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What is Ayahuasca?

Medically reviewed by Carmen Pope, BPharm. Last updated on Nov 18, 2022.

Official answer


Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic herbal drink made from the stem and bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine combined with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, although other botanical ingredients may be used depending on the traditional method used to make the decoction (concentrated liquid).

What are other names for ayahuasca?

Other names for ayahuasca include brew, daime, Huasca, Huni, Kamarampi, la purga, the tea, the vine, or yage.

Ayahuasca is pronounced eye-ah-WAH-ska.

What does ayahuasca taste like?

Ayahuasca is a brown-reddish drink with a very strong taste and smell that some describe as earthy or woody, salty, sour, or bitter, or like prune juice or old coffee with dirt.

What is ayahuasca used for?

Ayahuasca has been used as a psychedelic for religious ritual and therapeutic purposes for centuries, notably in South America. The English botanist, Richard Spruce, documented its use during a visit there in 1851. As knowledge of its psychotropic effects spread, so did the influx of tourists to jungle ayahuasca retreats located in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador searching for an "Intense spiritual enlightenment" provided by taking ayahuasca which is also touted as a "Journey into the soul".

Not everybody has positive effects from ayahuasca and even those that do also experience some negative effects.

What does ayahuasca contain?

Ayahuasca is traditionally made using parts of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and Psychotria viridis shrub, both of which have hallucinogenic properties.

The main active ingredient, DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in Psychotria viridis. But DMT is easily broken down by monoamine oxidase enzymes in the stomach, small intestine, and liver. This is why ayahuasca also contains Banisteriopsis caapi.

Banisteriopsis caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) which in addition to having their own psychoactive effects, also stop DMT from being broken down by monoamine oxidase enzymes in the liver and gastrointestinal tract. This combination allows DMT to be absorbed and makes a powerful psychedelic drink.

What happens during an ayahuasca experience?

If you are considering trying ayahuasca, always choose an experienced center with a guide you trust. Ayahuasca is not recommended for some people, and your guide should ask you to complete a questionnaire that should determine if it is safe for you to proceed with the experience.

Participants are asked to purify their bodies by abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, drugs, and sex for several weeks before a traditional ayahuasca experience. A healthy diet, preferably vegetarian should be followed for several days before the experience and the participant should be well-hydrated and in good physical health. The last meal should be eaten about 6 hours before ingesting ayahuasca.

What does an ayahuasca experience feel like?

Ayahuasca experiences tend to be a combination of both positive and negative effects, and some of the negative effects can be distressing. They are usually held at night and last until the effects of ayahuasca have worn off.

The effects usually come on within 20 to 60 minutes and can last 2 to 6 hours. Positive effects may include:

  • An awareness of yourself and the way you look at yourself (introspection)
  • Altered state of consciousness
  • Connection with mythological, religious, or spiritual dimensions beyond what is usually experienced
  • The emergence of memories and images from the past
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Intense visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Out-of-body experiences.

The emotional intensity related to these experiences is usually much greater than normal. Some describe the experience as a mirror of their own interior which can make you question your most fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is.

Most people also experience negative effects, such as diarrhea and vomiting, although you may have been told this is considered a normal part of the ayahuasca experience. Other negative effects that may alternate with the positive effects or become the main experience can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Fear
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis.

Ayahuasca can also cause a moderate increase in blood pressure and heart rate and increased body temperature.

Related Questions

What is ayahuasca used to treat?

Some research has suggested ayahuasca may be beneficial for some people with

  • Addiction issues
  • Anxiety
  • Brain Health
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Psychological well being
  • Treatment-resistant depression.

Does ayahuasca have any interactions?

Yes, ayahuasca interacts with several drugs, herbals, and supplements. Common interactions include:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines
  • Antidepressants such as SSRIs, TCAs, or MAOIs
  • Antipsychotics
  • Cocaine
  • Lithium
  • MDMA
  • Sedatives
  • Selegiline
  • Stimulants
  • Tramadol
  • Any medication that releases serotonin.

Is ayahuasca dangerous?

Yes, ayahuasca can be dangerous if taken by people with certain health conditions or taking certain medications, particularly ones that also release serotonin. Deaths have occurred. People who should not take ayahuasca include those with:

  • A family history of mental health issues
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression taking antidepressants
  • Difficulty vomiting
  • Epilepsy
  • Fractures
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Glaucoma
  • Infection
  • Recent surgery
  • Retinal detachment
  • Schizophrenia
  • Seizures
  • Serious liver, kidney, or gallbladder disease
  • Severe cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Tuberculosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Psychosis
  • Uncontrolled or very high blood pressure
  • Ayahuasca is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women

There is no safe level for ayahuasca and the use of this herb always carries some risk. How ayahuasca affects you depends on:

  • If you have taken it before
  • Other medications you are taking
  • The amount taken
  • The strength of the decoction (varies from batch to batch)
  • Your current state of health
  • Weight
  • Where you take it and the vibe.

Traditional ayahuasca experiences are hosted by a shaman or curandero who prepares and concentrates the brew according to traditional methods and his experience. But there is no regulation of the industry and commercialization has taken over with money-grabbing imposters prevalent and hard to distinguish among legitimate ayahuasca centers. These may not have the same sense of ethics as some of the more genuine retreat centers or deliver the same experience, and at least 11 tourist deaths over the past decade have been associated with being part of an ayahuasca experience.

Ayahuasca should only be taken under the supervision of an experienced shaman or curandero because a trip can change your state of consciousness for several hours and you need to be kept safe.

DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca is classed as a Schedule I substance in the United States and it is illegal to import, possess, sell, distribute, or consume ayahuasca.

  • Ayahuasca. Updated 12/2021. Australia Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
  • Towards better ayahuasca practices a guide for organizers and participants.

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