Ayahuasca

Other names:

  • Chacruna (for the Psychotria viridis plant)
  • Hoasca (tea)
  • Yajé 

Ayahuasca is the Quechua name for a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and also for a brew made by combining the vine with leaves of plants, usually the Amazonian shrub Psychotria viridis, which contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This tea has been used for over a thousand years by Indigenous people in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador in shamanic practices and to help with the diagnosis or treatment of various medical, psychological, or spiritual conditions.

On its own, DMT won’t produce psychedelic effects if it’s taken orally, because the molecule is deactivated primarily in the gut by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase. But Banisteriopsis caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which keep that enzyme from destroying DMT, allowing the psychoactive molecules to reach the brain.

The effect profile of ayahuasca overlaps with that of the classic psychedelics generally, though with a greater likelihood of shaking, vomiting, and diarrhea. For some people, there is an enhanced likelihood of visions. The experience usually begins about thirty minutes after drinking the tea and continues for roughly four hours.

Research suggests that ayahuasca could be used in carefully structured settings to treat addiction, depression, and anxiety. Some users report that after taking ayahuasca they feel more creative, loving, and empathetic; see improvement in their memory and concentration; and generally have a more positive mood. Long-term use of ayahuasca has been shown to produce changes in brain chemistry and personality.

Ayahuasca therapy and ayahuasca use are illegal in the United States because DMT, its main active ingredient, is a Schedule I controlled substance, though exemptions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have been granted. A 2006 Supreme Court decision cleared the way for the União do Vegetal (UDV), a Brazilian church, to use ayahuasca in its religious practices. In 2009, an Oregon judge granted a similar exemption to The Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, an Ashland, Oregon, congregation in the Santo Daime tradition.

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