What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an exceptional healing plant medicine, that has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, that is made from brewing two different plants found in the Amazon rainforest together. The term Ayahuasca refers both to the brew and to one of its ingredients the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteropsis Caapi or B. Caapi).
In Peru it is traditionally made by blending the Ayahuasca vine (B. Caapi) with one or more other plants containing N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT). The most common such DMT containing plant is the Psychotria viridis shrub, or Chakruna. The leaves of the Chakruna are added to the brew. In some parts of the Amazon, the root bark of the Mimosa Hostilis plant, known as Jurema, is used instead of Chakruna. Today, many different DMT containing plants can be substituted, including Acacia Confusa root bark or the leaves of the Huambisa plant, which is similar to Chakruna.
The power of the brew comes from the Ayahuasca vine, so these other plants are viewed as helper plants. In addition to these plants, some preparations will include a range of other plants. Thus, it is critically important to know what is in the Ayahuasca being consumed because the more plants are added, the more potential interactions need to be screened.
This endogenic brew is drunk at night, during a ceremony during which darkness and sounds combine to empower the healing properties of the brew.
The Science of Ayahuasca
We are still learning a lot about ayahuasca as there are lots of pieces to it and as such, there is still a lot of mystery around the biophysiology of the brew.
However, what we do know is that ayahuasca is comprised of several endogenic compounds (i.e. compounds naturally found in the body.) In the B. Capii plant, there is Harmine and Tetrahydroharmine (THH), and Harmaline which are all monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). The leaves or bark contain Dimethyltryptamine (DMT.)
MAOIs are enzymatic inhibitors which allow the normally broken down DMT to be digested and absorbed into our system. The DMT is responsible for the visions and is lovingly known as the Spirit Molecule.
Ayahuasca likely alters serotonin activity in brain areas that have been implicated in introspection and emotional processing. It is the DMT in the brew that 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; MAOIs were some of the original antidepressant drugs. Though in higher doses, the MAOIs likely also affect the elimination of DMT in the brain itself, which may explain why drinking just the Ayahuasca vine alone without added DMT can produce such a profound effect. And, it is worth pointing out that every living plant and animal produces DMT.
It’s been shown that Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) lead to permanent loss of receptors in the brain. This is why SSRIs will usually include a warning that usage causes permanent brain damage. Recent studies have shown that Ayahuasca can actually help to regrow damaged receptor sites. This might explain Ayahuasca’s ability to permanently heal depression in some people with a history of SSRI usage.
The LD50 of ayahuasca is about half a gallon. This is the dosage at which 50% of a given population would be killed. In fact, studies to establish the LD50 failed so the amount was estimated. This toxicity is on par with water, which is also lethal in high doses.
There are no addictive or dependent properties. And in fact, it has been shown to reverse and treat addictions, depression, and PTSD.
Why use Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug like alcohol. When taking a recreational drug, we generally feel good when we take it and generally pay the price after with some sort of hangover. Ayahuasca is the opposite. Pretty soon after taking Ayahuasca, most people experience intense phycological and physical process(es) which are not usually pleasant. But after the experience is over, people often report feeling better than before. In other words, with Ayahuasca you have your hangover first, then reap the benefits after.
So then why do ayahuasca? Like going to a therapist, or yoga, the workout doesn’t feel good, but it feels good after. We do the work to improve and reap the benefits after.
In modern Western society, we lack opportunities to enter into transcendental states or otherwise alter our consciousness. This is not the norm, despite what social programming may tell us. Most indigenous cultures have or had at least one way to alter their conciseness as a ritual, often done regularly. It seems to be an innate common human need to alter our consciousness, gain new perspectives, and to get in tough with the non-material world.
We have some great videos that dive further into this on our resources page.
Risks of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca has been found to be fundamentally safe by a large number of scientific studies (for example McKenna, 2004; Gable, 2007; Bouso & Riba, 2011; Barbosa et al., 2012; dos Santos, 2013a and b). The only major risk is when you mix drugs with the medicine.
Further certain circumstances in which it should either not be used, or be used with care. Examples include if you: have a serious cardiovascular condition; a personal or family history of psychiatric disorders; are taking certain medicines (including herbal medicines), or have recently been eating certain foods.
Therefore, it is necessary for everyone wishing to work with these medicines to stop taking all forms of medications (over the counter or prescription), drugs (legal and illegal), supplements of all types, and vitamins prior to the ceremonies. For most medications, it is sufficient to stop taking them one week prior. However, for anti-depressants and any other drug that has a warning label about contraindicated use with MAOIs, it is necessary to stop taking these medications at least one month prior to the ceremonies. Those people who are taking anti-depressants (and other medications) should discontinue their use under the guidance of the doctor who prescribed them.
The following are drugs that you should absolutely never mix with the medicine.
Ayahuasca affects both serotonin and monoamine oxidase levels. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, should be avoided before working with Ayahuasca to avoid potentially dangerous adverse reactions.
The MAOIs found in Ayahuasca 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, or otherwise ensure that these compounds have fully washed out of one’s system.
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)
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