Ayahuasca: A Plant-Based Psychoactive Drink

Consuming fresh, whole plants are one of the best things we can do for our body to maintain good health. They can go as far as helping prevent or treat other issues that may arise such as mental, physical, or emotional illnesses. One example, ayahuasca, is a plant-based psychotropic drug that has been used for centuries for religious or therapeutic purposes as an alternative medicine.

Key takeaways:

How does ayahuasca work?

As a psychotropic drug, ayahuasca can affect your central nervous system — including how your brain processes information. As a result, you may experience an altered perception of reality with different thoughts, emotions, moods, behaviors, and perceptions of sights and sounds.

Ayahuasca is made by boiling the broken-down Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the Psychotria viridian shrub. It contains dimethyltryptamine — more commonly known as the powerful hallucinogen DMT. Monoamine oxidase (MAOs) enzymes in the combination of the two plants, rapidly break down this powerful hallucinogenic chemical. This allows the DMT to reach the central nervous system.

Benefits of ayahuasca

There are a number of health benefits to consider when looking at ayahuasca.

Protects brain health

Thanks to the DMT, drinking the powerful concoction can provide neurodegenerative benefits. Its benefits promote cellular (neuronal) survival against oxidative stress and regulate immune processes. In addition, studies have proven the function of DMT may potentially extend the central nervous activity and involve a universal role in cellular protective mechanisms.

Neuroinflammation can harm several neurological and psychiatric diseases, including multiple sclerosis (M.S.), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Drinking the psychoactive beverage has calming effects that reduce inflammation in the brain, improving the side effects of these diseases.

Improves depression and anxiety

One of the most noticeable results that individuals experience from drinking ayahuasca is improved mental health. For example, a study of 29 patients with treatment-resistant major depression received a single dose of ayahuasca or a placebo. On the first day following the consumption, the group who drank the ayahuasca concoction scored significantly lower on the depression tests than the placebo group. However, seven days after consuming the concoction, the placebo group returned to their previous depression levels. In contrast, the ayahuasca group still showed significantly lower levels of depression.

Comparing preliminary studies in humans and animals from 1990 to 2015 showed that ayahuasca benefits those with treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and other substance-dependence diseases. In addition to ayahuasca, psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) are also included as properties that have beneficial results.

Can help treat addiction

Addiction is a chronic and progressive relapsing brain disease, as outlined in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association. Although there is no known cure for addiction, it can be successfully treated through detoxification and rehabilitation programs. Some individuals may look to ayahuasca as an option when more traditional methods have not been successful. However, this should not be considered a viable medical treatment due to the various unknown effects it could have from person to person.

No matter what a person is addicted to—whether it’s eating, shopping, sex, or drugs — each addicted person harbors a deep pain, which they may or may not be in touch with. The plant removes the self-created barriers to get in touch with the source of that pain, so you realize what you’ve been running from all of your life.

Gabor Maté, Physician, ayahuasca expert, and author

A study involving 8629 participants — some of whom had a history of substance abuse disorders, and some did not — who consumed ayahuasca in a natural setting concluded (self-reported) results of lower consumption of alcohol and drugs.

Side effects of ayahuasca

It’s important to know that a typical DMT hallucinogenic experience will usually only last around 30–45 minutes. However, with the MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), an ayahuasca journey and the altered state of reality can last between four and six hours. Some side effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting (induced by consumption);
  • Diarrhea;
  • Feelings of euphoria;
  • Intense visual and auditory hallucinations;
  • Anxiety and fear;
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate;
  • Increased body temperature.

The concoction can affect individuals in different ways, depending on several factors such as sex, weight, and dosage of the plant. In addition, it’s important to note that some medications might also cause more intense effects after drinking ayahuasca.

Substances to avoid before drinking ayahuasca

Substances and medications that should be avoided before and during an ayahuasca ceremony include:

  • Blood pressure medication;
  • Appetite suppressants;
  • Breathing medications;
  • Antihistamines;
  • Central nervous system depressants;
  • Vasodilators;
  • Antipsychotics;
  • Barbiturates;
  • Alcohol.

Legalities of ayahuasca

While DMT is a schedule 1 drug in the United States, the plants can be purchased legally. However, it becomes illegal once the plants are brewed into an Ayahuasca drink — combined to create DMT. There are some locations in the U.S. — and other countries — where it is still illegal but has been decriminalized. To be safe, if you want to possess and brew the concoction legally, you will have to go to Central and South American countries like Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, or Columbia, where it naturally grows.

Why do people drink ayahuasca?

Many people may question whether it’s worth drinking the hallucinogenic beverage due to its many adverse health reactions. However, when ayahuasca is taken in a ritual setting and is brewed by someone with experience, it can be seen as part of a cleansing or spiritual journey to one’s health and overall well-being. While the side effects often cause adverse reactions, many people feel that it’s worth it for the results after the experience. However, even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee that it will be successful.

If you choose to embark on an ayahuasca ritual, it’s important that you take all the proper steps to increase your chances of a healthy experience. This includes avoiding certain medications, having a trained practitioner prepare the beverage, and, if possible, making sure trained medical staff are available.

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