What is Ayahuasca

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Written By Hossein Soltani

Ayahuasca is an ancient medicinal plant that has been used by the Amazonian tribes for centuries for spiritual and personal growth. It is also used as a medicine in traditional cultures because of its medicinal and healing properties. Ayahuasca is used as a laxative, hallucinogen, detoxifying agent, and deworming agent. Ayahuasca use is now spreading across the globe and clinical studies are being conducted to understand its role in neurophysiology, psychiatry, and neuropharmacology.

What is Ayahuasca?

The term Ayahuasca comes from Quechua language, which means ‘vine of the soul’. Ayahuasca is a beverage which produces hallucinogenic effects. It is reddish-brown in color and has a strong smell and taste. It is prepared by boiling or soaking the stems of a plant Banisteriopsis caapi. Sometimes, other plants are also added to enhance the psychoactive and psychedelic effects of the drink such as Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana.

Ayahuasca has been used traditionally by Shamanians for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. It has been used for diagnosing medical disorders, spiritual development, personal development, and healing from psychological problems. In the past few years, Ayahuasca has gained the attention of physicians and researchers because of its potential spiritual and therapeutic applications.

There are evidences that suggest that Ayahuasca can play a role in the treatment of behavioral disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, alcohol addiction, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dementia, as well as in other disorders such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and HIV.

History of Ayahuasca

The origin of Ayahuasca is relatively unknown because there is no documented evidence from the Amazonian tribes. A traditional cup discovered in Ecuador, which is believed to be more than 2,500 years old contained traces of Ayahuasca.

The history of Ayahuasca can be divided into three segments, starting with its prehistoric roots in Amazon Basin to its scientific discovery in the nineteenth century and leading up to the 21st century when Ayahuasca remains an active area of research.

Prehistoric Origin of Ayahuasca

For decades, modern minds have puzzled over the place and time of origin of Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca had spread among the numerous Amazonian tribes in the mid-nineteenth century when it grabbed the attention of Western historians and ethnographers.

There is abundant archaeological evidence which suggest that the use of psychotropic plants was well-established in the pre-Columbian cultures. Pottery vessels and snuffing tubes and trays found from Ecuadorian Amazon show that the tribes used some kind of plant hallucinogen in 1500-2000 B.C.

The discovery of Ayahuasca cannot be accidental. It is a drink that depends on its unique combination of bark of Banisteriopsis species and leaves of Psychotria species for its activity. This shows that Ayahuasca must have been invented at some point in pre-historical period.

Modern History of Ayahuasca

The modern history of Ayahuasca is traced back to 1851 when an English botanist Richard Spruce discovered the use of a stimulating drink in a Brazilian tribe. He collected samples of the source of the drink, which were later classified as Banisteriopsis caapi in 1931 by a taxonomist named Morton.

Few years later, Spruce found that the same plant species was being used for preparing narcotic drinks in Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Záparo, the South American ethnic group living along the border of Ecuador and Peru, called this psychedelic drink Ayahuasca. Richard published his findings in 1873 in his Amazon Explorations. A detailed version was later published in 1908 as ‘Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes.’

Ayahuasca in the Twentieth Century

The specimens collected by Richard Spruce and other explorers laid the groundwork for important work on the taxonomy and chemistry of Ayahuasca that took place in the twentieth century.

Early Twentieth Century (1900-1950)

Commendable work on taxonomy and chemistry of Ayahuasca was done in the first five decades of the twentieth century but no major pharmacological investigations were done except for a notable discovery by pharmacologist Kurt Beringer.

Morton was the first scientist to identify the species of Banisteriopsis used in the preparation of Ayahuasca. The most significant work was done by two chemists, Chen AL and Chen KK, who isolated the active components of different hallucinogenic drinks used at that time and identified their source plants.

In 1928, Lewin isolated a plant alkaloid that he named Banisterine. In the same year, Kurt Beringer tested banisterine in a clinical study to evaluate its effects on Parkinson’s patients. Results of the clinical study were dramatic, which further grew the interest of scientists in Ayahuasca. Later on, many other scientists isolated different alkaloids from other botanical samples and concluded that Ayahuasca contained many different alkaloids such as harmine, harmaline, tetrahydroharmine, and banisterine.

Mid Twentieth Century (1950-1980)

The components of Ayahuasca brew were first identified in 1969 and it was concluded that the brew contained at least two different species to enhance its psychotropic effects. In 1968, the alkaloids were surprisingly found to be similar in structure to the oral hallucinogen DMT.

The pharmacological effects of Ayahuasca were elaborated in the late 1960s when it was found that the psychotropic effects of Ayahuasca were enhanced due to synergism between β-carbolines of Banisteriopsis species and DMT.

Late Twentieth Century (1980-2000)

The idea of biomedical investigation of Ayahuasca was first presented in 1985 by McKenna and Luna. They proposed that a clinical study on Ayahuasca users could be amenable to scientific study. The study proposal was approved in 1993. The team spent five weeks in Brazil. They tested effects of test doses of Ayahuasca tea on Brazilian volunteers, collected plasma and urine samples, and carried out an analysis.

The results showed that the volunteers underwent experiences that changed their behaviors in positive ways. The study concluded that regular use of Ayahuasca tea is safe and leaves positive influences on mental and physical health without any long-term toxicity.

Preparation of Ayahuasca Brew

Ayahuasca brew contains several components and its preparation is a complex and time-consuming process. The potency of Ayahuasca brew depends on the ingredients used, skill of the brewer, and the preparation method.

Mental and spiritual homework is also very important in the preparation of Ayahuasca brew. The person preparing the brew should have a strong intention for healing and a strong spiritual foundation.

Ingredients of Ayahuasca Brew

The core component of Ayahuasca brew is Banisteriopsis caapi, while other components such as Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana are used to enhance effects of the core component. Woody vines of B. caapi are used in the preparation of Ayahuasca brew. There are two different types of Ayahuasca vines, yellow and black. Black vines are considered to be more potent than the yellow vines.

The leaves of P. viridis and D. cabrerana are used in the preparation of brew. The leaves of D. cabrerana are ground into powder while P. viridis leaves are only shredded and then added to the brew.

Method of Preparation

Ayahuasca brew is usually prepared by soaking the woody wines of Ayahuasca in hold or cold water for various lengths of times. In cold water infusion method, the vines are macerated in cold water. Plant material is strained off after some time and the remaining potion is used as Ayahuasca brew.

Another method is to macerate and boil the vines of Ayahuasca in hot water. The process may take from an hour to all day long, depending on the potency required. Leaves of other plants are often added to enhance the stimulating effects of brew. Ayahuasca brew made up of B. caapi, P. viridis, and D. cabrerana contains powerful alkaloids and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

How Does Ayahuasca Work?

Ayahuasca brew contains beta-carboline alkaloids and DMT, which act by different mechanisms to produce anti-depressant and calming effects.

Beta-Carboline Alkaloids

Various beta-carboline alkaloids are present in Ayahuasca brew such as harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine. These compounds inhibit an enzyme called Monoamine oxidase. Monoamine oxidase plays a significant role in various psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This enzyme is also the target for many anti-depressant drugs available in the market.


DMT is responsible for psychedelic effects of Ayahuasca. It produces positive life changes, spiritual awakening, and inner revelations.

Traditional Uses of Ayahuasca

Traditionally, Ayahuasca has been utilized by Amazonian tribes for personal and spiritual growth, spiritual healing, and religious purposes. The taste of Ayahuasca is strong and unpleasant, which is the first physical change that the plant provokes. Later on, it induces an altered state of mind and the person can bring up past images and memories in his mind. This altered state of mind helps in introspection; the person can restructure his or her thoughts and incorporate them in his or her current life.

The spiritual and psychological effects produced by Ayahuasca can help a person in improving relationships with family and friends and interpersonal communication. It also makes the person empathetic and stimulates the feeling of forgiveness. Ayahuasca helps people in reformulating a better vision of life and the world.

Ayahuasca also helps in personal growth by creating an awareness of personal positive resources and self-efficacy. Other physical effects that Ayahuasca produces include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is considered as catharsis or detoxification of mind and body by the shamans.

Therapeutic Uses of Ayahuasca

There are many potential therapeutic applications of Ayahuasca in psychological and non-psychological disorders. Well-designed clinical studies are required in order to fully recognize the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca.

‘The Hoasca Project’ studied the toxicity profile of Ayahuasca and it showed that Ayahuasca is safe for human consumption and have no short-term or long-term adverse effects. This study was conducted on Brazilian male and female volunteers ranging from 13 to 90 years of age. Many of the volunteers had used Ayahuasca regularly since their teenage years and they showed no signs of toxicity.

Many volunteers performed better than non-Ayahuasca users on different measures of cognitive function, mathematical ability, memory, and emotional well-being. These findings suggest that there is a need of further clinical studies in order to investigate the therapeutic applications of Ayahuasca.

Treatment of Psychological Disorders

Many psychological disorders such as dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome, schizophrenia, and depression occur due to decreased level of a neurotransmitter in brain called Serotonin. The Hoasca Project showed that regular Ayahuasca consumption leads to increased density of serotonin transporters which causes an increase in the serotonin level of the human body.

Treatment of Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Many volunteers who participated in the Hoasca Project had history of alcohol addiction, violence, and substance abuse. These behavioral problems resolved when they started consuming Ayahuasca regularly. The results of the Hoasca Project suggest that the use of Ayahuasca may also have an application in treatment of alcohol and substance abuse.

Treatment of Cancer

There are several reports regarding the use of Ayahuasca in the treatment of different types of cancer such as brain, ovarian, prostate, stomach, breast, and colon cancers. The role of Ayahuasca in the treatment of cancer can be attributed to the cellular effects produced by alkaloid Harmine. Harmine inhibits vessels formation in tumors, reduces the tumor cells division, and causes tumor cell death.

Is Ayahuasca Safe?

Ayahuasca is a very safe medicine. No long-term or serious adverse effects have been reported after the acute administration of Ayahuasca in various clinical studies. These clinical studies were mainly conducted on healthy volunteers who had an extensive history of Ayahuasca use. Those volunteers showed no signs of toxicity and showed positive changes in their mental and physical health.

Though Ayahuasca has a very good safety profile, but it is a medicine nevertheless and should not be taken lightly. There are certain precautions and safety checks that should be employed during its use.

Ayahuasca should be used with caution in certain medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, epilepsy, hypothyroidism, and some psychological conditions. Ayahuasca’s effects can be potentiated if it is used in combination with some other drugs such as some antidepressants, anti-hypertensives, and some over-the-counter medicines.

Medical Conditions

Ayahuasca use may lead to moderate to serious complications in people with certain medical conditions. People with those medical conditions should talk to their doctor before taking Ayahuasca.


Ayahuasca should be used with caution by epileptic patients and individuals with a family history of epilepsy because improper or over use of Ayahuasca can induce seizures.


Ayahuasca can elevate blood pressure; therefore, its use is not advisable to individuals who have any chronic cardiovascular condition or high blood pressure.


Ayahuasca can be used by people who have hypothyroidism with carefully monitoring and dosage adjustment.


Ayahuasca can alter blood sugar levels because of its hypoglycemic effects. Its use is contraindicated in patients with uncontrolled diabetes. Other diabetic patients should inform their doctor before using Ayahuasca.

Other Medical Conditions

Ayahuasca has been shown to produce positive psychological effects on healthy volunteers, but it should be used with caution in patients suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and psychosis.

Caution is advised for individuals suffering from some chronic kidney or liver disorder. Impaired functioning of kidneys and liver can lead to potentiated effects of Ayahuasca because of decreased elimination of Ayahuasca from the body.


Ayahuasca is a medicine and medicines may have potentially dangerous interactions with certain other medicines and foods. All prescription medicines and supplements should be stopped before taking Ayahuasca. It is important to consult with your physician when ceasing any prescription medicine.

Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)

Ayahuasca and MAOIs have similar modes of action. Their concomitant use may lead to serious adverse effects such as seizures, increased blood pressure, delirium, etc. Ayahuasca use requires cessation of MAOIs at least 4 to 6 weeks prior to the Ayahuasca therapy.

Other Antidepressants

Many other antidepressants act in the same way as Ayahuasca and lead to serious adverse effects when used in combination with Ayahuasca.

Over-the-counter Medicines

Many OTC medicines contain high levels of caffeine, ephedrine, and other stimulants that may react with Ayahuasca and cause adverse reactions. All OTC medicines such as antihistamines, decongestants, herbal medicines, and dietary supplements must be discontinued, at least one week before the Ayahuasca therapy.

Other Medicines

Ayahuasca interacts with many other medicines such as tranquilizers, blood pressure medications, herbal medicines, and many recreational drugs. The use of such medicines should be discussed with a doctor before taking Ayahuasca.

Legal Status of Ayahuasca

DMT is a Schedule I drug internationally, which means that it is illegal for any person to manufacture, distribute, or dispense it. But plants containing DMT are not scheduled and are easily available everywhere.

The legal status of Ayahuasca brew is questionable in the United States. Ayahuasca brews, made solely from Ayahuasca plants, are considered legal because they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, Ayahuasca brews made using DMT containing plants are considered illegal as DMT is a controlled Schedule I drug.