When brewed, the jungle vines and leaves that make ayahuasca have strange powers, often described as mystical.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic compound – along the lines of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, though with different effects – that’s been used for thousands of years by shamans and communities in and around the Amazon rainforest. Some use the substance in healing ceremonies, meant to help people get past ailments of the body and mind. Other ceremonies are meant to aid communication with ancestors and other spirits.
Yet around the world, people are fascinated by the experience, which is often described as life-changing.
In recent years, enthusiasm for ayahuasca and its effects has spread from the indigenous roots of the substance and experimentation by curious backpackers to communities of tech workers in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn.
“It’s mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights,” Tim Ferriss, the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” told The New Yorker in 2016 for a feature about the jungle psychedelic’s exploding popularity in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, New York.
Ferriss said that the substance was harrowing and that it made him feel as if he were “being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours.” It also wiped away anger he’d held onto for decades, he said.
At the same time, a revival of scientific interest in psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin – and ayahuasca – is leading to a growing understanding of exactly what these substances do the body and especially the brain.
Here’s what we know so far.
Ayahuasca, also known as yagé, is made by brewing certain leaves and vines together. In Quechua, the name means “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul.”
The preparation involves the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and components of the Psychotria viridis plant.
When combined, the plant released the powerful hallucinogen DMT, and the vine releases compounds that cause the DMT effect to last for hours. Alone, DMT would just last about 20 minutes.
The most significant effects of DMT are feelings of being separated from the body, experiencing an unearthly environment, encountering mystical or otherworldly beings, having an altered perception of time, feeling peace and joy, and having heightened senses.
The physical effects of ayahuasca are often described as miserable, including serious vomiting, though they are temporary.
- REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil
Both DMT and ayahuasca can temporarily raise heart rate and increase blood pressure. Most users experience what is often described as a purging, which manifests as potentially intense vomiting and diarrhea.
But it’s the effects on the mind that are most fascinating.
Ayahuasca is considered a powerful psychedelic, and there’s always the risk that people have a scary experience on psychedelic substances. Potentially negative effects include anxiety and fear are associated with the hallucinations.
Many people report that their experiences with the drug are transformative, offering clarity and healing.
The writer William S. Burroughs traveled to South America to experience the drug, investigate its “telepathic properties,” and potentially treat addiction.
Certain people experience something like a near-death experience.
There are striking similarities between DMT trips and near-death experiences, which many people report are transformative, spiritually significant, and beneficial, according to a recently published study. Many say that they experience a sort of “death” on the drug, though this is often meant in a beneficial way.
Researchers and religious communities think ayahuasca may help treat depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.
In medical reviews, researchers have concluded that ayahuasca can help treat depression, and many use it to help treat substance use disorders, though more research on this is needed. Researchers don’t believe people develop any tolerance to DMT, indicating there’s not likely to be any risk of addiction.
From a neuroscientific and psychological perspective, ayahuasca seems to induce effects on the brain that are similar to meditation.
People who take ayahuasca show increases in openness and optimism. They also show reduced activity in parts of the brain associated with depression and anxiety, and potentially even a reduction in parts of the brain associated with those conditions. Researchers have seen a similar effect with other psychedelics, which is why it’s sometimes said that they “kill the ego,” increasing connection to the surrounding world.
Though the substance is generally considered safe, there are still some risks.
A study of poison control centers in the US concluded that most use seems to be safe and has “possible beneficial effects,” but there have been a tiny fraction of people that have experienced cardiac arrest or seizures. Because the vine has effects on seratonin, there may be dangerous side effects for people using certain antidepressant medications.
Ayahuasca seems to enhance creative thinking.
Small studies show enhancements to creative thinking and psychological flexibility for people who take ayahuasca, which could also increase its therapeutic potential.
It’s a fascinating substance, though one that researchers would like to learn more about.
Researchers think there’s good reason to be excited about the therapeutic possibilities of ayahuasca and other psychedelics. In the US, there’s even legal use, in the context of religious ceremonies. But much more research on how ayahuasca and other psychedelics work is needed.