Ayahuasca tea is made from parts of the Psychotria viridis shrub and Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
It has powerful hallucinogenic properties and may cause both positive and negative health effects.
Much more research is needed to determine whether it can be used as a safe alternative treatment for certain health conditions.
If you’re interested in participating in an Ayahuasca experience, be sure to do your research and know that safety is not guaranteed — even if the Ayahuasca is prepared and delivered by an experienced shaman.
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca refers to a psychotropic brew made by indigenous Indians of the Amazon jungle from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, or B. quitensis) and the leaves of the chakruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Although the name ayahuasca is often used to describe the B. caapi vine, it also refers to the mixture of these two very different plants (DeKorne, 1994). Local medicine men, or shamans, prepare the mixture, sometimes substituting plants for chakruna (also known as sami ruca and amirucapanga), and adding different plants to the mixture depending on the nature of the ceremony (Ott, 1993). Ayahuasca is used by shamans to induce an altered state during which the shaman can look into the future, travel in spirit form, induce healing, remove spells, and cast spells on others.
The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechuan Indian words aya (“spirit,” “ancestor,” or “dead person”) and huasca (“vine”). Together these words refer to the “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead,” a vine that reportedly can free the soul or spirit (McKenna, 1992). Different Amazonian Indian tribes call the plant by names such as yage’ (pronounced “yah – hey”), yaje’, caapi, natem, pinde, karampi, dapa, mihi, kahi, and many other local names (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992).
Historical use of ayahuasca tea
Evidence from pre-Columbian rock drawings suggests hundreds of years of ayahuasca use in the Amazon, although Western scientists and explorers have only been exposed to the brew over the last 150 years. In 1851 British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered the Tukanoan Indians in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon using a liana (vine) known as caapi to induce a state of intoxication. Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio first mentioned ayahuasca in 1858 while he was exploring the jungles of Ecuador. He described how the source of the drink was a vine used to foresee the future battle plans of enemies, diagnose illness, determine which spells were used and which to use, welcome foreign travelers, and insure the love of their womenfolk (Shultes, 1961). Villavicencio took the drink himself and described the experience of “flying” to marvelous places.
How ayahuasca plant works
Scientific analysis isolated the main chemicals responsible for the hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca. In 1923, Fischer analyzed the B. caapi vine and isolated a compound he named telepathine (from the telepathic powers one reportedly gains when under the influence of ayahuasca). It was not until 1969 that a full chemical analysis was carried out (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992), and the compound was actually found contain three active molecules – harmine, harmiline, and d-1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmiline were shown to be the primary molecules of the B. caapi vine responsible for the altered state of the ayahuasca drinker; however, these chemicals alone could not account for the intense visions and experiences of ayahuasca.
The beta-carboline chemicals like harmine found in the B. caapi vine can be psychedelic, but only in toxic doses (McKenna, 1993). Further research revealed P. viridis (chakruna) as a common admixture to ayahuasca. Assays showed this plant to contain small but significant amounts of the potent hallucinogen DMT or N, N- dimethyltryptamine. However, DMT is rendered in active when taken orally. How does the DMT in chakruna get into the blood when drinking ayahuasca? In the presence of the harmine (found in the B. caapi vine), DMT from the P. viridis plant becomes orally active in the body. Harmine alkaloids inhibit enzymes in the stomach that normally destroy DMT. In other words, the B. caapi vine allows the hallucinogen DMT to make its way to the brain to help induce hallucinations (Turner, 1994). Of the thousands of plants in the Amazon rain forest, only these two types of plants when combined and drank will allow the user to experience a slow, sustained release of DMT and the resulting hallucinations.
When I first heard about ayahuasca from the leaders of a personal and spiritual growth center called “Seven Oaks Pathwork Center,” I asked why a person couldn’t just take the drink at home instead of incurring the expense and risk of going to the Amazon. The people who had been to several ayahuasca ceremonies explained that the ceremony was as important as the plants themselves. Some even suggested the experience of the ceremony and the “processing,” or discussion and evaluation of the experience the next day, is more important than the drink itself. Still others included preparation for the ceremony as integral and essential to the experience
Ayahuasca is made by soaking or boiling the stems of B. caapi (sometimes called ayahuasco), a tropical vine of the order Malpighiales, with the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Alternatively, the leaves of certain other plants, most notably the chagropanga plant (Diplopterys cabrerana), may be used. B. caapi is a source of harmine, an alkaloid that inhibits the breakdown in the digestive system of DMT (dimethyltryptamine), the psychoactive substance that the other plant supplies.
For uncounted centuries, plant-derived psychoactive drugs have played an important part in South American traditional religions. The English botanist Richard Spruce first encountered ayahuasca and B. caapi in 1851. As knowledge of ayahuasca’s psychotropic effects spread in the late 20th century, Peru experienced an influx of tourists seeking the drink. DMT is illegal in most countries, including the United States, where it is classed as a Schedule I controlled substance. Even so, ayahuasca cults have proliferated in the 21st century. Batches of the potion are typically prepared by a shaman or ayahuascero and ingested by devotees in groups. Participants are advised to avoid certain foods and drugs beforehand to avoid dangerous interactions. Nausea is a normal side effect.