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  • Writer's pictureJen Ottolino

Ayahuasca: The Amazon’s Most Sacred Plant Medicine

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Science is finally catching up to what indigenous shamans have known for thousands of years about ayahuasca.



The Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, is home to a mind-boggling array of plants and hundreds of indigenous tribes. These indigenous people discovered the healing power of the Amazon's plants through their senses, intuition, and thousands of years of trial and error.


Among the Amazon people, one plant medicine seemed to stand out above all others: ayahuasca, which means “spirit vine” in the Quechua language. For thousands of years, indigenous holy people or shamans have held sacred ceremonies throughout the Amazon basin, administering psychedelic (consciousness-altering) ayahuasca tea those seeking healing and spiritual redemption.


According to the Ayahuasca Foundation, more than 90 indigenous tribes in the Amazon practice ayahuasca ceremonies… a mysterious fact since some of these tribes are separated by thousands of miles of dense rainforest and have never met each other. It’s as if the plants themselves led these people to discover ayahuasca.


Over the past several hundred years, ayahuasca spread to other parts of South America and even inspired a religion, Santo Daime, in Brazil. North Americans and Europeans caught on to ayahuasca around the turn of the century, and interest continues to grow, worldwide.


As ayahuasca’s popularity has increased, so have questions about its efficacy and safety.


The Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony


Ayahuasca is a brew of several plants: the bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis bush, which is the source of the hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Other plants may also be mixed in to the concoction. In traditional ceremonies, the shamans mix the plant parts in water, brew them, and administer the resulting tea to participants, sometimes in several doses. The shamans support and guide participants through their mind-altering ayahuasca experience, which can last anywhere from two to six hours.


Ayahuasca’s physical effects begin about 40 minutes after ingestion. Effects can include:

  • increased heart rate and blood pressure

  • shaking, vomiting, and diarrhea

  • intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, and euphoria

  • hallucinations and mixed sensory experiences

  • heightened awareness and understanding

  • spiritual experiences

During the hallucination phase, participants may revisit traumas and release long-buried emotions, leading to tremendous psychological breakthroughs. Participants have reported lasting and sometimes life-changing benefits, from enhanced creativity and insight to trauma resolution and addiction recovery.


The Scientific Take on Ayahuasca


Recently, science has begun to confirm what indigenous shamans have known for millennia. While ayahuasca users do experience hallucinations, they may also benefit in ways that are quite tangible and real.


For some, psychedelic drugs still have negative connotations. Their mere mention conjures up images of tie-dye-clad, drug-crazed teenagers dancing wildly on a rooftop in San Francisco, dangerously close to the building’s edge. But to dismiss an entire class of drugs based on one interpretation would be biased and unscientific. It would also be unethical if it turned out these drugs could help people with difficult-to-treat conditions.


Around the turn of the century, addiction and other mental illnesses were on the rise. At the same time, the available treatments seemed woefully insufficient. This led to renewed scientific interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, and ayahuasca for treating mental illness. The shift in the scientific paradigm began to transform the social stigma around psychedelics.


Research centers focused on studying psychedelic neuroscience began springing up around the world, including the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research, Imperial College London Centre for Psychedelic Research, and Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics.


The initial studies on ayahuasca have indeed been promising. In a recent randomized controlled trial published in Psychological Medicine, ayahuasca showed a significant rapid antidepressant effect compared to a placebo. Another study found that ayahuasca is helpful for treating addictions and anxiety and has many other positive neurological and psychological effects. It also has few side effects and no risk of dependence or addiction.


Scientists don't fully understand the biological mechanism behind the therapeutic effects of ayahuasca. But imaging studies have shown that it activates many regions of the brain.


"The changes in these particular combinations of brain areas found on imaging fit with the reported experiences of altered awareness, re-experiencing negative memories, and developing new perspectives on problems causing emotional distress," as reported in a recent study in Current Neuropharmacology.

One challenge to studying ayahuasca is that there’s no standard definition or recipe. While most shamans use the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis bush in their preparations, they may use different amounts and mix them with a variety of other plants. Comparing different ayahuasca studies is tricky without consistency in preparation and dosage.


Access to Ayahuasca


One day in the not-too-distant future, physicians may write out ayahuasca prescriptions for common mental disorders. In the meantime, those seeking a transformative ayahuasca experience can participate in a supervised retreat. Ayahuasca retreats are based on the traditional ayahuasca ceremony. They are offered in various places around the world and are (hopefully) supervised by those familiar with the ayahuasca preparation and administration. If you are thinking about attending a retreat, keep these things in mind.


  • Legality: DMT is illegal in the United States and in many other countries while the ayahuasca tea and plants that DMT comes from may not be. To better understand the laws on ayahuasca, which differ by country, visit the legal status page of ICEERS.org.


  • Safety: Ayahuasca can interact with other medications, particularly SSRI antidepressants. For this reason, you should talk to a health care provider before using ayahuasca or any other psychedelic drugs for any purpose.


  • Legitimacy: If you dislike cultural appropriation and want your ayahuasca retreat to be as authentic as possible, head to the source. At a retreat organized by the Ayahuasca Foundation, you can experience ayahuasca in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, guided by an experienced indigenous shaman. You can also find information on ayahuasca retreats at ayaadvisors.org.

 

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