Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug commonly used in spiritual ceremonies, but it can create a wide variety of side effects and potentially dangerous risks.

There is an unfortunate misconception that natural means safe, and that’s not necessarily true. The following provides an overview of one natural but not necessarily safe psychoactive substance called ayahuasca, which is made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and other ingredients.

Ayahuasca Pronunciation

Ayahuasca is pronounced “ah-yuh-WAAH-skuh.” The name is derived from the Quechua language, which is an official indigenous language of Peru. In Quechua, ayahuasca means “vine of the ancestors.”

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a substance derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant. This plant is native to the Amazon region, and it’s a psychoactive drug because it can create altered states of consciousness. When someone takes ayahuasca, the effects can vary pretty dramatically from one person to the next and one experience to the next. For example, some people can use ayahuasca and just find that it’s a little stimulating, while other people report having extreme visions.

The primary ingredient of ayahuasca is a vine, which is taken as a tea. The vine is also called ayahuasca, and it means “vine of the soul” or “vine with a soul.” These teas also have other ingredients, such as the chacruna plant, which also has a psychedelic substance called DMT. While the tea is named after the vine element it’s made with, it’s the DMT that creates the experience so many people associate with the use of ayahuasca.

The word ayahuasca comes from the indigenous Quechua language, spoken in places like Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. There are also different names for the brew based on different groups of people. For example, in Peru, the Sharanahua people call it shori.

Ayahuasca Plant

Ayahuasca itself is not a plant; rather, it is derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant. This plant is a flowering shrub and vine that grows in tropical forests in South America. The bark is often chocolate-brown and smooth, and the plant has green leaves and pink flowers.

Although ayahuasca can be made from Banisteriopsis caapi alone, the substance can also be mixed with up to 100 different plants, all with different pharmacological actions. Some of these include:

  • Banisteriopsis caapi, functioning similarly to some antidepressants
  • Erythroxylum coca, containing the illicit drug cocaine
  • Nicotiana, containing nicotine
  • Brugmansia, containing the motion sickness remedy scopolamine
  • Ilex guayusa, containing caffeine
  • Paullinia yoco, containing caffeine
  • Psychotria viridis, containing the illicit drug DMT
  • Diplopterys cabrerana, containing the illicit drug DMT

Ayahuasca Tea

Ayahuasca tea can be made from any of the plant components of ayahuasca, especially Banisteriopsis caapi. Proponents of ayahuasca tea feel that it has therapeutic benefits and causes hallucinations. Western medicine has been paying attention to ayahuasca because the tea could potentially help people who suffer from disorders like depression and anxiety.

The use of ayahuasca tea has become so popular that an entire tourism industry has developed around it in South America. One of the critical ingredients, DMT, is an illicit Schedule I substance in the U.S. and is illegal in many other countries, so people often must travel to use the tea legally.

People drink ayahuasca as a tea because if they were to ingest DMT alone, it would be digested by the enzymes in their stomach and wouldn’t affect their mind. When it’s paired with the ayahuasca vine, however, it allows the DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier. When someone consumes ayahuasca tea, they often say they have spiritual revelations and deep insight that helps heal their emotional wounds and allows them to become a better person.

Is Ayahuasca Legal?

You may be wondering if ayahuasca is legal, particularly given its similarities to psychedelic drugs that definitely aren’t legal in the U.S. First, there is the DMT component of ayahuasca tea; without it, the substance wouldn’t have the same effects. DMT is illegal pretty much universally around the world, but the actual plant sources of it aren’t. This has led a lot of people to purchase plants that contain DMT online, which is not technically illegal in most places. The exception only occurs in a few countries, such as France, where they have outlawed all plants used to make ayahuasca.

In 1971, DMT became illegal in the U.S. under the Controlled Substances Act. DMT is classified in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug; by technical standards, this would mean DMT is illegal. As a result, ayahuasca is indirectly illegal. While ayahuasca brews using DMT are illegal in the U.S., certain religious organizations are permitted to use the drug. Therefore, ayahuasca is legal if you are a member of a participating church and your intentions while using it are religious.

Ayahuasca Experience

While ayahuasca is generally classified as a hallucinogen, many believe the experience and the effects ayahuasca has on the brain are different from drugs like LSD or mushrooms. When you take ayahuasca tea, it usually starts to have an effect around thirty minutes after you consume it. The hallucinations you experience will usually last around five hours.

One of the ways an LSD trip is different from an ayahuasca drug experience is that most ayahuasca users say they know they’re hallucinating. Instead of imagining voices, they usually just hear exaggerated sounds that are actually occurring around them. There seems to be a consensus that people who use ayahuasca are more self-aware of what’s really going on, and they feel less of a loss of reality. However, the experience can be different for each person, and there is no way to predict how you will feel or react to the use of ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca Effects

People are often interested in learning not only the stories and myths surrounding ayahuasca, but also how this mysterious tea works on the brain.

Within about a half-hour after consuming ayahuasca tea, people experience something that they describe as hallucinations. However, people who have used it don’t feel like it’s the same as a trip they might get with LSD. They describe it as more emotional and spiritual, as opposed to being recreational.

Research suggests ayahuasca can change activity in certain areas of the brain. When they’re overactive, these areas are associated with conditions like anxiety, social phobia and depression, so this may be why people feel that consuming ayahuasca might be beneficial for these disorders. The DMT component of ayahuasca is also related to proteins that help with memory and the regeneration of neurons.

Psychological Ayahuasca Effects

Along with the physical ayahuasca effects, many of the effects of using this substance are psychological. As with other psychedelic drugs, you will experience hallucinations when you use ayahuasca. While people often see them as spiritual or healing experiences, it’s important to realize there’s no way to predict how you will react and what your experience will be like. 

It doesn’t matter how many stories you’ve read about the profound experience of ayahuasca and DMT, as you may have a different experience. Possible psychological ayahuasca effects include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Depersonalization
  • Altered sense of time
  • Distorted hearing

Physical Ayahuasca Effects

One of the most prominent ayahuasca side effects is vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. There are people who welcome this side effect, as they believe it’s cleansing and allows them to purge negativity from their lives. In reality, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and lead to further complications, such as dehydration.

Other side effects of ayahuasca that stem primarily from the DMT component of the tea include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Agitation
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Chest pain
  • Involuntary rapid eye movements
  • Muscular incoordination
  • Seizures

Ayahuasca Ceremonies 

An ayahuasca ceremony is a spiritual experience guided by a shaman. A ceremony typically takes place at night and can last all night long. The shaman will sing songs called icaros to enhance the visions that come to you through ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca Retreats 

An ayahuasca retreat is often a group experience and can take place at a resort under medical supervision. Unlike a single ayahuasca ceremony that lasts one night, a retreat can last for days or even a week. Activities like an orientation and yoga workshops might be offered during a retreat.

How Long Does Ayahuasca Last?

Ayahuasca’s effects last about five hours. The substance is broken down in the body in different ways depending on which plants have been used to make ayahuasca. Researchers think that much of the ayahuasca in the body is broken down and prepared for secretion via a chemical process in the liver known as N-oxidation.

Ayahuasca Benefits

Although possible medical benefits of ayahuasca are still being studied, many people who have taken ayahuasca believe that the substance is highly therapeutic and helps them address and overcome repressed psychological issues. 

Ayahuasca vs. DMT

While the terms ayahuasca and DMT are often used interchangeably, it’s not necessarily accurate. They are different substances. Ayahuasca causes the effects of DMT to work in a certain way, but it’s the DMT in ayahuasca tea that’s actually the hallucinogen.

DMT stands for dimethyltryptamine, and it’s a hallucinogenic substance that is naturally present in plants and animals. It’s been used for thousands of years in South American ceremonies and religious events, and it can be produced synthetically as well. In addition to naturally occurring in various plants, DMT is also found in small amounts in the brains of animals, and it’s a very strong psychedelic substance. DMT impacts the brain by working on the neural circuits that utilize serotonin. The primary effects of DMT take place in the frontal cortex.

When someone takes DMT orally, it doesn’t become activated as a hallucinogenic without the inclusion of another substance that acts to stop the metabolism of the substance. That’s when ayahuasca tea becomes effective. The DMT can be combined with various other substances to enhance the psychedelic effects and prevent DMT from being metabolized before it crosses the blood-brain barrier.

When you take DMT, particularly as an ayahuasca tea, it can have a variety of effects. One of the most serious is the increased heart rate it can cause, which is one of the reasons there have been a few reported deaths involving ayahuasca. Other side effects can include agitation, an increase in blood pressure, dilated pupils, chest pain, rapid eye movements and dizziness.

In addition to using DMT in ayahuasca tea, the drug can also be snorted, smoked or injected. Without the presence of certain alkaloids, though, it would have no effect. When someone smokes or injects DMT, the effects are different from what occurs when drinking ayahuasca tea. Smoking DMT can change your sense of reality, but the effects last only a few minutes. Many people who take DMT without brewing it in ayahuasca tea say they feel like they’re in space or seeing aliens.

If someone takes DMT in high doses, it can lead to very serious side effects like seizures and respiratory arrest.

So, why does the experience of DMT last longer when it’s consumed as a tea? It’s likely because drinking DMT via ayahuasca tea allows it to absorb through the lining of your stomach. This keeps it from reaching your brain as fast as it would if you were to smoke it, for example, and it changes the overall experience.

Dangers of Using Ayahuasca

People frequently wonder if ayahuasca tea is safe. One of the most common side effects of using ayahuasca tea is vomiting. In religious and spiritual ceremonies, however, this is often equated with releasing negative elements from your life.

If people were to ingest an excessive amount of ayahuasca tea, it could lead to serotonin syndrome. In addition, there have been a few reported deaths related to ayahuasca and DMT. Allergic reactions to ayahuasca are also possible. Other potentially deadly risks associated with ayahuasca and DMT include seizures, respiratory arrest and coma. 

Ayahuasca Addiction and Abuse

The actual drug DMT itself isn’t currently known to have a potential for physical addiction or dependence, but psychological cravings can occur. This is something that’s seen with other hallucinogens as well. While the chemical makeup of DMT might not lead to addiction, people often become psychologically addicted to the experience of using a drug like DMT or drinking ayahuasca tea. They may want to continue recreating the feelings and experiences they had when taking the substance, which can lead them to use it continuously.

People may want to escape their reality or connect with others through the use of ayahuasca. However, there haven’t been any significant studies regarding the use of DMT therapeutically, and there is limited scientific and medical research overall when it comes to ayahuasca effects.

If you or someone you love struggles with hallucinogens like ayahuasca or DMT, help is available at The Recovery Village. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs and resources that can work well for your situation.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.