Ayahuasca: An Overview
Ayahuasca is getting a lot of attention lately. A google search revealed no less than 33 podcasts related to the topic. Throw in people like Aaron Rogers discussing their experience with it and its popularity as a trending topic explodes.
However, just because it has recently become a headline story doesn’t mean it’s anything new. Ayahuasca use can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
So, what exactly is ayahuasca and why in this modern era are growing numbers of people traipsing through the jungle to participate in ayahuasca retreats?
Little is known about the exact beginnings of ayahuasca use. Indigenous people throughout the upper Amazon (Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil) have been using ayahuasca for somewhere between several hundred years and perhaps as far back as 2500 years.
According to the Temple of the Way of Light website (one of the better known and more well respected ayahuasca temples), “In an indigenous context, ayahuasca was used by the shamans of the Amazon region for healing and divinatory purposes. Complex rituals surround the preparation and use of ayahuasca that have been passed down through generations of healers. By holding healing ceremonies, they use the medicine as a diagnostic tool to discover the roots of illnesses in their patients.”
What is ayahuasca?
Interestingly, ayahuasca is not a plant, but a recipe made from two different plant species. Portions of the liana vine (Banisteriopis caapi) and leaves of the chacruna bush (Psychotria viridis) are boiled together until the contents become a brown syrup.
Though psychoactive drugs found in nature are common, ayahuasca is unique in that it requires two separate plants to achieve its psychoactive properties. Even more fascinating to consider that rather being stumbled upon, this was sought out.
Ayahuasca effects on the body and the brain
Ayahuasca ‘brew’ is consumed orally and apparently has a foul smell and taste. Most people who consume it will vomit, or at the very least experience nausea.
Approximately 20-60 minutes after consumption hallucinations begin, lasting between 2-5 hours. People experience these hallucinations in a range of ways, some positive, some negative, some enlightening.
The hallucinations are produced by dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the chacruna leaves. However, since it is taken orally the DMT would normally be broken down in the digestive tract. The liana vine contains harmaline which is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. So, when the two plants are combined to make ayahuasca, the harmaline allows the DMT to escape being broken down in the gut and reach the brain.
Potential benefits of taking ayahuasca
Proponents of psychedelics (MDMA, psilocybin, ketamine, ayahuasca) believe that there is a transformative power in being removed from your “I” perspective, which is how most of us perceive our reality. Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, states “psychedelics displace that, and we see that we are part of something enormously bigger…when you are no longer looking at things from the perspective of “I”, you feel a newly released potential and sense of connection.”
Renowned psychiatrist Gabor Mate stated that he has developed a “reverence” for the potentials that stem from the synergistic power of psychedelics and their capacity to assist people grappling with a trove of maladies from the minor to the severe.
Even much of the medical community is embracing the “renaissance” of psychedelic medicine. Several emerging studies have shown that taking ayahuasca may improve overall brain health.
Risks of taking ayahuasca
There is no such thing as drug, be it found in nature or developed in a laboratory that is a panacea, or without risk. Nothing works for everyone. Even the biggest proponents acknowledge the limitations and potential downsides.
Ayahuasca is not meant to be something to taken recreationally and much of the value is said to be achieved when taken as a therapeutic use, which includes proper setting, guidance, and intention setting. In The Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate stated, “absent these conditions the use of psychedelics can lead to a Sorcerer’s Apprentice nightmare scenario.”
Although vomiting, diarrhea and paranoia can be a normal part of the experience, some people find these experiences to be highly distressing and there is no guarantee of a positive, meaningful experience.
People with a history of certain psychiatric diagnoses are generally advised to avoid ayahuasca as it can lead to mania in vulnerable persons. There are numerous drugs that should not be taken in conjunction with Ayahuasca, which include most psychiatric medications. The Temple of Way of Light has a list of medications, drugs, and herbal supplements that must be stopped ahead of time that is close to nine pages long. This means that to safely participate, one may need to cease taking medication which may pose risks and dangers.
It is advised to consult with your doctor before stopping any medications for any reason. Pregnant women, those with tuberculosis and anyone with a heart condition or high blood pressure should not take ayahuasca.
Note: anyone considering consuming ayahuasca should consult with their physician; the considerations above are not exhaustive and do not constitute medical advice.
Ayahuasca ceremonies are conducted by a Shaman and generally occur at night. Adequately staffed retreats will employ enough people so that everyone has a guide for the duration of the experience. Generally temple staff will be people native to the region, and the more venerated facilities work closely to honor traditional ways, while supporting the wide ranging clientele they receive.
Some retreats are considered more tourist destinations, rather than temples offering meaningful and safe experiences.
Any retreat experience should have safety precautions and measures outlined and in writing, with information provided on how emergencies will be handled.
Generally ayahuasca ceremonies are carried out several times during the course of the stay in the evenings with time for reflection and integration during the day. The ceremonies tend to be steeped in rituals relevant to the locale and native people and have guidelines around noise or physical contact with other guests. Respectable places will be focused on compassion, safety, and helping guide guests to a meaningful experience.
Things to consider when choosing a retreat
While both research and endorsements of prominent figures regarding ayahuasca is promising, nothing ‘cures’ everything and nothing is right for anyone. Additionally, ayahuasca retreats are costly and time intensive and logistically are not accessible to everyone.
These are just general considerations. If you are intending to attend a retreat, think about your needs and concerns which may likely extend beyond this list.
1. Legality: Since ayahuasca contains DMT which is considered a schedule 1 drug, ayahuasca is not legal in the US. The general advice on this is to travel to a place where the drug is legal. It’s not a great start to have a healer operating on the DL.
2. Safety: select a provider with in-depth screenings regarding your medical and psychological history and needs. This may cost more, but your health and wellbeing are worth it.
3. Group size: some retreats are smaller; some serve close to 100 people at a time. Ask about staff to guest ratios and consider your comfort level.
4. Length of stay: the general recommendation is to attend somewhere that offers retreats that are at least a week. This allows time to titrate dosage amounts, build some connections and work through insights.
5. Security: a reputable establishment should have some level of security to protect guests who are vulnerable while under the influence of ayahuasca.
6. Reputation: do some digging. Look for places that hire locals, respects tradition and gives back to their community. Bonus if the facility is connected to reputable research projects.
Support if you need it
If you are struggling and need support, Substance Use Therapy is here. And no…we don’t have any ayahuasca.
Linden, D.J. (2011) The Compass of Pleasure. Penguin Books.
Mate, G. (2022). The Myth of Normal. Avery, New York.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples, and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute consultation.