Medically reviewed by Kathy Warwick, RD, LD
Written by Jayne Leonard
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive tea that originates from the Amazon region. Psychoactive substances affect the brain and cause people to experience changes in their mood, thinking, and behavior.
Traditional healers in several South American countries use the tea for its reported healing properties. It also plays an important role in some types of religious ceremonies.
In recent years, research has highlighted several potential health benefits of ayahuasca. As a result, interest in this substance has been increasing in Western countries. However, much remains unknown.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of ayahuasca and its potential benefits, as well as the risks and side effects of this powerful brew.
What is it?
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew that people make using the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. It may also contain other ingredients.
The name “ayahuasca” originates from the Quechua language, where aya means soul or ancestors, and wasca (huasca) means vine or rope. Most people translate this as “vine of the soul.”
The brew has been popular in regions of the Amazon for millennia, for both medical and spiritual reasons. It induces an “introspective dream-like experience” that includes visions and memories.
Today, people from all over the world travel to these places to participate in ayahuasca rituals.
How does it work?
Both plant ingredients in ayahuasca tea have hallucinogenic properties. The leaves of the P. viridis plant contain N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a strong psychedelic compound.
The B. caapi vine contains MAO inhibitors (MAOIs) called beta-carbolines. MAOIs stop the body from breaking down DMT, which allows the psychedelic effects to materialize.
History, traditions, and uses
Neuroimaging tests report that ayahuasca increases blood flow to areas of the brain that help regulate emotions and memory, including the medial temporal lobe, amygdala, and hippocampus.
People in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil have used ayahuasca as a healing medicine or as part of religious ceremonies or tribal rituals for thousands of years.
They use it to treat physical issues and mental problems, as well as to deal with spiritual crises. Some people believe that it can provide insight or emotional healing, encourage personal growth, and even foster contact with deities and spirits.
A shaman or curandero, who is a type of healer, will boil the P. viridis leaves and crushed B. caapi stalks in water.
Once the mixture reduces, the shaman will remove the water and add more plant material to form a very concentrated tea. They will then allow the tea to cool before straining it.
Ayahuasca ceremonies typically take place at night. Participants will notice the tea’s psychedelic effects within 1 hour, and these effects can last for up to 6 hours. Ceremonies often continue long after the effects wear off.
The effects of ayahuasca include:
- feelings of euphoria
- gastrointestinal symptoms.
During a ceremony, people typically consume one or two drinks. Ceremonies may repeat several nights in a row. Pre-ceremony and postceremony rituals are an important part of the practice.
Modern-day ayahuasca churches include the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (UDV), which has members all over the world.
Although DMT is a schedule I controlled substance in the United States, the Supreme Court have upheld the right for members of the UDV to drink the substance under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
What are the health benefits?
Research indicates that ayahuasca may offer several potential health benefits, especially for brain health and emotional well-being. However, more studies are necessary to confirm these findings. Potential benefits include:
Both DMT and beta-carbolines, the main psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca, may protect and restore parts of the brain.
Research indicates that ingesting DMT can lead to a higher production of antistress and antioxidant proteins.
The findings of a 2017 study in mice suggest that harmine, the primary beta-carboline in ayahuasca, may have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects because it reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. However, there is a need for studies to confirm these results in humans.
This research also links harmine with increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that aids the survival of nerve cells, or neurons, and plays a role in maintaining connections between them.
Laboratory research reports that harmine and other substances in B. caapi stimulate adult neurogenesis, the generation of neurons.
According to some studies, ayahuasca may increase a person’s ability to be in a mindful state.
A small study demonstrated that taking ayahuasca once a week for 4 weeks proved as effective as an 8 week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course, in terms of increasing a person’s “acceptance.”
In this case, acceptance refers to nonjudgmental attitudes and behaviors, which the researchers measured using a “mindfulness score.”
However, the researchers advise that more studies with larger sample sizes are necessary to confirm these findings.
Other studies also support the use of ayahuasca to improve mindfulness.
Mood and emotions
Ayahuasca may improve the regulation of mood and emotions, and it could also reduce stress and depression.
According to one study, B. caapi preparations demonstrate antidepressant activity, possibly due to the presence of harmine and other substances that contribute to neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the production of neurons.
Further to this, a 2018 study that involved people who took part in ayahuasca ceremonies found that ratings of depression and stress significantly decreased following the ceremony. These lower levels of depression persisted for 4 weeks after the ceremony.
Other research supports this evidence, suggesting that a single dose of ayahuasca may produce a rapid antidepressant effect in people with treatment-resistant depression. This antidepressant effect persists for several weeks.
Ayahuasca may also help treat anxiety and mood disorders, according to a review of six studies.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
A 2018 research paper suggests that ayahuasca may be beneficial for people with PTSD. It helps with the retrieval of repressed memories, which paves the way for the brain to reprogram or extinguish the associated fear response.
However, more research in this area is necessary to establish the safety and effectiveness of ayahuasca for people experiencing PTSD.
Ayahuasca may also be beneficial for people with substance use disorders, according to several studies.
A small study involving 12 people with psychological and behavioral issues arising from substance misuse took part in two ayahuasca ceremonies as part of a 4 day treatment program.
After 6 months, the participants continued to report positive and lasting changes. They also showed improvements in their overall quality-of-life scores, mindfulness, and sense of empowerment and hope.
The participants also reported a significant reduction in their use of alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine, but the use of cannabis and opiates did not change.
Supporting this idea, further evidence also suggests that there are beneficial effects of ayahuasca for those with tobacco and alcohol dependence. Nonetheless, the reviewers call for further research into this area.
A 2019 study suggests that lifetime psychedelic use can lower levels of suicidal ideation. The study reports that ayahuasca shows promise as a form of treatment for a wide range of mental health issues that may contribute to suicidal ideation.
Ayahuasca might, therefore, have potential in suicide intervention, but more research is necessary to confirm this.
Risks and side effects
While some research highlights the potential benefits of ayahuasca, it is important to note that most of these studies were small scale, and some took place in animals or test tubes.
Researchers also carefully prepare and control the brews of ayahuasca that they use, but this is not always the case outside of clinical trials.
There are some serious side effects of ayahuasca use, including death. People may experience temporary symptoms shortly after drinking the brew, including:
Ayahuasca can also interact with several medications, herbs, and medical conditions, and these effects can sometimes be severe. People should not use ayahuasca if they are taking:
- antidepressants, including serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants
- cough medications, such as dextromethorphan
- lithium or other psychiatric drugs
- medications for Parkinson’s disease
- St. John’s wort
- weight loss pills
People with schizophrenia or other mental health disorders should also avoid taking ayahuasca.
The brew may increase heart rate and blood pressure, which could be problematic for individuals with heart problems.
In some cases, drinking ayahuasca has resulted in death. Often, this has been because the drink contained other substances. If an untrained person prepares the brew, this may increase the risk of serious adverse outcomes.
It is important that people with mental health disorders seek treatment only from a qualified medical professional.
Ayahuasca vs. magic mushrooms
While both ayahuasca and magic mushrooms have hallucinogenic properties, there are differences between the two substances.
Perhaps most crucially, the psychoactive ingredients are different. Magic mushrooms contain psilocybin rather than the DMT and beta-carbolines in ayahuasca brews.
Many people describe the effects of both substances as similar but not the same. Each person will react differently, however.
In one survey, users indicated that ayahuasca had a stronger effect than magic mushrooms but also that its negative effects were higher. However, users rated the comedown of ayahuasca as less than that of magic mushrooms. Ayahuasca users also reported less of an urge for repeat use in comparison with magic mushroom users.
It is important to note that the potential health benefits of ayahuasca result from the effects of its active ingredients. As mushrooms have a different active ingredient, they may not have the same outcomes in terms of brain health and well-being.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew that originated in the Amazon regions. In recent years, interest in the potential benefits of ayahuasca has grown in Western counties.
Research is in its early stages, but so far, studies suggest that ayahuasca may have several neurological and psychological health benefits.
However, individuals should be aware that the control of ayahuasca use outside of clinical trials is less stringent. There is also the potential to have negative and unsafe experiences with ayahuasca, and in some cases, taking this substance has resulted in death.
Ayahuasca can interact with several medications, and it is not suitable for people with certain health conditions.