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.
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What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea from South America. It is native to the Amazon Basin and is found in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. 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 (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). An MAO inhibitor is necessary for the DMT to be activated when consumed orally.

Ayahuasca's hallucinogenic effects are stronger than other hallucinogens. The intense psychedelic experience is led by a shaman that has dedicated their life to guiding people through the psychedelic experience.

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."

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.


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Central and South American indigenous people 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. Tourists from the United States, UK, and other countries often seek out these retreats in the Colombian, Peruvian, or Brazilian rainforests. 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 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 (known as an ayahuasca trip) 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, like most psychoactive substances it will increase your heart rate and blood pressure, so anyone with an existing heart condition is at high risk.

People with a family history of any psychotic illness or nonpsychotic mania are advised against using the ayahuasca vine, and other psychedelic drugs, as they 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 to improve your mental health and overall well-being. 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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Resources

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: September 10, 2020
Author
Michael Bayba
About
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Medically Reviewed: March 7, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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