures, consuming the right things in the run-up to taking the brew is considered to be the right thing because this will help to cleanse the body and the soul. It is a question of spiritual purification. Out of respect for local customs, therefore, only consuming a vegan – or, at least a vegetarian – diet before the session would be the right thing to do for a month or so. Some ceremonies will also involve giving up alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and other toxins. Although some people do this only as a way to show their respect for the ceremony they will partake in, it can be a good way to avoid the diarrhoea and sickness that many people feel after consuming the brew.

Why are ayahuasca retreats so expensive?

Although retreats for travellers who want to experience the brew are available in several countries of Central and South America, there are not that many places that provide a complete package. Bear in mind, that a retreat that is based on safely consuming the brew will need at least one experienced shaman to prepare it for the travellers who are in attendance. Careful monitoring of the brew, and the individuals concerned, needs to be maintained so that the experience is safe for everyone. This means that you cannot simply turn up and start consuming the brew. You will need to prepare yourself, which means accommodation and dietary considerations need to be factored into the cost. Some retreats also include hikes into the surrounding areas where the ingredients grow, all of which adds up. Of course, in the end, the high prices reflect the large numbers of people who want to attend such retreats.

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Are peyote and DMT the same as ayahuasca?

No, they are not. That said, DMT is one of the active ingredients that make up the brew. The Banisteriopsis Caapi vine is the plant that contains the DMTs - the psychoactive element of the brew. This plant will be taken from the rainforest and then cleaned and pulped before it is boiled. This is done to augment the extraction of all of its chemical compounds, including the DMTs. Peyote is sometimes confused with the traditional brew because it, too, is known to have psychedelic effects when consumed orally. In fact, peyote is a cactus plant that is native to Mexico and the southern United States. It has been used ritualistically and for medicinal purposes by the indigenous peoples of these areas for a long time.

Can ayahuasca make you crazy and is it safe?

Western travellers have been known to die at ceremonies where the brew has been administered. Although the circumstances surrounding such fatalities have not always been linked to the brew itself, these events can occur. That alone puts some people off. However, others report that they have thoroughly enjoyed their experience, had a pleasant trip and developed an altered state of consciousness which has been beneficial for them. In some cases, however, trips caused by the brew have led to unwanted paranoia, self-loathing and even panic attacks. In many cases, such side-effects wear off, but this is not the case for everyone. Like all hallucinogenic experiences, the effects differ, and some people have gone on to be diagnosed with severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, following their experiences. It is consequently not recommended for anyone with a pre-existing condition or during pregnancy.

Ayahuasca Summary

In summary, ayahuasca is a brew which has been around for many centuries and is a central part of the culture of many indigenous people in South America. It has gained popularity in the West mostly because of its association with psychedelia and the psychedelic culture that grew from the 1960s onwards, largely due to the availability of LSD. Nevertheless, unlike the many laboratory-created psychedelic drugs that have become available since then, this brew is different insofar as it is formed from natural ingredients. Most people who consume the brew will experience some form of hallucinogenic effect.

To understand this better, it is important to reiterate that the amount of ayahuasca consumed does not have a directly proportional effect on the person taking it. The strength or intensity of each brew is slightly different. Indeed, two people consuming the same brew could have very different experiences from it depending on the internal makeup of their brain and how naturally, or otherwise, they are predisposed to hallucinogens. This is why most people who take the brew will only do so after considerable preparation, including taking a diet that is conducive to the experience. Again, most people consume the beverage only under the guidance of an experienced individual – usually a shaman – who can control the amount consumed to suit individual reactions to it.

That said, there is little science behind the ayahuasca ceremonies that take place, and some people have suffered greatly from overexposure to the hallucinogenic effects of the brew. Caution should be the watchword of anyone who is considering taking the brew to enjoy its effects. This is especially the case for certain vulnerable people who may be more likely to suffer from potential side effects. It is also important to confirm whether or not the brew is legal to consume - or even own - in the place you intend taking it.

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