What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca has been growing in popularity around the globe — explore the history and healing power of the medicinal brew with indigenous roots.

Overview: Ayahuasca is a potent entheogenic brew traditionally used in the Amazon basin for spiritual purposes and healing. It is generally made from a combination of Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant or other DMT-containing plants. Banisteriopsis caapi contains MAO inhibitors, which allow DMT to be orally active and produce its powerful psychedelic effects. The exact origins of ayahuasca use are unclear, but archaeological evidence suggests it dates back at least 1,000 years. Ayahuasca consumption can induce physical and psychological effects, including purging, nausea, and diarrhea, which are seen by traditional healers as necessary for emotional cleansing and healing. While the plant's benefits can be profound, its use should be approached with caution and respect.

What is Ayahuasca? 

Ayahuasca, also known as caapi, natema, mihi, and yagé, is a potent traditional medicine, a plant teacher, and a spiritual tool commonly used in the Amazon basin. It is characterized by its strong smell and bitter taste, and is considered a powerful psychedelic or entheogenic brew. Revered as the Mother of all Amazonian plants by indigenous peoples, Ayahuasca is believed to possess the ability to communicate with and enhance the energy and healing properties of other plants.

For generations, indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest of South America have been using ayahuasca for divination, community bonding, and spiritual healing. While the historical details of ayahuasca use may be uncertain due to the absence of written records and archaeological evidence, the traditional rituals that have supported the use of this plant, often referred to as "the vine of the dead," have been fundamental to its perceived healing properties.

Over the course of many years, ayahuasca has been revered as a powerful tool in the spiritual and cultural practices of these indigenous communities, contributing to its enduring significance in their traditional ways of life.

Ayahuasca is still commonly prepared and used in ceremonies in the Amazonian region today, typically with the guidance of a traditional shamanic healer known as a 'curandero' (for men) or 'curandera' (for women), or other culturally specific names that reflect the community's healing traditions, such as 'Taita' or other community-specific terms. These skilled healers play a vital role in the ceremonial use of ayahuasca, drawing upon their cultural knowledge and experience to facilitate the sacred and therapeutic aspects of the ayahuasca ceremony.

Ayahuasca is generally made from the stem of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of a shrubby, flowering plant called Psychotria viridis.

Various admixtures are prevalent in the Amazon basin, with different lineages adhering to different practices. Some lineages favor using only two plants, while others may carefully incorporate additional plants after extensive experimentation. These additional plants are often added to enhance the psychedelic effects of the brew or to connect with subtler aspects of energetic healing that are facilitated by the ceremonial use of ayahuasca.

An artistic rendition of Mother Ayahuasca

Chacruna: Psychotria viridis 

Psychotria viridis, also known as “chacruna” in the Quechua languages, is a plant in the coffee family Rubiaceae that contains the well-known psychedelic compound N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

However, DMT is not active when taken orally, as it gets broken down by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase-A (MAO) found in the stomach. To make DMT orally active, it must be combined with another plant called the ayahuasca vine, which contains organic compounds called beta-Carbolines that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These inhibitors prevent the activity of MAO, allowing DMT to remain active and produce its psychedelic effects.

Psychotria viridis can be substituted with two other DMT-containing compañeros, or “companion plants” — the closely related shrubs, Psychotria carthagenensis (sameruca), or Diplopterys cabrerana, which goes by various names including chagropanga, chaliponga, oco-yajé, and yajé-uco. 

The Ayahuasca Vine: Banisteriopsis caapi

Banisteriopsis caapi is a vine native to South America in the family Malpighiaceae. It contains three beta-Carboline alkaloids — harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine. All three of these compounds are MAOIs, which means they can inhibit the activity of the MAO enzyme in the stomach lining. This inhibition promotes the absorption of DMT, which is present in the ayahuasca admixture. When used together, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis produce a psychedelic experience typically lasting 4-6 hours.

The question of how indigenous Amazonians discovered the specific combination of DMT-containing Psychotria viridis with the only MAOI-containing plant among the vast array of plant species surrounding them remains a bit of a mystery. However, according to ayahuasca curanderos, the traditional healers who work with the plant, they believe that their ancestors were guided by “plant teachers” in discovering the preparation of this visionary brew.


Indigenous shaman believe that plants have spirits, and that a shaman can communicate with those spirits.

Historical Use of the Ayahuasca Vine 

Scholars of ayahuasca often suggest that the tradition of consuming the brew is very ancient; several anthropologists, including the author of The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby, believe that Amazonians have been consuming ayahuasca for “at least five thousand years.”

Although strong evidence dating this far back exists for the ingestion of yopo, a snuff made of ground-up DMT-containing Anadenanthera peregrina seeds, there exists no such compelling evidence for oral ingestion of ayahuasca. 

A study conducted in 2009 analyzed hair samples from Azapa Valley mummies, revealing chemical evidence that suggests consumption of Banisteriopsis caapi during the Tiwanaku Middle Period, which spanned approximately 600-1000 AD. The presence of harmine was identified in the hair of two mummies who were buried with snuffing pipes, providing evidence of the use of ayahuasca vine at least 1000 years ago. 

DMT, however, was not detected, which would suggest that the tradition of drinking ayahuasca originated relatively recently.

Some suggest that the origins of ayahuasca use may be traced back to the Napo and Putumayo rivers, potentially discovered by western Tukanoan-speaking groups or their predecessors. However, it remains uncertain as to when exactly this discovery occurred. Furthermore, there are no records of observations by missionaries or explorers in this region prior to the 18th century. This has led some to argue that the assumption that ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years cannot be substantiated.

It is worth considering that the absence of archaeological evidence could be due to the fact that no specific paraphernalia is required for the consumption of ayahuasca, unlike non-biodegradable yopo pipes that were preserved in graves and easily retrieved for inspection.

Another theory is that the Tiwanakuans consumed the ayahuasca vine by itself for its own psychoactive effects.

Alternatively, the leaves of the vine may have been chewed or consumed in a paste together with yopo, a combination known to enhance the visionary effects of the 5000-year-old snuffing practice.

Ayahuasca through the Eyes of Early Explorers

Descriptions of ayahuasca use in written form did not emerge until the 18th century, when Jesuit missionaries Chantre y Herrera, Juan Magnin, and Pablo Maroni separately published their encounters with the sacred medicine.

It wasn't until another century later that the first ethnobotanical accounts of ayahuasca were documented, when Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio relayed information he received from the Shuar people of the Upper Amazon about the mind-altering effects of ayahuasca in his 1858 book Geografía de la República del Ecuador. Villavicencio writes: 

“The possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge… they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear.”

Villavicencio's accounts were soon followed by those of Richard Spruce, an English school teacher turned botanist who explored South America in the 1850s. During his travels, Spruce encountered the ingestion of a tea called "ayahuasca" by the Tukano people of Brazil. He later observed the Guahibo on the upper Orinoco and the Záparo on the border of Ecuador and Peru consuming the same brew.

After nearly succumbing to malaria and dysentery, Spruce successfully sent samples of Banisteriopsis caapi back home for chemical analysis. In his book "Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes," he described the preparation of ayahuasca and the effects it had on him. This account is recognized as the earliest known Western record of an ayahuasca experience.

Therapeutic Potential of Ayahuasca 

In 1993, the first biomedical research on ayahuasca was conducted, specifically a study called the "Hoasca Project." This study observed the immediate physiological and psychological effects of ayahuasca on 15 long-term male members of the União do Vegetal church (UDV). The findings showed that regular consumption of ayahuasca within the UDV context led to improved psychological and physical health, as well as better interpersonal and family relationships.

Since then, studies investigating ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects have demonstrated potential efficacy for substance-use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Additional studies suggest that ayahuasca may have neuroprotective and neurorestorative effects, and an ability to increase mindfulness, acceptance, and life satisfaction. Further research is needed to fully establish the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca.

An artistic representation of ayahuasca's spirit

If you feel a calling to consume ayahuasca, it's crucial to do so under the guidance of an experienced and reputable curandero or trained therapist who has the necessary tools and techniques to help you navigate what can be a potentially destabilizing process.

In a clinical context, the development of a therapeutic rapport between the therapist and the patient is highly emphasized. Specially trained therapists are present to oversee the unfolding of the therapeutic experience. Additionally, integrative psychotherapy sessions are conducted, and mindfulness activities are encouraged to help participants interpret their experiences, resolve confusing emotions, and consolidate meaningful insights.

And just like with any psychedelic journey, one’s mindset and the physical environment in which the experience takes place (set and setting) are crucial factors to consider.

Ayahuasca has demonstrated potential to treat certain mental health conditions, but its use should be approached with great caution. It is imperative that users of ayahuasca honor it with the mindful preparation and respect it deserves.

Risks and Side Effects of Ayahuasca 

It is important to note that experimenting with ayahuasca is not to be taken lightly. Working with plant medicines like ayahuasca can be physically and psychologically challenging and requires careful consideration and preparation.

Physical Side Effects 

The beta-Carbolines present in the ayahuasca vine can cause gastrointestinal effects, making the brew a potent emetic. Typically, within 45 minutes of consuming ayahuasca, individuals may experience sweating, nausea, and an urge to purge. According to Amazonian curanderos, this purging is interpreted as a form of emotional cleansing that is believed to be necessary for the healing process to occur.

Medical contraindications

Additionally, people with certain medical conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, seizure disorders, or substance-use disorders, should be aware that ayahuasca use may pose potential health risks. 

Studies have not commonly reported psychopathological reactions associated with regular use of ayahuasca. A literature review spanning five years documented a small number of cases (between 13 and 24) in which ayahuasca may have contributed to a psychotic incident. These cases were reported out of an estimated 25,000 ayahuasca sessions, representing a rate of less than 0.1%. Although the incidence of drug-induced psychosis associated with ayahuasca is low, the potential morbidity associated with such episodes is high. Therefore, researchers recommend that the use of ayahuasca be contraindicated in individuals with a history of psychosis.

The MAOIs in ayahuasca can potentially interact negatively with serotonergic medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). This combination may trigger serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by increased serotonin levels in the brain. 

The Ayahuasca Dieta 

The Ayahuasca dieta, also known as "la dieta" in Spanish, is a traditional practice associated with the use of ayahuasca in indigenous Amazonian shamanic traditions. It involves a period of dietary and lifestyle restrictions that a person undertaking an ayahuasca ceremony follows in preparation for the plant medicine experience.

The Ayahuasca dieta typically includes certain dietary restrictions, such as avoiding salt, sugar, processed foods, oils, meat, alcohol, caffeine, and certain spices. Similar to certain medications, there are specific foods that may interact with the alkaloids in ayahuasca. These include aged, preserved, dried, fermented, pickled, cured, rancid, old, overripe, or spoiled foods.

These types of foods may contain tryptamines, such as tryptophan, which have the potential to interact with the MAOIs present in the ayahuasca brew, potentially leading to increased levels of tyramine in the bloodstream, which can cause adverse effects. It's important to be mindful of these dietary considerations when preparing for an ayahuasca ceremony, as they are believed to affect the effectiveness and safety of the plant medicine experience.

The ayahuasca dieta may also involve avoiding certain activities or behaviors, such as sexual activity and contact with certain substances. Additionally, it often includes recommendations for specific activities, such as spending time in nature, practicing meditation, and engaging in introspection and reflection.

The Ayahuasca dieta is believed to have several purposes, including purifying the body, mind, and spirit, enhancing sensitivity to the plant medicine, and preparing oneself for a deep and meaningful spiritual experience. It is seen as a form of respect and reverence for the plant medicine and the spirits associated with it, as well as a way to create a conducive environment for healing and insight during the ayahuasca ceremony.

Ayahuasca, with its rich history and cultural significance in indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest, continues to be a powerful traditional medicine and spiritual tool. Its preparation and use in ceremonies are guided by experienced healers who draw upon their cultural knowledge and experience.

Despite the historical and cultural significance of Ayahuasca, there is still much research needed to establish its therapeutic potential and better understand its effects on the mind, body, and spirit. As Ayahuasca gains popularity outside of indigenous communities, it is important to approach its use with respect, cultural sensitivity, and awareness of the need for further research to fully understand its potential benefits and risks.

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