Ayahuasca: The Dark Side and Dangers
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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 bani stereopsis caapi vine, and other ingredients.
This is a plant 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, which is taken as a tea, is a vine. 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 associated with the use of ayahuasca.
The name of this root and tea substance comes from the 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.
It was written about throughout following centuries, but it became more widely talked about in the 1950s when writer William Burroughs sought it out when traveling through South American. He was hoping he could find a cure for opiate addiction. Then, ayahuasca was written about in the book True Hallucinations by the McKenna brothers.
Ayahuasca has long had its roots in religious ceremonies. For example, in Brazil, it’s used even in modern religious concepts. The Santo Daime is one example of a religious movement that integrates the use of ayahuasca.
In more recent years ayahuasca has been written about by writers like Wade Davis and Martin Goodman. It was even mentioned by radio personality Robin Quivers and was featured on an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
It’s used to create a psychedelic experience, like other hallucinogens. In traditional cultures, it’s often used by shamans or medicine men to open up communication with nature. These spiritual leaders also use it to determine what’s causing someone to be sick at the spiritual level. In some religious ceremonies including in Brazil, ayahuasca is taken by everyone who participates in the ceremony, and they sing and chant as they drift into a trance.
In contemporary Western society, there is an interest in ayahuasca by people who are intrigued by the use of mind-altering substances to overcome fears and explore the capabilities of their mind.
People also often become interest in ayahuasca after hearing anecdotal stories of people who have used it to heal a variety of problems including addiction and depression. Of course, this isn’t the only psychedelic that’s been used for that purpose.
First, it’s important to understand that ayahuasca vine on its own doesn’t necessarily have psychoactive characteristics, but when it’s combined with the Psychotria Viridis plant to create a tea, there is a psychedelic effect. This tea contains DMT, which is something with a structure similar to serotonin. DMT will be discussed more below.
Within about a half hour after consuming ayahuasca tea, people experience something that they describe as hallucinations. People who have used it don’t feel like it’s the same as a trip they might get with LSD, however, and they describe it as more emotional and spiritual, as opposed to being recreational.
There have been brain scans showing the use of this tea can decrease activity in certain areas of the brain. These areas, when they’re overactive, are associated with conditions like anxiety and social phobia as well as depression, so it stands to reason that this is why people feel like 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.
Often some of the people that are most likely to use ayahuasca are working through a substance abuse problem or addiction, alcoholism, or depression. Some people who are recovering addicts or who have experienced trauma in their life say that the use of ayahuasca tea has helped them work through theses situations and heal themselves, although this is, of course, subjective and difficult to measure.
In 1971 DMT became illegal in the U.S. under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. DMT is classified in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug. This would mean in technical standards DMT is illegal. Therefore ayahuasca is indirectly illegal. The ayahuasca brews using DMT are illegal in the U.S., but there is work by certain religious organizations to challenge this. They’re using arguments similar to what happened with the Native American Church and the use of peyote.
There have been some court cases that have allowed certain groups to import ayahuasca tea to the U.S. for religious ceremonies because of legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There have been similar situations in other countries. For example, in the mid-1980s the religious use of ayahuasca was legalized in Brazil.
Despite varying and often vague legal status of ayahuasca tea in the U.S. and around the world, many people have turned to vacations as a way to try the substance. Writers from outlets like National Geographic have written about their trips to South America and The New York Times covered it in 2010. There have also been shamans who have come to the U.S. to bring the experience of ayahuasca to people who want it.
People who visit ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon rainforest often go for the healing of both mental and physical illnesses, and there is a bit of information showing it may improve health.
To sum up, the question is ayahuasca legal—in the U.S. the tea itself isn’t necessarily illegal, but the necessary DMT component is, as DMT is a Schedule I drug. The only exceptions are for certain religions when they’re using ayahuasca tea as part of a legitimate religious event.
Ayahuasca is a combination of the leaves from the Psychotria Viridis and the baisteriopsis caapi, and neither of these plans are hallucinogens. The leaves of the Psychotria Viridis do contain DMT however which has a structure similar to serotonin. If you took something with DMT normally, it would be deactivated by your body’s naturally occurring enzymes before going to your bloodstream. The vine component of ayahuasca changes that, however, and lets the DMT cross your blood-brain barrier.
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 peak at hour one, and last for anywhere from four to six hours.
One of the ways an LSD trip is different from an ayahuasca drug experience is the fact that most people say they know they’re hallucinating, and instead of imagining voices, they usually just hear exaggerated sounds that are actually occurring around them. There seems to be a consensus that for many people who use ayahuasca they are more self-aware of what’s really going on, and less of a loss of reality, although for every person the experience can be different. There is no way to predict how you will feel or react to the use of ayahuasca.
The ayahuasca drug is often used by people as a way to deal with past painful or traumatic experiences or to cope with certain thoughts or emotions. Other popular hallucinogens around the world in addition to the ayahuasca drug include MDMA and mushrooms.
If you were just to take DMT, your high would probably last less than 20 minutes, but ayahuasca effects can last many hours.
Despite the differences reported when using the ayahuasca drug versus other hallucinogens, the effects on the brain seem to be somewhat similar. All of these substances impact neural activity, and there a reduction in restraint of brain function, which is why scientists believe these substances let people experience their emotions differently, feel a higher level of consciousness and be more introspective.
Specifically, when someone uses the ayahuasca drug, brain scans have shown neural activity in the visual cortex increases as does activity in the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for how you process your emotions and memories. It can also create a meditative state in the brain, which can quiet overactive actions of your brain that lead to depression and anxiety. The DMT element of ayahuasca interacts with your serotonin receptors, which has an impact on things like emotion and vision.
It’s not out of the question that hallucinogens or psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca have the potential to treat situations like depression, anxiety or PTSD, but at the same time, people should understand that these substances do also have side effects.
The use of ayahuasca tea has become so popular that an entire tourism industry has developed around it in South America, since one of the critical ingredients, DMT, is a Schedule I substance in the U.S. and is illegal in many other countries.
Ayahuasca tea is made with the leaves of a flowering vine called baisteriopsis caapi. The tea may also be combined with the leaves of a shrub called Psychotria Viridis or depending on the country the tea is being made in, other shrubs may also be combined. Ayahuasca tea is mixed with a plant species that contains DMT, which in the example above is the Psychotria viridis. Without this, the tea doesn’t have the psychoactive effects.
Typically if someone were to ingest DMT, it would be digested by the enzymes in their stomach and wouldn’t affect their mind, but when it’s paired with the ayahuasca vine, it allows the DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier.
The necessary leaves are boiled alone or together, and ayahuasca tea contains a MAO inhibitor along with the psychedelic element of the DMT. In places where the tea ingredients are native, there are often preparation ceremonies that take place.
Some other ingredients that may be added to ayahuasca tea include ayahuma bark, capirona bark, uchu sanago and wyra Caspi bark.
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.
If people were to ingest an excessive amount of ayahuasca tea it could lead to serotonin syndrome, which will be detailed below. There have been a few reported deaths related to participation in an ayahuasca ceremony, usually because of undiagnosed heart conditions, interactions with other drugs, or the use of substances like recreational drugs or nicotine. There have been limited reports of potential allergic reactions because of ayahuasca tea as well.
In general, there isn’t a definitive answer to is ayahuasca tea safe. Proponents would say yes, but the scientific research is very limited, so while there may be benefits to its use, there is no guarantee that it’s safe.
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.
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, and that’s where 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.
In addition to using DMT in ayahuasca tea, it can also be snorted, smoked or injected, but without the presence of certain alkaloids, it would have no effect.
When you take DMT particularly as an ayahuasca tea, it can have a variety of effects. One of the most serious is the raised 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 movements of the eyes, and dizziness.
When someone smokes DMT, the effects are different as compared to drinking ayahuasca tea. When someone smokes DMT, it can change your sense of reality, but the effects last only a few minutes.
If someone takes DMT in high doses, it can lead to very serious side effects such as seizures and respiratory arrest.
DMT impacts the brain by working on the neural circuits that utilize serotonin. The primary effects of DMT take place in the frontal cortex.
So how do DMT and ayahuasca compare?
When a person drinks ayahuasca tea, they will have changes in their perception and sense of reality, and the experience can last for hours.
While people have been drinking ayahuasca tea for thousands of years, it’s become popular in Western culture more recently, and people believe it can treat things like addiction, OCD, and PTSD.
There are two churches in the U.S. that can currently provide ayahuasca tea during ceremonies, which are the UDV and Santo Daime. With the growing popularity of ayahuasca, people have even started brewing their own at home.
The traditional version of brewed ayahuasca includes two plants. The first is B. caapi and the second is P. viridis. The B. caapi vine contains MAOIs which is why people feel sick when they drink it, but the presence of the MAOIs is important. This ingredient prevents the DMT, which is the active ingredient in P. viridis from breaking down in your stomach.
When you look at ayahuasca and DMT, you see that DMT is just a compound found in my different kinds of plants, and it replicates the action of serotonin.
You can take DMT without brewing it in an ayahuasca tea, as mentioned above.
If you were to smoke DMT or inject on its own, it would be a different experience. Many people who take DMT without brewing it in ayahuasca tea say they feel like they’re in space or seeing aliens.
So why does the experience of DMT last longer when it’s consumed as a tea? The reason is probably because of the fact that 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 as an example, and it changes the overall experience.
People tend always to feel like natural equates with safe, and they’ve heard so many anecdotal stories about the healing ayahuasca effects, but are there side effects? What should you know about the potential side effects of using ayahuasca?
There are people who have described the vomit as coming in buckets and as “pure hell” when it comes to ayahuasca, and for some people who take this substance it can happen very soon after ingesting it, and for others, it can happen in the midst of the hallucinations.
Other side effects of ayahuasca that stem primarily from the use of the DMT component of the tea include increased heart rate, dizziness, agitation, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, chest pain, and in high doses, severe side effects like seizures.
DMT intoxication can also lead to hypertension.
It doesn’t matter how many stories you’ve read about the profound experience of ayahuasca and DMT because you may have a different experience.
Some people say they felt intense anxiety, paranoia, and fear, and it could bring up past traumas and be very unsettling for many people. These are some of the emotions that therapists feel could link the use of ayahuasca to having psychiatric value, but if you’re not in a safe environment with people who are trained in the use of the substance, it can be very dangerous. It can become a scary experience that many people aren’t prepared for.
The psychological ayahuasca side effects can stick around for up to weeks following someone taking the drug.
Other potentially deadly risks associated with ayahuasca and DMT include seizures, respiratory arrest, and coma. In people who have pre-existing mental disorders like schizophrenia, there can also be severe side effects when using ayahuasca.
People may want to escape their reality or have a connection with other people that can come from the circumstances surrounding ayahuasca.
To date, there haven’t been any significant studies regarding the use of DMT therapeutically, and there’s just limited scientific and medical research overall when it comes to ayahuasca effects.
It’s important that people realize with limited research and information, unregulated use and the risks that come with hallucinogens in general that the use of ayahuasca isn’t something recommended. There are so many unknown variables, from what happens when you’re using the drug, to the potential long-term effects.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.
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