Updated on February 6, 2024
5 min read

The Risks and Benefits of Ayahuasca

Key Takeaways

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea made from the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in South America. It’s native to the Amazon Basin and grows in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. The Amazonians have used it for centuries for religious and spiritual purposes.

The word “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua language, spoken in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru."Aya" translates to soul or ancestors, and "wasca" or "huasca" means vine or rope. The loose translation is "vine of the soul."

What Does Ayahuasca Do?

Ayahuasca's hallucinogenic effects are stronger than other psychoactive drugs. A dedicated shaman leads the intense psychedelic experience, guiding people through their transformative journey.

Ayahuasca is a combination of the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis (chacruna) shrub. Shamans, or spiritual leaders, may add other ingredients to the ayahuasca brew to tailor the experience.

P. viridis contains the primary psychoactive ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The B. caapi vine contains several beta-carboline alkaloids, such as harmine and harmaline.

These act as MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). MAOIs facilitate the activation of DMT when you consume them orally.

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What are The Risks of Ayahuasca Use?

Ayahuasca isn’t considered addictive since it doesn’t induce withdrawal or drug-seeking behaviors from typical addiction symptoms. However, it does come with other potential risks and adverse effects. These include:

Physical Reactions

Nearly all users of ayahuasca will experience intense vomiting and diarrhea. Most consider this a part of the ceremony. However, anyone with an existing heart condition is at high risk when using ayahuasca.

Like most psychoactive substances, it increases your heart rate and blood pressure.

Mental and Psychological Risks

People with a family history of psychotic illness or nonpsychotic mania should avoid the ayahuasca vine and other psychedelic drugs. Doing so may trigger psychotic episodes.

Variable Brew Ingredients

Another risk factor is that many shamans have their personal brew of ayahuasca. These brews can contain unknown ingredients, making users react to them unpredictably.

Many people believe that mixing ayahuasca with certain pharmaceutical drugs can be lethal. This is particularly true for substances that raise norepinephrine levels.

Poor Shamanistic Supervision

Besides certain drug interactions, others also blame poor shamanistic supervision. Some people tend to stray or experience adverse reactions that can potentially lead to harm during the ceremony.

Approximately eight deaths at ayahuasca retreats have been reported in the last decade. Their exact causes remain unconfirmed.

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Is Ayahuasca Effective for Addiction Treatment?

Some believe that ayahuasca may effectively treat social or mental disorders and addiction. It can also be a valuable tool in psychotherapy to improve your mental health and overall well-being. 

The few medical studies of the drug have been inconclusive, which puts consuming ayahuasca as highly illegal and dangerous. This is particularly concerning because most users consume the drug in isolated areas and social environments.

If you or a loved one are suffering from substance abuse disorder, the best action is to seek help immediately and review professional treatment options.

What is the Ayahuasca Experience?

Users begin to feel the psychoactive effects approximately 20 to 60 minutes after consuming the ayahuasca tea. The psychedelic effects are dose-dependent. However, full effects last for one to two hours and usually end after four to six hours.

Ayahuasca users typically experience intense alterations to their reality (or ayahuasca trip) for hours. In contrast, those who inject DMT directly into the bloodstream may experience a short loss of self-awareness. They also feel like they “left” this plane of existence.

Users often undergo an “ayahuasca ceremony” under a shaman's guidance. This all-nighter involves vomiting and diarrhea, freeing you from pent-up energy and unexpressed emotions.

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What are Ayahuasca’s Effects?

Around 30 minutes after ingestion, you begin to notice changes in perception and trembling or shaking. Other users report an increase in vulnerability and susceptibility during this stage.

Following this, your psychological defenses lower. You may also experience confusion, paranoia, and fear.

Some users report revisiting traumatic memories and gaining new insights into personal matters. This state often induces terror and triggers an intense vomiting episode.

Transcendental Experiences and Aftermath

After the vomiting session, you’ll experience an abrupt shift into an “expanded” state of consciousness. Here, you undergo an alteration in time perception. 

Many say they experience a transcendental state of mind where they encounter spirits or higher powers. Other feelings include:

  • Oneness
  • Peace
  • Ecstasy
  • Insights into life after death

Ayahuasca's effects gradually diminish after approximately 3 to 4 hours of taking it. You will feel completely depleted of energy and require substantial rest to recuperate from the experience.

Religious and Therapeutic Usage

Ayahuasca is the centerpiece of modern religious movements among indigenous communities across Central and South America. The most popular are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal.

These religions usually integrate the ayahuasca experience with Christianity. However, animistic or shamanistic beliefs aren’t uncommon.

In some cases, Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazonian rainforest for ayahuasca retreats to heal mental or physical illnesses. Tourists from the United States, UK, and other countries often seek these retreats in the Colombian, Peruvian, or Brazilian rainforests. These retreats reportedly allow people to communicate with spirits.

The U.S. Controlled Substances Act classified DMT as a Schedule I drug in 1970. Schedule I drugs have no medicinal value, carry a high potential for abuse, and are highly illegal.

User Experiences and Health Benefits

In one survey, users suggested that ayahuasca had a more powerful effect than magic mushrooms.11 However, they also stated that its adverse effects were more potent.

Users rated ayahuasca’s comedown as better than that of magic mushrooms. Ayahuasca users also described a lesser urge for repeat use than magic mushroom users.

It’s essential to note that ayahuasca’s potential health benefits occur from the effects of its active ingredients. Because magic mushrooms have different active ingredients, they may not offer the same benefits for brain health and well-being.

Summary

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic substance from the ayahuasca vine and other plants containing DMT and beta-carbolines. It has a few alleged potential health benefits, such as enhanced mindfulness and relief from PTSD.

However, ayahuasca consumption also carries risks like physical reactions and mental and psychological issues. Speak with a medical professional before attempting any form of ayahuasca treatment. Ayahuasca remains risky, so it’s essential to proceed cautiously.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
11 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Dos Santos et al. “Ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine, and Psychosis: A Systematic Review of Human Studies.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 2017.

  2. Barbosa et al. “Health Status of Ayahuasca Users.” Drug Testing and Analysis, 2012.

  3. Dos Santos et al. “Ayahuasca: what mental health professionals need to know.” University of São Paulo (FMRP-USP), 2017.

  4. Hamill et al. “Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness.” Current Neuropharmacology, 2019.

  5. Szabo et al. “The Endogenous Hallucinogen and Trace Amine N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) Displays Potent Protective Effects against Hypoxia via Sigma-1 Receptor Activation in Human Primary iPSC-Derived Cortical Neurons and Microglia-Like Immune Cells.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2016.

  6. Soler et al. “Four Weekly Ayahuasca Sessions Lead to Increases in "Acceptance" Capacities: A Comparison Study With a Standard 8-Week Mindfulness Training Program.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2018.

  7. Morales-García et al. “The alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi, the plant source of the Amazonian hallucinogen Ayahuasca, stimulate adult neurogenesis in vitro.” Scientific Reports, 2017.

  8. Inserra, A. “Hypothesis: The Psychedelic Ayahuasca Heals Traumatic Memories via a Sigma 1 Receptor-Mediated Epigenetic-Mnemonic Process.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2018.

  9. Thomas et al. “Ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: results from a preliminary observational study in Canada.” Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2013.

  10. Zeifman et al. “The Impact of Ayahuasca on Suicidality: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial.” Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2019.

  11. Lawn et al. “Well-being, problematic alcohol consumption and acute subjective drug effects in past-year ayahuasca users: a large, international, self-selecting online survey.” Scientific Reports, 2017.

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