From ancient rituals to modern technology, scientists continue to push boundaries in their quest to provide alternative medicine for various mental health conditions. After years of research, we have witnessed a psychedelic renaissance, with more and more evidence confirming the therapeutic potential of several psychedelic compounds for mental health.
One of the psychedelic compounds that is gaining mainstream acceptance is ayahuasca brew. It is an ancient concoction used by shamans in the Amazon region during healing rituals or ceremonies.
For centuries, Amazonians believed that drinking ayahuasca has several neurologic and psychological health benefits. At the same time, science tells us that it can help address issues with brain health, moods and emotions, self-esteem, trauma, and addiction.
This article outlines everything you need to know about ayahuasca, from its origin to potential health benefits to considerations and health risks.
Table of Contents
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea made by brewing the leaves of Amazonian plants, such as the Psychotria viridis, the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and some other ingredients. Ancient tribes of South America have been using this drink in spiritual and religious rituals for thousands of years. They consider ayahuasca use as a form of traditional medicine and cultural psychiatry, which to this day, is still a central element of many healing ceremonies in various religious communities in Brazil and North America.
The term “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua language, where “Aya” means soul or ancestors, and “Huasca” means vine or rope. Most Amazonians describe it as the “vine of the soul,” where drinking the sacred brew gives you visions and memories — as if you’re looking through a window to your soul.
In recent years, ayahuasca has become increasingly popular in the West both for its medical and spiritual characteristics. Today, tourists from all parts of the world have been traveling to these places to participate in ayahuasca rituals and experience the effects firsthand. These effects include an introspective dream-like experience that allows the user to examine their emotions and way of thinking.
How does it work?
The hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca come from its two main ingredients: Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi vine, both of which contain psychedelic substances, such as N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and beta-carbolines.
Although DMT is a powerful psychedelic compound, enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAOs) can easily break it down. However, when taken with beta-carbolines, which are potent MAO inhibitors (MAOIs), it promotes the oral bioavailability of DMT.
Together, these two substances form a strong psychoactive brew, eliciting a 4-6 hours psychedelic experience that can include hallucinations, “tripping,” and euphoria.
What are the potential benefits of ayahuasca?
In addition to many years of shamanic wisdom, several recent studies have shown that drinking ayahuasca may offer various therapeutic effects, particularly for mental health and emotional well-being. Here are four potential health benefits of ayahuasca use according to research:
1. Improves Brain Health
As people age, the challenges for the preservation of brain health and the risk of neurologic disorders significantly increase, affecting all aspects of daily life. For this reason, maintaining a healthy brain is essential for longevity and quality of life. And one way to improve your brain health is by drinking ayahuasca.
Scientists suggest that DMT and beta-carbolines in ayahuasca may help protect and restore parts of the brain. According to research, ingesting DMT activates the sigma-1 receptor (Sig-1R) and can lead to a higher production of antistress and antioxidant proteins. The elevated levels of SIg-1R can help mitigate the outcome of hypoxia or oxidative stress, which may cause brain cell damage.
In test-tube and animal studies, researchers found that harmine, the main beta-carboline in ayahuasca, has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and memory-boosting effects. The study also suggests that harmine increases the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that aids the survival of nerve cells and plays a role in nerve cell growth.
Additionally, one research reports that harmine enhances the proliferation of human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs), which help stimulate the regeneration and growth of new neural cells in the brain.
Related: Eating Disorders: The Relationship Between the Brain and Food
2. Better Moods and Self-Esteem
How you feel and view yourself can have consequential effects on your mental health. For example, having a bad mood and low self-esteem may leave you feeling isolated, disconnected, or depressed. It can even disrupt your relationships and lower your immune system.
Ancient Amazonians find the hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca brew to be an effective mood and confidence booster. Similar to how alcohol can be a social lubricant during social occasions. But what about science?
Science tells us that drinking ayahuasca can have antidepressant effects, possibly due to the presence of harmine and other substances. In one study, researchers found that people who attended ayahuasca ceremonies experienced a significant reduction in depression and stress following the ceremony, which lasted for four weeks.
Furthermore, ayahuasca can also help improve the self-perception and cognitive aspect of speech performance of those with social anxiety disorder, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.
3. Overcoming Trauma
Another potential benefit of ayahuasca use is it can help overcome trauma. People deal with traumatic experiences differently. Some people can confront their trauma and move on, while others live in sadness or fear and develop mental health issues, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But for the Amazonian tribes, the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca have helped them relieve traumatic events or recover lost memory, giving them a new perspective on life. Ayahuasca offers an “out of body experience,” where you may retrieve your traumatic memories and come to terms with them. It’s similar to talking to a therapist, only better because you get to experience the trauma with full body consciousness in a way you weren’t able to at the time.
A 2018 study by Frontiers in Pharmacology corroborated these benefits for people experiencing PTSD. The researchers report that retrieving repressed memories (from ayahuasca consumption) allows the brain to reprogram or extinguish the associated fear response. However, more research is necessary to avoid unwanted psychological outcomes, such as fear renewal, fear reinstatement, or psychosis.
4. Overcoming Addiction
Although ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drug, evidence suggests that it can actually be beneficial for individuals with substance abuse disorder. Drinking this psychedelic brew may cause users a sudden transformation regarding their issues with substance addiction. They may begin to view alcohol, tobacco, or drugs as something unfavorable.
One observational study in Canada collected pre-treatment and six months follow-up data from twelve participants with psychological and behavioral issues arising from substance misuse. They participated in two ayahuasca ceremonies as part of a 4-day treatment program.
After six months, the participants demonstrated significant improvements in their sense of empowerment, mindfulness, hopefulness, and overall quality of life. They also reported a notable reduction in their use of alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine, which is crucial in overcoming their addiction.
Further evidence suggests that ayahuasca/DMT has anxiolytic, anti-depressive, and antiaddictive effects. And most importantly, it is also safe, especially when administered in controlled settings.
Related: Alcohol: The World’s Most Harmful Drug
Considerations and Health Risks
While there’s no doubt about the mental health benefits of ayahuasca, it is still necessary to consider its risks and side effects. It is also important to note that careful preparation and controlling the brews of ayahuasca you’re using is essential in keeping it safe and minimizing the risks, which is not always the case outside clinical trials.
Since there’s no guarantee you’ll react favorably to the brew, reckless use of this concoction may lead to serious, even deadly, side effects. Here are some unpleasant, although temporary, symptoms you may experience during or after an ayahuasca trip:
Another thing to consider is that ayahuasca can also dangerously interact with several drugs, herbs, and medical conditions. To avoid adverse effects, you must not use it with the following medications:
- Antidepressants (SNRIs)
- Cough medications (dextromethorphan)
- Psychiatric drugs (lithium)
- Parkinson’s disease medications
- Weight loss pills
Ayahuasca is also not recommended for people with schizophrenia or other psychiatric disorders because it could worsen their symptoms and result in mania. In some cases, drinking ayahuasca was associated with life-threatening adverse reactions or even death — probably due to other substances in the brew.
DMT has been known to help with mental health issues and is rarely associated with death. However, if an untrained person prepares the brew, it may increase the risk of adverse outcomes. That said, it’s safer for people with mental health disorders to seek treatment only from a qualified medical professional.
Ayahuasca vs. Magic mushrooms
Both ayahuasca and magic mushrooms have hallucinogenic properties, but their psychoactive ingredients are different. Magic mushrooms contain psilocybin, while ayahuasca brew contains DMT and beta-carbolines. Users may describe the effects of both substances as similar, but they are not the same, as each individual will react differently.
In one survey, users reported that ayahuasca had a more intense effect than magic mushrooms. But while those effects include negative symptoms, users also rated the comedown of ayahuasca to be lesser.
Additionally, as the drug wears off, ayahuasca users have reported a lesser urge to use the substance again than magic mushroom users.
The potential health benefits may also vary due to the differences in the psychoactive ingredients. It’s also worth noting that the effects of psilocybin and DMT may not have the same outcome regarding brain health and well-being.
Related: Is Psilocybin a Promising New Therapy for Depression?
Is Ayahuasca Legal in the U.S.?
Currently, the legal status of ayahuasca in the U.S. is pretty much unclear. Like psilocybin, DMT is a Schedule I drug, meaning it is illegal in all settings. However, it is not unlawful to use plants containing DMT, such as the Psychotria viridis.
Since ayahuasca comes from the brewing of certain plants, no law prohibits its use. In fact, some churches in America are importing DMT-containing plants to use during ceremonies.
People in Amazon regions have been drinking ayahuasca brew for centuries, and now even Western countries are joining in on the experience. The growing interest may have stemmed from several reported potential neurological and psychological health benefits of ayahuasca.
Even though the research is still in its early stages, ayahuasca use has shown that its benefits significantly outweigh the adverse effects. You can try ayahuasca anytime and wouldn’t need to worry about being addicted. Plus, the withdrawal symptoms are minimal, if not non-existent.
Nevertheless, since each user will have unique experiences and therapeutic effects may vary, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you’re interested in participating in an ayahuasca experience, be sure to do your research and let an experienced shaman prepare the brew. It still won’t guarantee safety, but at least the adverse outcomes will be minimal.
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