Ayahuasca is a South American entheogenic brew made out of a vine, shrub and sometimes other ingredients native to the Amazon Rainforest.
The brew is known for its intense psychoactive properties and is used as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies amongst the indigenous people of the Amazon basin.
Ayahuasca ceremonies have also become popular with tourists from all over the globe looking to expand their horizons and treat mental various health conditions through life-changing trips.
In recent years scientists have begun to study Ayahuasca in an attempt to understand how the brew can be best utilised in western medicine.
Unfortunately, Ayahuasca is illegal in the UK as it contains DMT, a Schedule one controlled substance in the UK. Drugs in schedule one are considered by the government to have no medicinal value.
However, the UK’s first clinical trial using DMT has been approved by regulators and is due to take place at Imperial College London.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca (also known as the tea, the vine, and le purga) is a brew that mainly consists of the Psychotria Viridis shrub and Banisteriopsis Caapi vine – though sometimes other plants and substances are added.
Both Psychotria Viridis shrub and Banisteriopsis Caapi have hallucinogenic properties. Psychotria Viridis contains DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic chemical.
However, it has low bioavailability meaning its hallucinogenic properties are weaker when taken alone. In order to get the full effects from DMT, it must be combined with something known as a MAO inhibitor (MAOI) which allows the DMT to take full effect.
Banisteriopsis Caapi contains potent MAOIs meaning that when the two plants are combined, they form a powerful psychedelic brew which is capable of causing an altered state of consciousness leading to hallucinations, out of body experiences and euphoria.
For centuries, the drink has been used for spiritual and religious ceremonies amongst Amazonian tribes.
During these ceremonies, an experienced healer known as a shaman leads the event. The shaman will prepare the brew by boiling the leaves, stalks and vines of the plants.
Once the brew has been reduced to the shaman’s liking, the water is removed and reserved. This process is repeated several times until a highly concentrated liquid is produced. The liquid is then strained to remove impurities before consuming.
How is Ayahuasca taken?
Although Ayahuasca was traditionally used for religious and spiritual purposes amongst Amazonian populations, over recent years it has become popular amongst anyone wishing to open their minds, heal from past traumas or simply experience an out of world experience.
To experience Ayahuasca, many people travel to Latin American countries such as Peru, Brazil and Costa Rica where multi-day retreats are offered. Legitimate retreats are run by experienced Shamans whose job is to keep you safe whilst your mind is an altered state of consciousness. Many high-end retreats also have medics and psychologists on site for additional support.
Shamans usually recommend you abstain from cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sex and caffeine in the weeks leading up to the retreat in order to purify the body. It is also recommended to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet beforehand. This is claimed to free the body of toxins.
The Ayahuasca ceremony and experience
Traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies are mainly held at night. Firstly, the space is prepared and blessed by the Shaman, then the Ayahuasca is offered around to the participants. The ceremony lasts until the effects wear off.
The effects of Ayahuasca are usually felt within an hour. The duration of the trip can vary depending on the dose; however, they typically last between 2-6 hours.
Common effects can include euphoria, strong visual and auditory hallucinations, diarrhoea, vomiting, fear and paranoia. Vomiting and diarrhoea are seen as a positive effect and a normal part of the cleansing experience.
Experiences will vary depending on the individual. It’s not uncommon for people to experience a full range of emotions from extreme fear to extreme euphoria. Taking Ayahuasca on different nights will result in different trips.
The benefits of Ayahuasca
There are countless individual reports that Ayahuasca trips have led to positive, life-altering, long term changes and new research is emerging all the time to support this.
It is believed that these positive changes are the result of new neurological system activity which happens when one consumes Ayahuasca. Keep reading to find out the key benefits that may result from an Ayahuasca trip.
- May help treat anxiety, depression, PTSD and addiction disorders
Several studies have shown that Ayahuasca can assist in treating a variety of mental health disorders. For example, a review of 6 studies concluded Ayahuasca is beneficial for treating depression, mood disorders, anxiety and drug dependence.
In one particular study, ratings of depression and stress were significantly reduced immediately after consuming Ayahuasca and these effects were still significant 4 weeks following.
Another study found people with severe psychological and behavioral issues related to substance abuse benefitted massively from a 4-day Ayahuasca based treatment program.
After a 6 month follow up, participants demonstrated significant improvements in mindfulness, hopefulness, empowerment, and overall quality of life.
- Psychological wellbeing
A handful of studies have demonstrated that taking Ayahuasca may increase mindfulness capacity which in turn improves your overall psychological wellbeing. It is thought that this is due to the impact DMT has on the neurological system.
For example, one study found that consuming Ayahuasca once weekly for 4 weeks was equally as effective as taking an 8-week intensive mindfulness program.
- Brain health
Several studies have shown DMT and β-carbolines (the main active ingredients in Ayahuasca) to exhibit neuroprotective and neurorestorative qualities.
For example, a test-tube study indicated that DMT protected human brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen and increased cell survival. In addition to this, β-carbolines have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and memory boosting effects in animal and test-tube studies.
Potential side effects
It is important to understand that Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogenic drug which should only be taken with the guidance of a qualified professional such as a Shaman or medical professional.
After taking Ayahuasca you will likely experience some unwanted side effects such as diarrhea and vomiting – even though these are considered normal and will pass, they can feel distressing at the time.
There are certain groups that should refrain from taking Ayahusuca. For example, Ayahuasca can interact dangerously with many medications such as psychiatric, cough, Parkinson’s disease and weight loss medications. It is therefore advised that people taking such medications avoid Ayahuasca all together.
Furthermore, if you suffer from a psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia it is advised you don’t take Ayahuasca, as taking it could worsen your symptoms and result in mania.
Individuals with heart conditions should also refrain from Ayahuasca due to the possibility of short-term elevated blood pressure levels.
Several deaths have been reported due to Ayahuasca consumption, however it’s likely that these were due to the addition of harmful ingredients or excessively large doses. No-one has ever died from Ayahuasca consumption in clinical settings suggesting that when under experienced guidance, Ayahuasca is a relatively safe drug.
One of the biggest issues is finding a reliable and experienced shaman. Only visit a retreat with an established, positive reputation and avoid new or lesser-known retreats. Many retreats now have trained medical professionals on-site in case of an emergency.
Is Ayahuasca legal in the UK?
Unfortunately Ayahuasca is not legal in the UK. The main active substance in Ayahuasca is DMT, which is a Class A Drug in the UK and is therefore illegal to distribute or possess.
However, there is some weight to the argument that religious use is protected by both International and European human rights conventions.
This is presumably why UK members of Santo Daime Church – a Brazilian religious group that use Ayahuasca as an integral part of their worship – had charges of possession and distribution dropped after being found with gallons of the DMT-rich brew.
In conclusion, the scientific evidence looks promising and suggests there are many health benefits associated with Ayahuasca consumption.
While it is still illegal in UK government, research is underway to help scientists fully understand and utilise the benefits of Ayahuasca.