Ayahuasca (ayawaska pronounced [ajaˈwaska] in the Quechua language) is any of various psychoactive infusions or decoctions prepared from the Banisteriopsis spp. vine, usually mixed with the leaves of dimethyltryptamine-containing species of shrubs from the Psychotria genus. The brew, first described academically in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes who found it employed for divinatory and healing purposes by Amerindians of Amazonian Colombia, is known by a number of different names (see below).
Sections of B. caapi vine are macerated and boiled alone or with leaves from any of a number of other plants, including Psychotria viridis (chacruna) or Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chaliponga). The resulting brew contains the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids, which are necessary to make the DMT orally active. Though B. caapi is a central ingredient in traditional ayahuasca brews, harmala-containing plants from other plant-medicine cultures, such as Syrian Rue, can be used instead of the vine to make an ayahuasca analogue, yet it isn't considered ayahuasca, as Caapi vine is considered the main plant in the brew.
Brews can also be made with no DMT-containing plants; Psychotria viridis being substituted by plants such as Justicia pectoralis, Brugmansia, or sacred tobacco, also known as Mapacho (Nicotiana rustica), or sometimes left out with no replacement. The potency of this brew varies radically from one batch to the next, both in potency and psychoactive effect, based mainly on the skill of the shaman or brewer, as well as other admixtures sometimes added and the intent of the ceremony. Natural variations in plant alkaloid content and profiles also affect the final concentration of alkaloids in the brew, and the physical act of cooking may also serve to modify the alkaloid profile of harmala alkaloids.
Individual polymorphisms in the cytochrome P450-2D6 enzyme affect the ability of individuals to metabolize harmine. Some natural tolerance to habitual use of ayahuasca (roughly once weekly) may develop through upregulation of the serotonergic system. A phase 1 pharmacokinetic study on Ayahuasca (as Hoasca) with 15 volunteers was conducted in 1993, during the Hoasca Project. A review of the Hoasca Project has been published.
Harmine compounds are of beta-carboline origin. The three most studied beta-carboline compounds found in the B. caapi vine are harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmaline are selective and reversible inhibitors of MAO-A, while tetrahydroharmine is a weak serotonin uptake inhibitor. This inhibition of MAO-A allows DMT to diffuse unmetabolized past the membranes in the stomach and small intestine and eventually get through the blood-brain barrier to activate receptor sites in the brain. Without RIMAs or the MAOI of MAO-A, DMT would be metabolized in the digestive tract and would not have an effect when taken orally.
Ayahuasca is used largely as a religious sacrament. Those whose usage of ayahuasca is performed in non-traditional contexts often align themselves with the philosophies and cosmologies associated with ayahuasca shamanism, as practiced among indigenous peoples like the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia. The religion Santo Daime uses it.
While non-native users know of the spiritual applications of ayahuasca, a less well-known traditional usage focuses on the medicinal properties of ayahuasca. Its purgative properties are highly important (many refer to it as la purga, "the purge"). The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhea it induces can clear the body of worms and other tropical parasites, and harmala alkaloids themselves have been shown to be anthelmintic Thus, this action is twofold; a direct action on the parasites by these harmala alkaloids (particularly harmine in ayahuasca) works to kill the parasites, and parasites are expelled through the increased intestinal motility that is caused by these alkaloids.
Dietary taboos are often associated with the use of Ayahuasca. In the rainforest, these tend towards the purification of one's self - abstaining from spicy and heavily-seasoned foods, excess fat, salt, caffeine, acidic foods (such as citrus) and sex before, after, or both before and after a ceremony. A diet low in foods containing tyramine has been recommended, as the speculative interaction of tyramine and MAOIs could lead to a hypertensive crisis. However, evidence indicates that harmala alkaloids act only on MAO-A, in a reversible way similar to moclobemide (an antidepressant that does not require dietary restrictions). Psychonautic experiments and the absence of dietary restrictions in the highly urban Brazilian ayahuasca church União do Vegetal also suggest that the risk is much lower than perceived, and probably non-existent.
The name 'ayahuasca' specifically refers to a botanical decoctions that contains Banisteriopsis caapi. A synthetic version, known as pharmahuasca is a combination of an appropriate MAOI and typically DMT. In this usage, the DMT is generally considered the main psychoactive active ingredient, while the MAOI merely preserves the psychoactivity of orally ingested DMT, which would otherwise be destroyed in the gut before it could be absorbed in the body. Thus, ayahuasqueros and most others working with the brew maintain that the B. caapi vine is the defining ingredient, and that this beverage is not ayahuasca unless B. caapi is in the brew. The vine is considered to be the "spirit" of ayahuasca, the gatekeeper and guide to the otherworldly realms.
In some areas, it is even said that the chakruna or chaliponga admixtures are added only to make the brew taste sweeter. This is a strong indicator of the often wildly divergent intentions and cultural differences between the native ayahuasca-using cultures and psychedelics enthusiasts in other countries.
In modern Europe and North America, ayahuasca analogues are often prepared using non-traditional plants which contain the same alkaloids. For example, seeds of the Syrian rue plant can be used as a substitute for the ayahuasca vine, and the DMT-rich Mimosa hostilis is used in place of chakruna. Australia has several indigenous plants which are popular among modern ayahuasqueros there, such as various DMT-rich species of Acacia.
In modern Western culture, entheogen users sometimes base concoctions on Ayahuasca. When doing so, most often Rue or B. caapi is used with an alternative form of the DMT molecule, such as psilocin, or a non-DMT based hallucinogen such as mescaline. Nicknames such as Psilohuasca, Mush-rue-asca, or 'Shroom-a-huasca, for mushroom based mixtures, or Pedrohuasca (from the San Pedro Cactus, which contains mescaline) are often given to such brews. The psychedelic experimentalist trappings of such concoctions bear little resemblance to the medicinal use of Ayahuasca in its original cultural context, where ayahuasca is usually ingested only by experienced entheogen users who are more familiar with the chemicals and plants being used.
Ayahuasca is mentioned in the writings of some of the earliest missionaries to South America, but it only became commonly known in Europe and North America much later. The early missionary reports generally claim it as demonic, and great efforts were made by the Roman Catholic Church to stamp it out. When originally researched in the 20th century, the active chemical constituent of B. caapi was called telepathine, but it was found to be identical to a chemical already isolated from Peganum harmala and was given the name harmaline. The original botanical description done was the Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Having read Schultes's paper, Beat writer William Burroughs sought yagé (still referred to as "telepathine") in the early 1950s while traveling through South America in the hopes that it could relieve or cure opiate addiction (see The Yage Letters). Ayahuasca became more widely known when the McKenna brothers published their experience in the Amazon in True Hallucinations. Dennis later studied the pharmacology, botany, and chemistry of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, which became the subject of his master's thesis.
In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, the most famous of them being Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (or UDV), usually in an animistic context that may be shamanistic or, more often (as with Santo Daime and the UDV), integrated with Christianity. Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world. Similarly, the US and Europe have started to see new religious groups develop in relation to increased ayahuasca use.. PaDeva, an American Wiccan group, has become the first incorporated legal church which holds the use of ayahuasca central to their beliefs. Some Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazon rainforest regions, forming Ayahuasca healing retreats that claim to be able to cure mental and physical illness and allow communication with the spirit world. Anecdotal reports and scientific studies affirm that ritualized use of ayahuasca may improve mental and physical health.
Several notable celebrities have publicly discussed their use of ayahuasca, including Sting (detailed in his 2003 memoir Broken Music), David Icke, Tori Amos, and Paul Simon (who wrote the song "Spirit Voices" about his experience with the brew in the Amazon).
Recent years have seen notable media attention to the position of the UDV church in the United States. After having their importation and use of Hoasca tea challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice, and then having the issue settled in their favor by the U.S. Supreme Court, the church gained some notoriety. This mirrors in some ways the experiences of UDV and Santo Daime churches in Europe, where legal authorities have taken interest in their activities in France, Germany, Holland and Spain.
Holland was an early Western context for the spread of ayahuasca use. Supporting a large Brazilian population, Santo Daime members in particular made efforts to spread the philosophy of ritualized ayahuasca use. In the mid-to-late 1990s one group, the Amsterdam-based Friends of the Forest, was formed by Santo Daime members to introduce ayahuasca to Europeans and others with "allergies to Christianity." They did this by introducing "New Age" rituals incorporating basic ritual structure, celebrating with songs in the Daime tradition (Portuguese waltzes), English language songs, ambient music and mantras and kirtan. They existed at least until the Dutch authorities raided a Santo Daime ritual in progress, and other ayahuasca-oriented groups sensed that an obvious public profile was not in their best interest. Amsterdam is also among the few cities in Europe where one can find, in addition to cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms and peyote, ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves, and plants for ayahuasca analogues in the tradition of Jonathan Ott's so-called "ayahuasca borealis."
"Ayahuasca tourist" refers to a tourist wanting a taste of an exotic ritual or who partakes in modified services geared specifically towards non-indigenous persons. Some seek to clear emotional blocks and gain a sense of peace. Other participants include explorers of consciousness, writers, medical doctors, journalists, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, philosophers and spiritual seekers. Ayahuasca tourism is greatest in Peru, and attracts visitors from all over the world, especially from Europe, USA, Australia, and South Africa, but also from other Latin American countries like Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico.
Usually a visitor who wishes to become a "dietero" or "dietera", that is, a male or female apprentice-shaman learning the way of the teacher plants, undergoes a rigorous initiation. This can involve spending up to a year or more in the jungle. This initiation challenges and trains the initiate through extreme circumstances involving a special diet and numerous different plant medicines to complement the Ayahuasca, the lack of western food and conveniences, the harsh environmental conditions of heavy rains, storms, intense heat, insects, and poisonous animals. The initiate is also tested for their unwavering commitment to Ayahuasca and the shaman who oversees the training.
Matthew Thompson gives in My Colombian Death (nonfiction, 2008) a detailed account of taking part in an extremely harrowing yage ceremony - an experience which gives the book its title. Thompson visited an indigenous shaman outside the town of Guarne in Antioquia Department, Colombia. After drinking a cup of yage, Thompson collapses and vomits and grows terrified, believing himself to be dying and then dead, and undergoing agonies of purgation and transformation:
I'm in the wrong body, the wrong form, the wrong thoughts, the wrong life. ... I'm the mask, painted and empty, nothing more than a vessel for other entities to see through. Talons curl into the eyeholes to twist and stretch me apart. My tongue is torn loose and my stomach ripped through my throat. Burning and liquefying. All is molten rubber, stinking and agonizing. I'm changing.",
Wade Davis (author of The Serpent and The Rainbow [non-fiction]) describes the traditional mixture as tough in his book One River: "The smell and acrid taste was that of the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile." [p. 194]
Writer Kira Salak describes her personal experiences with ayahuasca at Blue Morpho Tours in Peru in the March 2006 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine The article includes a candid description of how ayahuasca cured her depression, as well as provides detailed information about the brew. Here is an excerpt from the article about Dr. Charles Grob's landmark findings:
The taking of ayahuasca has been associated with a long list of documented cures: the disappearance of everything from metastasized colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction, even after just a ceremony or two. It has been medically proven to be nonaddictive and safe to ingest. Yet Western scientists have all but ignored it for decades, reluctant to risk their careers by researching a substance containing the outlawed DMT. Only in the past decade, and then only by a handful of researchers, has ayahuasca begun to be studied. At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine.
In 1993 Dr. Grob directed the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. He and his team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. Unlike most common anti-depressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there . 'Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs],' Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is 'a rather crude way' of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution in maintaining abstinence.
But after forcing down the foul-tasting brew, she was catapulted to a place so dark her husband feared he had 'lost his wife to the world of spirits'. Her life flashed before her as the hallucinogen took hold. She faced demons, saw herself as a terrified four-year-old and curled up on the floor, shivering, retching and muttering for two days.
'I think I went through an experience of death at a certain point, when I was no longer a body or a soul or a spirit or anything,' Allende says matter-of-factly. 'There was just a total, absolute void that you cannot even describe because you are not. And I think that's death.'
Nevertheless, the process proved transformative. Allende emerged aching but lucid and was able to complete [a trilogy she was writing], now being adapted for film by the co-producers of The Chronicles of Narnia.
There have been reports that a phenomenon similar to folie à deux had been induced most recently by anthropologists in the South American rainforest by consuming ayahuasca and by military experiments for chemical warfare in the late 60's using the incapacitating agent BZ. In both incidents there were very rare claims of shared visual hallucinations.
Traditional Ayahuasca brews are always made with Banisteriopsis caapi as a MAOI, although DMT sources and other admixtures vary from region to region. There are several varieties of caapi, often known as different "colors", with varying effects, potencies, and uses.
Other common admixtures:
DMT admixture sources:
Internationally, DMT is a Schedule I drug under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances notes, however, that the plant itself is excluded from international control:
The cultivation of plants from which psychotropic substances are obtained is not controlled by the Vienna Convention. . . . Neither the crown (fruit, mescal button) of the Peyote cactus nor the roots of the plant Mimosa hostilis nor Psilocybe mushrooms themselves are included in Schedule 1, but only their respective principles, mescaline, DMT and psilocin.
A fax from the Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board to the Netherlands Ministry of Public Health sent in 2001 goes on to state that "Consequently, preparations (e.g.decoctions) made of these plants, including ayahuasca, are not under international control and, therefore, not subject to any of the articles of the 1971 Convention."
The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. That said, some people are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A court case allowing União do Vegetal to use the tea for religious purposes in the United States, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 1, 2005; the decision, released February 21, 2006, allows the UDV to use the tea in its ceremonies pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case an Ashland, Oregon based Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In France, Santo Daime won a court case allowing them to use the tea in early 2005; however, they were not allowed an exception for religious purposes, but rather for the simple reason that they did not perform chemical extractions to end up with pure DMT and harmala and the plants used were not scheduled. Four months after the court victory, the common ingredients of Ayahuasca as well as harmala were declared stupéfiants, or narcotic schedule I substances, making the tea and its ingredients illegal to use or possess.
The Institute of Medical Psychology at the University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany has set up a Research Department Ayahuasca / Santo Daime , which in May 2008 held a 3-day conference under the title The globalization of Ayahuasca - An Amazonian psychoactive and its users. There are also the investigations of the human pharmacology of ayahuasca done by the team of Doctor Jordi Riba, in Barcelona, Spain ,,,,,,,,,, and the work of Rafael G. dos Santos and collaborators, in Brazil ,,,. And there are also the studies (i.e. Hoasca Project and others) by Dr. Charles Grob and collaborators (e.g., Dr. Callaway and Dr. McKenna), already cited, done in Brazil, United States and Finland. In Brazil, the University of São Paulo is doing a study led by psychiatrist Dartiu Xavier da Silveira to establish the risks of ayahausca.