What is the Ayahuasca Brew?

A glass of prepared ayahuasca brew
Ayahuasca brew. (c) Farmer Dodds, Flickr

Ayahuasca is a brew of plant-based material containing the psychedelic drug, Dimethyltryptamine or DMT. Ayahuasca has been used traditionally by the native people of the Amazon, and there are estimated to be around 20,000 regular religious ayahuasca users in the twenty-three countries where the so-called “ayahuasca religions” are present. Federal laws in the US, Canada, Holland, and Brazil  protect the religious use of ayahuasca and in Peru, it has recently been declared part of the National Cultural Heritage.

As more has been discovered about the drug, ayahuasca has recently become more popular as a recreational drug in the developed world. Ayahuasca has also been used experimentally in psychedelic therapy, as a potential treatment for addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco, and for the relief of depression and anxiety. As there are numerous well-established treatments for these conditions, readers are strongly cautioned against using ayahuasca or any other drug to self-medicate.

Ayahuasca can be made from various plant-based substances, including charuna leaf (psychotria virdis), chagropanga vine (Diplopterys cabrerana), ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), and assorted other admixture of plants.

The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca, DMT, is chemically related to psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms. It also contains and monoamine oxidase-inhibiting alkaloids (harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine).

An observational research study of Brazilian religious groups compares those who drink ayahuasca as part of their sacramental rituals, typically about twice a month, with a control group who were actively participating in non-ayahuasca religions. The results show potentially positive effects, including reduced substance use and improved neuropsychological performance and psychosocial adaptation.

However, the assumption should not be made that such effects are necessarily a result of consuming ayahuasca, as there may be additional benefits to the religious lifestyle of these individuals, or they may have had personality or other characteristics making them less likely to engage in other substance use or to have been neuropsychological performance and psychosocial adaptation. In addition, the study found that the regular ayahuasca users had structural brain changes. Much more extensive research would be needed to establish whether these patterns are consistent across ayahuasca users generally, whether they relate only to religious users of the drug, and to understand the role of ayahuasca in these patterns if they are consistent.

Given that ayahuasca is a plant based preparation, it shares certain difficulties with magic mushrooms from a research and use point of view. In particular, the strength of the drug contained in the plant is unknown, and preparations will vary in strength from batch to batch.

This is always a concern with hallucinogen drugs, even with experienced users, as the experience of an unexpectedly strong dose can lead to a bad trip.

At present, very little research has been conducted on ayahuasca. The study of the use of the drug in religious rituals may have very little relevance to first world recreational drug use, just as a study of the ritualized use of wine in Christian communion would not tell us very much about alcohol use disorder. In addition, the use of ayahuasca in the relatively safe and controlled setting of a therapeutic research study would not indicate that it is necessarily safe or harmless to use recreationally. As with all psychoactive drugs, the mental well-being, set and setting in which the drug is taken, and events that occur during intoxication are likely to impact greatly on the experience of users.

Sources

Bouso JC, González D, Fondevila S, Cutchet M, Fernández X, Ribeiro Barbosa PC, et al.(2012). Personality, Psychopathology, Life Attitudes and Neuropsychological Performance among Ritual Users of Ayahuasca: A Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042421

Tupper, K., Wood, E., Yensen, R., & Johnson, M. (2015). Psychedelic medicine: a re-emerging therapeutic paradigm. CMAJ. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.141124

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