Please note: The information given on this page is not medical advice and should not be relied on in this way. Individuals wanting medical advice on this issue should consult a health professional.
Ayahuasca (pronounced 'eye-ah-WAH-ska') is a plant-based hallucinogenic tea.1 Hallucinogens (also known as 'psychedelics') can make a person see, hear, smell, feel or taste things that aren't really there or cause the person to experience things differently from how they are in reality.
The most common ingredients in ayahuasca are Banisteriopsis caapi (also known as caapi) and Psychotria viridis. Caapi contains beta-carboline alkaloids with monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor action, mainly harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine, whereas Psychotria viridis contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a serotonergic receptor agonist. DMT is not active orally because it is destroyed by the action of the MAO enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract, but in the presence of an MAO inhibitor, DMT can enter the circulatory system and penetrate the blood–brain barrier, thereby producing its effects.2
Ayahuasca has been used for a number of centuries by traditional healers as a medicine and in religious ceremonies. Interest in the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca has been increasing in western countries,4 in particular with regard to alcohol and drug dependence.5
What does it look like?
Ayahuasca is a brown-reddish drink with a strong taste and smell.5
How is it used?
The tea is brewed for several hours by infusing the pounded stems of Banisteriopsis caapi in combination with Psychotria viridis or other plants.3,4 The tea is drunk and has an extremely bitter taste.8
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. It's important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
The effects begin in approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour, with maximum intensity from 1 to 2 hours. The effects last from 4 to 6 hours.7
Ayahuasca affects everyone differently, based on:
The following effects may be experienced:
A small number of deaths have occurred immediately following the use of ayahuasca, though ayahuasca being the direct cause of death is extremely rare.9
If any of the following effects are experienced, an ambulance should be called straightaway by dialling triple zero (000). Ambulance officers don't need to involve the police.
An overdose can result in:
Research into the long-term use of ayahuasca is continuing. Early research indicates that long-term use of ayahuasca is not associated with loss of cognitive functioning.12
Tolerance and dependence
Research has found that repeated use of ayahuasca does not lead to tolerance and that it has limited dependence potential.13
It is difficult to predict the effects of ayahuasca (even if it has been taken before) as its strength varies from batch to batch.
People with mental health conditions or a family history of these conditions should avoid using ayahuasca. The drug can intensify the symptoms of anxiety and paranoia.
Use of ayahuasca is likely to be more dangerous when taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs, particularly stimulants such as crystal methamphetamine ('ice') or ecstasy. It can also dangerous if taken with certain pharmaceutical drugs.
Reducing the risks
1. Dalgarno, P. (2008). Buy ayahuasca and other entheogens online: a word of caution. Addiction Research and Theory. 16(1).
2. International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service (ICEERS). (2012). Ayahuasca mechanisms of action.
3. Hurd, R. (2015). Ayahuasca side effects.
4. Riba, J., Valee, M., Urbano, G., Yritia, M., Morte, A. & Barbanoj, M. (2003). Human pharmacology of ayahuasca: subjective and cardiovascular effects, monoamine metabolite excretion, and pharmacokinetics. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
5. Thomas, G., Lucas, P., Cappler, N., Tupper, K. & Martin, G. (2013). Ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: results from a preliminary observational study in Canada.
6. Riba, J. & Barbanoj, M. (1998). A pharmacological study of ayahuasca in healthy volunteers.
7. Basrbosa, P., Mizumoto, S., Bogenshutz, M. & Strassman, R. (2012). Health status of ayahuasca users. Drug Testing Analysis.
8. Tupper, K. (2006). The globalisation of ayahuasca: harm reduction or benefit maximization. International Journal of Drug Policy.
9. Erowid. (2009). Ayahuasca effects.
10. Guimarães dos Santos, R. (2013) A critical evaluation of reports associating ayahuasca with life-threatening adverse reactions. Journal of Psychoactive Substances.
11. Group, D. (2015). Encyclopaedia of Mind Enhancing Foods, Drugs and Nutritional Substances (2nd ed.). North Carolina: McFarland Publishing.
12. Bouso, J. et al (2015). Long-term use of psychedelic drugs is associated with differences in brain structure and personality in humans. European Neuropsycholopharmacology, 25.
13. Fábregas, J. (2010). Assessment of addiction severity among ritual users of ayahuasca. Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Image source: image by Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: 5 May 2016