How Ayahuasca Works: MAOI & DMT
2 min

How Ayahuasca Works: MAOI & DMT

2 min
Research Smartshop

Ever wanted to know what all the fuss surrounding ayahuasca was about? Here is a basic summary of what it is, and how it works.

Pyschonauts across the globe have been flocking to the Amazon rainforest to try the vine of the souls. The psychedelic substance in question is ayahuasca, a traditional Amazonian brew used in shamanic practices. Taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony has become so popular, that it is almost seen as trendy, especially for young adults and backpackers looking to immerse themselves in the many cultures and mind-blowing experiences of the world. But what is so special about ayahuasca?


Ayahuasca is not one substance, but a traditional shamanic brew created from at least two, but often multiple Amazonian plants. The main ingredient is the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which is brewed with the leaves of other plants, such as Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. Combining these creates an end product that contains both DMT and an MAO inhibitor – usually harmaline, harmine, or d-Tetrahydroharmine – which when ingested results in an experience not soon forgotten.

The actual effectiveness of ayahuasca can vary greatly batch to batch, and will largely depend on the quality of the ingredients used in the brew, as well as the skill of the shaman brewing it.


The potent experience that can be gained from ayahuasca is largely thanks to the combination of DMT and MAO inhibitors. Our bodies contain monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme that quickly responds to DMT and breaks it down – dramatically shortening the life span and reducing the potency of any DMT ingested. By combining DMT with MAO inhibitors, ayahuasca interferes with the function of these enzymes, preventing them from breaking down any DMT for a period of time. As you can imagine, this gives the DMT within ayahuasca plenty of time to work its magic.


The effect of ayahuasca is an intense and potent full-blown journey that lasts around 4-6 hours. It is often described as a vision; a dream-like sequence that can include the manifestation of spirits, animals, deities, demons and spiritual helpers. Some say they see the future, or things happening extremely far away. Others feel like they are flying, or that they are in a land of fractals and patterns. The user’s mind is taken out of this reality, and placed in another. With such a varied and powerful effect, it is no wonder that ayahuasca has been used for spiritual and religious purposes for hundreds of years.

Although the sought after effects of ayahuasca are visionary in nature, it also produces physical effects. When drunk, ayahuasca often causes the purge - vomiting and in some cases also diarrhoea. In the traditional use of ayahuasca, this is seen as a cleansing experience, and often the traveller is aware of specific traumas which underly the purge, and are thereby expelled. It can also cause tremors, cold flashes, sweating, increased heart rate, and variations blood pressure.

While generally safe, the only real concern in the physical effects of ayahuasca is the build of tyramine. Tyramine is a substance found in many foods that is broken down by MAO enzymes. However, as these are inhibited, tyramine cannot be properly dealt with. High levels of tyramine can cause a hypertensive crisis – although in the case of ayahuasca, this seems to be theoretical, as there has not been a documented case of such a reaction happening.

To find out ayahuasca in greater detail, check out our ayahuasca information page

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