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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.


  1. What Is Ayahuasca?
  2. Effects Of Ayahuasca
  3. Botanical Information
  4. Ayahuasca Usage
  5. 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. For detailed information on Ayahuasca's components and their chemical compositions, click on the button below.

Chemistry of Ayahuasca

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.

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.

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.

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