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Ayahuasca: Everything You Need To Know

Get to know the Ayahuasca basics! This article covers everything from botanical info and chemistry, to the history and usage of the psychedelic brew Ayahuasca.

Contents:

  1. What Is Ayahuasca?
  2. Effects Of Ayahuasca
  3. Chemistry Of Ayahuasca
  4. Botanical Information
  5. What Are Ayahuasca Analogues?
  6. Ayahuasca Usage
  7. History of Ayahuasca

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is an entheogenic cocktail made from sections of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and leaves of several other plants (e.g. Psychotria Viridis or Jurema Preta). This brew contains the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid DMT and a MAO inhibitor (Harmaline, Harmine or d-Tetrahydroharmine). The effectiveness of this brew fluctuates dramatically from one lot to the other. The potency, strength and psychoactive effect highly depends on the skill of the shaman and the used ingredients.

It is remarkable that oral doses of those plant substances by themselves would normally not be psychoactive. It is said that Harmine/Harmaline causes hallucinations at highly toxic levels, but taken in lower doses its best effect is tranquillizing (its worst is that it can act as an emetic).

The oral intake of any quantity of DMT will only result in one of the most profound mind-altering experiences if a MAO inhibitor (the Harmala alkaloids in the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine) is added - and that is precisely how Ayahuasca works.

Amazonian Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Western Brazil and certain regions of the Río Orinoco basin are known as the areas where this drink is widely employed nowadays. The growth of organized syncretic religious movements such as Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (UDV) and Barquinia promote the use of Ayahuasca and it is rapidly gaining popularity throughout South America today.

Effects Of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, also commonly called Yagé is a hallucinogenic brew that has been used by the indigenous people in the Amazon region for centuries. It contains a combination of substances and induces both physical and mental effects. The effects come on after about 15 to 60 minutes after ingestion and remain present between 2-6 hours.

Physical Effects Of Ayahuasca

The physical effects Ayahuasca triggers, depends on the composition of the brew and the ingested dose. Normally, the user will first be hit by a wave of nausea which can cause him to vomit, some will even encounter a mild case of diarrhea - the indigenous folks consider this a cleansing effect to reach a state of purity before one meets the spirits or gods of nature. In addition, any parasites, such as worms, are rinsed out of the body which frees the body from any distractions of the "old" reality and the body can absorb the active substances more readily.

The nausea is not an inevitable evil, it has been observed that most cultures use a special diet to diminish the effect. Other caused physical effects could be a slight humming in the ear, tremors, cold flashes, intense sweating, swindle and a slight increase of the blood pressure and pace of heartbeat. There are no documented cases of a fatal overdose but allergic reactions to the substances can not be excluded. But as a rule of thumb, if you ingest an overdose of Ayahuasca, you will most likely simply black-out and ruin the experience, nothing else.

Continuous use of Ayahuasca is not known to cause long term effects on the mental health of the user and it is not known to be addictive. The one great concern in using Ayahuasca is the raising levels of Tyramine which can cause a hypertensive crisis, ending in a hemorrhagic stroke and rapture of an existing aneurysm or and myocardial infraction, which in result can cause the death of the user. But this is just theoretical and has never been documented. Aside from the theoretical danger, there are studies that shows that Ayahuasca may be a very good remedy for depression1 and addiction2.

Mental Effects Of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca contains powerful hallucinogenic alkaloids and induces the most profound of all psychedelic experiences. The use of different admixture plants modifies the effects, but the most affected sense during these psychedelic Ayahuasca experiences is vision. The experiences are described as dream-like sequences including the manifestation of spiritual (plant) helpers, demonic creatures, deities and all sorts of animals.

Some see sequences of floating fractals and geometrical patterns and/or experience the amazing feeling of flying, while others believe they can see things at a great distance and events in the future. The user literally experiences a totally different world than the cold hard reality he is used to and reaches a state of divinity in which he can visit unimaginable places such as paradise or hell. It is also possible to experience your own death. All those effects make it pretty plain to see why the Mestizos used Ayahuasca to separate the soul from the physical body for their spiritual and religious purposes.

Chemistry Of Ayahuasca

The main active biochemical substances in Banisteriopsis Caapi, Banisteriopsis Inebrians and other species of Banisteriopsis are: ß-Carboline alkaloids Harmine, Harmaline, Tetrahydroharmine, Harmol, Harmic acid, MethylesterHarmic Amide, Acetyl Norharmine, Harmine N-oxide, Harmalinic acid and Ketotetra-Hydronorharmine.

Banisteriopsis Caapi has a higher level of Tetrahydroharmine than Peganum Harmala (Syrian Rue) and certain species of Passiflora sp., which also contain Harmala alkaloids. This could be the reason for the more complete and longer lasting therapeutic effects genuine Ayahuasca provides compared to "analogue" preparations.

1. Banisteriopsis caapi

Banisteriopsis Caapi contains Harmine, Harmaline, Tetrahydroharmine, Harmol and 6-Methoxytryptamine.

The primary active compounds in Banisteriopsis caapi are the alkaloids Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahydroharmine. Both Harmine and Harmaline are highly reversible MAO inhibitors, whereas Tetrahydroharmine is a weak Serotonine (5-Hydroxytryptamine) uptake inhibitor.

Harmine

The crystalline harmala alkaloid Harmine reversibly inhibits monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) but has no effect on MAO-B. When Harmine was first discovered it was named "Telephatine", but that name was quickly discarded when scientists discovered that the same alkaloid had already been obtained from Peganum harmala. MAO inhibitors, such as Harmine prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters by inhibiting the action of MAO enzymes, which would normally degrade DMT and prevent it to pass through the blood-brain barrier.

Ayahuasca_Harmine

Harmaline

Harmaline is the reduced hydrogenated form of harmine and a reversible inhibitor of MAO-A. Harmaline is an alkaloid of the beta-carboline family that acts as a central nervous system stimulant.

Ayahuasca_Harmalin

Tetrahydroharmine

Tetrahydroharmine is a beta-carboline derivate and a weak serotonin uptake inhibitor, it does not inhibit monoamine oxidase A.

Tetrahydroharmine

Harmol

Harmol is a toxic beta-carboline indoleamine alkaloid (also found in Peganum harmala, Tribulus, Kallstroemia spp., Elaeagnus angustifolia and Passiflora incarnata).

Harmol

6-Methoxytryptamine

6-Methoxytryptamine is an indole of the tryptamine family.

6-Methoxytryptamine

2. Psychotria viridis and Psychotria carthaginensis

Psychotria viridis and Psychotria carthaginensis contain Dimethyltryptamine, Monomethyltryptamine and 2-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-ß-carboline.

Dimethyltryptamine

Dimethyltryptamine (abbreviated DMT, also found in Mimosa tenuiflora, Diplopterys cabrerana) is an endogenous chemical exerted by the body during sleep in the REM phase as well as when the body is under extreme stress (near death experience). DMT is structurally similar to Bufotenin, Serotonine and Psilocin and Psilocybin, the active chemicals in many magic mushrooms. It is a powerful hallucinogen more intense than LSD. DMT is orally inactive at reasonable doses and requires a monoamine oxidase inhibitor to pass the digestion system and to cross the blood-brain barrier. DMT was first synthesized in 1931 by Canadian chemist Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske.

DMT

Monomethyltryptamine

Monomethyltryptamine is a tryptamine alkaloid that has been found in the leaves, bark and shoots of numerous plants; it has also been found in the urine from autistic patients with mental retardation and epilepsy.

Ayahuasca_Methyltryptamine

2-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-ß-carboline

2-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-ß-carboline is a common substance in trace amounts in many plants with entheogenic tryptamines, including Mimosa hostilis and Phalaris spp.Ayahuasca_2-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-ß-carboline

3. Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga)

N-Methyltryptamine, 5-MeO-DMT (5-Methoxy-Dimethyltryptamine), Bufotenine and N-Methyltetrahydro-ß-carboline (Tetrahydroharman).

Diplopterys cabrerana contains the indole ethylamine alkaloid N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, an alkaloid with a similar structure to Serotonine. It binds to the 5-HT2 receptors and partially to the 5-HT2A receptors. DMT itself, when taken orally, does not show any effetcs, because the endogenous enzyme monoamine oxidase converts it into inactive aldehydes. The beta-carbolines in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine temporarily inhibit the production of this monoamine oxidase, which allows the DMT to reach the sensitive parts in the brain, such as the prefrontal, parietal and somatosensory cortex and the olfactory tubercle. Diplopterys cabrerana also contains N-Methyltryptamine, 5-MeO-DMT (5-Methoxy-Dimethyltryptamine), Bufotenine and N-Methyltetrahydro-ß-carboline, alkaloids that are barely found in Psychotria viridis (only traces).

N-Methyltryptamine

N-Methyltryptamine (abbreviated NMT) is a tryptamine alkaloid that has been found in the leaves, bark and shoots of numerous plants such as Virola, Acacia, Mimosa and Desmanthus and is a natural trace component in human urine. It is also endogenous; it is synthesized in the human body as a metabolic end-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. NMT appears to be orally inactive and does not produce psychoactive effects, most likely due to the extensive first-pass metabolism.

Ayahuasca_Methyltryptamine

5-MeO-DMT

5-MeO-DMT is a member of the tryptamines class and is a crystalline, white substance. Just like N-Methyltryptamine it is synthezised in the human body as a metabolic end-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. 5-MeO-DMT is a natural substance in some plants; it has been found in the resin of Virola, in the seeds of Mucuna pruriens, Yopo and in the secretions of some toads such as Colorado River Toad, Cane Toad. 5-MeO-DMT is usually smoked but can also be consumed nasally or intravenously.

5-MeO-DMT

Bufotenine

Bufotenine (derived from Bufo - Toad) is a hallucinogenic tryptamine alkaloid. Bufotenine is closely related to the human neurotransmitter Serotonine and is structurally similar to Psilocin, 5-MeO-DMT, and DMT. Bufotenine has first been found in the skin secretions of toads, but most notably in the secretions of the Colorado River Toad (Bufo alvarius). It has also been found in Anadenanthera colubrina and Anadenanthera peregrina.

Bufotenin

Ayahuasca: Warnings & Contraindications

Although it is quite possible to harm yourself when using Ayahuasca, there are only very few, if any, severe injuries or deaths associated with it. Ayahuasca contains a potentially hazardous component: A MAO inhibitor - a substance that inhibits a key enzyme in the body which is responsible for several processes in the body and brain. To prevent severe negative reactions to Ayahuasca it is recommended to find out how MAO inhibitors interact with prescribed medications and certain foods before using it.

MAO inhibitors must not be combined with any other drugs - the consequences can be much worse than unpleasant and in the worst case fatal.

Ayahuasca is a very strong psychedelic and can cause psychotic or neurotic episodes and changes in personality.

Ayahuasca can and most likely will have utterly negative side effects if taken in combination with anti-depressants and Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, such as Kanna.

Botanical Information

The active substances of Banisteriopsis Caapi, a South American jungle vine of the Malpighiaceae family, are found on the inside of the bark of freshly cut stems.

Phalaris Arundinacea is also known as Reed Canary Grass. The invasive, coarse looking, perennial plants commonly grow along the margins of lakes and streams and can reach a height of up to 2m, with blue-green leaf blades. The flowers develop on the stem, high above the leaves and look pink when the plant is in full flowering.

Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) grows from the Mediterranean to northern India, Mongolia, and Manchuria and is a member of the Zygophyllaceae family.

The evergreen tropical tree Psychotria Viridis is cultivated throughout northern South America and much of Central America, but its original homeland is the Amazonian lowlands. It prefers growing in full sun to half shade and has large (up to 9.44"; 24cm) oval leaves, with pointed tips. It usually grows in very rich and fertile soil, shedding its seeds from red berries.

Jurema Preta or Mimosa Hostilis, is a plant that can be found naturally growing in Brazil, with some of its roots growing above ground. The roots of the plant are fibrous and break easily, usually showing a beautiful pinkish color to the flesh.

What Are Ayahuasca Analogues?

Ayahuasca analogues (aka Anahuasca) are plant combinations that mimic the chemical mechanism of Ayahuasca, namely the MAOI-DMT interaction. The Banisteriopsis Caapi vine and the admixture plants are unique to the Amazonian rainforest, but their chemical mechanism can be re-created with a number of plants from other parts of the world.

In its basic form, Ayahuasca is a mixture of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine the and leaves of the Psychotria Viridis (Chacruna). Often, a range of other psychoactive plants is added to the brew. Using admixture plants requires knowledge and skill, so that the addition of other plants enhances the overall energy of the brew. As ayahuasca is often used for healing ceremonies, particular plants that support the healing process might be added by the „curandero“, the shaman.

The RIMAs: Reversible Inhibitor Of Monoamine Oxidase A

There is a misunderstanding about the MAOI effects of Ayahuasca. The underlying mechanisms that makes Ayahuasca orally active is the inhibition of the monoamine oxidase enzymes, generally referred to as MAOI. But in the case of ayahuasca, only MAO-A is inhibited, which makes it a RIMA, a Reversible inhibitor of monoamine oxidase A. RIMAs are in the family of MAOIs, but show more specific action than MAOIs, and in general are safer due to the unrestricted activity of MAO-B. Dietary restriction don‘t have to be followed as strictly as with MAOIs, although interaction with some prescription drugs can still be highly dangerous or even fatal.

The Ayahuasca MAOI Diet

Anahuasca & Pharmahuasca

Terence McKenna, a renowned psychonaut, advocate of heroic doses, lecturer and writer was very intrigued by the potency of Ayahuasca; but he considered the limited availability of Ayahuasca outside of the rainforest to be a great problem:

“Probably only a synthetic duplication of ayahuasca compounded with the correct percentage of DMT and beta-carbolines will ever make the experience available outside the area where it is endemic” (1989)

In retrospective, McKenna didn‘t see the widespread cultivation and global availability of Banisteriopsis Caapi coming. With sustainable Ayahuasca farms now appearing on the map, the brew has indeed become readily available outside its endemic area. Nonetheless, the quest for „ayahuasca duplicates“ led to interesting discoveries, namely the Anahuasca combination.

Syrian Rue & DMT Plants

The most common combination that mimics the action of ayahuasca is Syrian Rue and various sources of DMT, but most commonly Mimosy tenuiflora.

The psychoactive effects of Syrian rue have been known for centuries, and evidence points to early ritual use of the plant in the middle east. Prior to the discovery of harmala alkaloid in Ayahuasca, their presence was first observed in the Syrian rue. Besides Ayahuasca, Syrian rue is the most common MAOI containing plant, and is often used as a potentiator of other psychedelics, such as DMT.

Syrian rue seeds contain alkaloid concentrations in the range of 0.3 – 7%, which in some cases is considerably higher than the concentrations found in B. caapi. Whilst originally an exotic plant from Central Asia, Syrian rue can now be found growing in the wilds of Eurasia and the west cost of the USA.

There is a whole range of plants that contain DMT. The percentage varies largely, and when availability and other alkaloids are also taken into consideration, the selection narrows down to just a few that remain interesting. One of them is Mimosa Hostilis, which also has been used ritually for centuries. In the Amazon region, the root bark has been prepared into a beverage called „Jurema“, which already by itself is active. In fact, this activity of Jurema has casted doubt on the common theory of MAOI and DMT - because Mimosa does not contain any MAO inhibiting compounds. However, it could be that in fact it does contain yet undiscovered sources of MAOIs. This is still largely experimental and little research is available.

Pharmahuasca3 is a more controlled, pharmaceutical approach to taking ayahuasca. Instead of working with the raw plants, pure extracts of Harmala alkaloids and DMT are used. First, a capsule containing MAOIs is ingested, followed by a capsule of DMT.

Similar, But Different

The ayahuasca experience goes beyond simple chemistry, it involves a complex phytochemical composition and interaction that is still not very well understood. While the MAOI mechanism can be easily replicated, the spiritual energy of the Banisteriopsis Caapi remains unique. Plants carry more information than what can be chemically analysed, and the caapi vine is a very good example for a plant with a unique „spirit“, or essence. Many who have experienced both ayahuasca and analogues describe it as a different matter. While anahuasca certainly provides a full blown experience, the energy of trip is different.

A good way to look at it is through the tunnel and flashlight analogy. B. Caapi opens up a space - like a tunnel or dome - but not until the DMT brings light, it can be seen. For that matter, DMT acts like a flashlight, partially shedding light on a particular aspect of the caapi. Similarly, plants such as Syrian Rue will provide a different space.

Ayahuasca Usage

Modern Use Of Ayahuasca

Modern usage of Ayahuasca is controversely debated. Some people try Ayahuasca to simply test its trip - those people will most likely never use it again. A totally different - and more acceptable - approach is trying it in nature where the experimentee then seeks wisdom and answers from the plants he just ingested with his Ayahuasca brew. Even more than with magic mushrooms you will get the most of the experience with Ayahuasca the better you are prepared - prepared to get in touch with ancient gods and willing to open your gates of spirituality.

Traditional Use Of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years - many Indian tribes conduct rituals with singing and dancing - and is commonly used as a religious inauguration medium, a healing remedy, to trigger clairvoyance and to make astral journeys and to relax/meditate.

Ayahuasca plays a central role in the new Santo Daime church - a new cathlic spiritual movement in Brazil - and is particularly popular among poor Indians in the cities, who are encouraged to create new small religious communities.

Medical Use Of Ayahuasca

The specific healing aspects of Ayahuasca are not explored yet. In Peru for example, Ayahuasca is used by shamans for healing purposes - when they are in trance, they are able to trace the causes of a disease. So, Ayahuasca is used as a signpost to find the correct remedy for the ill.

History of Ayahuasca

Historic Ayahuasca Use Amongst Indiginous Tribes

Ayahuasca is the basis of traditional medicine practice for at least 75 different indigenous tribes across the Amazon region, but the history of Ayahuasca itself is relatively unknown. Due to a lack of data and evidence, no one can say where the preparation and use of the Ayahuasca brew originates, although several archaeological evidences such as pottery vessels, figurines, snuffing trays and tubes more or less indicate that plant hallucinogens have been used in the Ecuadorian Amazon since 1500 – 2000 B.C.

A ceremonial cup found in Ecuador which is believed to be well over 2,500 years old, contained traces of Ayahuasca. There are no written records from back then and it is suspected that the Spanish conquistadors who invaded the Amazon region in the 16th Century destroyed tons upon tons of books of the indigenous tribes because of the blasphemous content (just like they did with the Mayan literature).

Jesuits traveling the Amazon were the earliest Europeans to mention Ayahuasca and in a report dating back to 1737 it was described as an intoxicating potion, which is ingested to get in touch with the gods and other purposes and that it has the potential to unhitch one from all his senses and sometimes, even his life. Other early explorers also referred to Ayahuasca, Yagé and Caapi, but did not mention any details.

Establishing The Ayahuasca Recipe

In the 1850s, the English botanist Richard Spruce explored the Amazon region and described the sources and preparation of Ayahuasca and its effects upon himself. 1851, while he explored the upper Rio Negro, he observed that the Tukano Indians used Yagé and collected some samples of the Banisteriopsis which he then send home for chemical anlysis.

Two years later in Peru, he observed the use of Banisteriopsis two more times. In 1860 he encountered Banisteriopsis in use among the Guahibo Indians of Colombia and Venezuela and later the same year, he found it was used by the Záparo Indians in Peru. Watching how the "diabolical potion" was prepared, Spruce suspected that the admixture plants caused the psychedelic effcts of the brew and noted that Banisteria Caapi (the name of the species turned out to be wrong later; subsequent botanical studies showed that it actually belonged to the genus Banisteriopsis) was considered an active ingredient of Ayahuasca.

More than a century after he had sent samples of Banisteriopsis Caapi to England, the probes were finally examined in 1966 and were found to be still psychoactive. The discoveries of Richard Spruce were not published until 1873 and it took 35 more years before his notes would be published in full. Also in the 19th century, various ethnographers, botanists and explorers report on their encounters of the use of a divining brew prepared by various indigenous tribes in the Amazon region and mentioned the "roots" or "vines" used in this procedure, but they rarely collected specimen of the plants. But the fact that several diverse admixtures were being used for Ayahuasca was established.

Additional Early Research On Ayahuasca And Its Components

In 1905 and 1923 alkaloids were isolated from "Yagé" and both were called "telepathine"; a Colobian team obtained another alkaloid and named it Yageine. Yageine, Telepathine and Banisterine were ther names given to the alkaloids isolated between 1926 and 1928, but it turned out to be always the same alkaloid and that it was identical with Harmine, an alkaloid isolated from Peganum harmala in 1847. In 1939 it was established that the different terms Caapi, Yagé, and Ayahuasca were all different names for the same beverage and that the used source material was (nearly) identical; Banisteriopsis caapi or Banisteriopsis inebriens.

Richard Evans Schultes, later a professor at Harvard and author of many books, explored especially the Colombian Amazon from 1941 to 1953 and researched the plant knowledge of the Amazonian peoples. He observed the use importance of Ayahuasca brews in indigenous cultures in the Upper Amazon region and documented the use of over 2,000 medicinal plants, which gave him the title "father of modern ethnobotany."

He also documented and underpinned that the admixture plants varied greatly, whereas the use of Banisteriopsis caapi or one of its close relatives was the one constant in the brews. Schultes and his students published their initial findings on the DMT-containing admixture plants in the Ayahuasca brew in 1968 and 1969.

Ayahuasca Delivers DMT

In 1955, the potent, but short-acting hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) was obtained from these species; a surprise because DMT had been known as a synthetic since 1931. Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahydroharmine were isolated from Banisteriopsis caapi in 1957 and firmly established as the active alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi and its related species in 1965. The first detailed reports about the use of admixture plants as a frequent components of Ayahuasca began to emerge in the late 1960s.

In the 1980s, Luis Eduardo Luna worked among Mestizos of the Amazon region in Peru, near the cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa. Luna was the first to enunciate the importance of the strict diet, apprentice shamans had to follow, as well as the use of some of the rather unusual admixture plants. He also reported on the concept of "plant teachers," which is how many of the admixture plants are viewed by the Mestizos.

In 1984, Dennis McKenna (yes, the brother of Terrance McKenna, the guy who traveled the globe to explore the world of magic mushrooms) and others published the results of their ethnobotanical, chemical and pharmacological investigations, underpinning the theory that the active substance of Ayahuasca was DMT, which itself is orally inactive, was rendered orally active by the ß-carboline-mediated blockade of peripheral MAO.

In recent years, the brew has gained popularity in the Western world for recreational use after some reports on the hallucinogenic effects and scientific studies that affirmed that the ritualized use of the Ayahuasca brew may improve mental and physical health. In 2008, psychology professor Benny Shanon published a controversial hypothesis that in early Judaism they used a brew analogue to Ayahuasca and that the effects of this brew were responsible for some of the most significant events of Moses' life, including and particularly his vision of the burning bush talking to him.

External Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29903051
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23627784
  3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9f95/8be0924e28f2a2c25e13f7dceb03fc12aa78.pdf
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