Ayahuasca Effects, Dangers, and Treatment

Ayahuasca is a drug that has been used for spiritual and religious reasons across Central and South America for centuries. It has seen an uptake in popularity due to drug tourism in the past decade. There are several risks inherent in doing ayahuasca.
Evidence Based
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What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea from South America. The Amazonian people have used it for religious and spiritual purposes for hundreds of years. Ayahuasca is a combination of the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. Shamans, or spiritual leaders, may add other ingredients to the brew to tailor the experience.

Psychotria viridis contains the primary psychoactive ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Banisteriopsis caapi contains several alkaloids that act as MAOIs (MOA inhibitors). MAOIs are necessary for the DMT to be activated when consumed orally.

Ayahuasca has increased in popularity in recent years due to several prominent writers. These include:

  • Isabelle Allende
  • Wade Davis
  • Martin Goodman
  • Steven Peck
  • Robin Quivers

Several other notable figures have brought attention to the drug throughout the years, including Richard Evans Schultes, William Burroughs, Claudio Narajo, and Dennis McKenna.

Central and South Americans have formed several modern religious movements with the use of ayahuasca at the center of them. The most popular are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal. These religions usually integrate the ayahuasca experience with Christianity. However, animistic or shamanistic religions are not uncommon. In some cases, Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazonian rainforest to curate ayahuasca retreats aimed at healing mental or physical illness. These retreats also allow people to communicate with spirits.

In 1970, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act classified DMT as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs have no medicinal value, are likely to be abused by users, and are highly illegal.

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Ayahuasca Experience

Users begin to feel the effects of ayahuasca approximately 20 to 60 minutes after consumption. The 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 for hours. In contrast, those who inject DMT directly into the bloodstream may experience a short loss of self-awareness and feel like they “left” this plane of existence.

In most cases, undergo an “ayahuasca ceremony” led by a shaman. This typically lasts for an entire night and is accompanied by a purge that includes vomiting and diarrhea, believed to release pent up energy and unexpressed emotions.

Many users have described a similar set of experiences that has come to be known as the “transcendental circle.”

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Ayahuasca Effects

Around 30 minutes after ingestion, they begin to notice changes in perception, along with trembling or shaking. Users report an increase in vulnerability and ease of influence during this stage.

Following this, psychological defenses are lowered. Users may experience intense feelings of confusion, paranoia, and fear. They will often re-experience traumatic memories and report gaining new insights into personal matters. This state often induces terror and culminates in an intense vomiting session.

After the vomiting session, people report an abrupt shift into an “expanded” state of consciousness. Here, the user experiences an alteration in their perception of time. Many report a transcendental state of mind, where they encounter spirits or higher powers. Other feelings include:

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

Approximately three to four hours after ingestion, all of these effects begin to fade. People are completely drained of energy and need a long period of rest to recover from their experience

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Ayahuasca Side Effects and Risk Factors

Nearly all users of ayahuasca will experience intense vomiting and diarrhea. This is considered a part of the ceremony. There are few negative short or long term effects of ayahuasca. However, people with a family history of any psychotic illness or nonpsychotic mania are advised against using the drug, as it may increase the chance of psychotic episodes.

There have been approximately 8 deaths at ayahuasca retreats reported in the last decade. The causes of death are often unable to be confirmed. However, many people believe that the mixing of ayahuasca with certain pharmaceutical drugs, especially ones that cause an increase in norepinephrine, can be lethally dangerous.

Deaths are often blamed on poor shamanistic supervision. People wander off, or have negative reactions and may hurt each other during the ceremony. Another risk factor is that many shamans have their own personal brew of ayahuasca. It may contain several unknown ingredients, making it impossible to know exactly how an individual will react to the brew.

Is Ayahuasca Addictive?

Ayahuasca is not considered addictive. It does not induce the withdrawal symptoms or drug-seeking behavior associated with addiction symptoms.

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Addiction Treatment

Some people believe that ayahuasca may be an effective treatment for social or mental disorders, addiction, and a useful tool in psychotherapy. However, the few medical studies of the drug have been inconclusive, and it is still considered highly illegal and dangerous. Especially due to the remote places and social settings in which most users consume the drug.

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

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Dos Santos, Rafael G., et al. “Ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine, and Psychosis: A Systematic Review of Human Studies.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, Apr. 2017, pp. 141–157

Barbosa, Paulo Cesar Ribeiro, et al. “Health Status of Ayahuasca Users.” Drug Testing and Analysis, vol. 4, no. 7-8, 2012, pp. 601–609

Riba, Jordi, et al. “Human Pharmacology of Ayahuasca: Subjective and Cardiovascular Effects, Monoamine Metabolite Excretion, and Pharmacokinetics.” Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, vol. 306, no. 1, 2003, pp. 73–83., http://jpet.aspetjournals.org/content/306/1/73/

Hamill, Jonathan et al. “Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness.” Current neuropharmacology vol. 17,2 (2019): 108-128

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Updated on: June 24, 2020
Michael Bayba
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Medically Reviewed: March 7, 2020
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Annamarie Coy

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