Ayahuasca is a potent hallucinogen that has been used in religious ceremonies in parts of South America for centuries. Below we look at Ayahuasca's history, how it is made, what its effects are, and whether it is addictive.

What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogen made from organic materials found in the amazon rainforest. The primary ingredient, ayahuasca root, contains DMT which is a powerful psychotropic hallucinogen.

Ayahuasca is made by combining the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves from the Chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis) and brewing them into liquid, often referred to as ayahuasca tea. These leaves and vines, native to the Amazon, when brewed and drunk have powerful hallucinogenic properties.

While the plants aren't illegal themselves in the US, they both contain the Schedule I drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychotropic that is responsible for ayahuasca’s powerful hallucinations. DMT is a Schedule I drug as it has a high potential for abuse and addiction and currently holds no medical use. 

Are Daime and Ayahuasca the same?

No, Daime refers to a spiritual practice that includes the use of ayahuasca. Ayahuasca has been used for centuries as a medicine and as part of religious ceremonies, such as those held by the Santo Daime faith. In Santo Daime, ayahuasca ceremonies lasting for several hours are a combination of a spiritual psychedelic experience and physical purging whereby practitioners drink a tea that is similar to ayahuasca but simply referred to as Daime. [2]

How is ayahuasca made?

Ayahuasca is made by brewing specific shrubs and roots (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) into a tea that is drunk. The original name for the plant comes from the Quechuan language and is roughly translated as “vine of the dead”. The tea itself takes several hours to brew and results in a bitter-tasting liquid that often makes people nauseous. Both the leaves and vines are needed for the drug to take full effect, the DMT effects of the chacruna shrub only lasting around 20 minutes without the vine's long-acting properties. 

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Effects of ayahuasca

In addition to intense nausea and vomiting, the most notable effects of the tea involve out-of-body hallucinations and altered perception that can make people see, hear, and feel things that are not real.

Typically, ayahuasca’s effects begin within 30 minutes to an hour, peak between 1 and 2 hours, and last for a total of 4 to 6 hours.

The immediate physical effects are largely negative–vomiting and diarrhea(or “purging”) is a routine characteristic of drinking the tea. They are so commonly experienced, in fact, that many believe that they help to “purify” the body. Vomiting and diarrhea can be potentially fatal because they are extremely dehydrating. Subsequently, cardiac arrest and seizures are a possibility. Additionally, ayahuasca’s interaction with serotonin in the brain can be lethal for people taking antidepressants. Regardless, most who try the drink report experiencing either good or bad “trips” as well as hallucinations that mimic near-death experiences. There have been no reported deaths associated with ayahuasca consumption.[1]

The short-term physical effects of ayahuasca include[3]:

  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Is ayahuasca dangerous?

Because the tea’s plant material is legal in the U.S., many people believe that drinking the hallucinogenic tea is safe. The tea can be dangerous, however, due to its intensity being difficult to measure, with most batches varying from one to another. 

The long-term effects of ayahuasca are still being studied. Some research suggests its use is unlikely to noticeably impair a normal-functioning brain. However, common hallucinogens have been known to cause persistent psychosis and Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)–a disorder characterized by random hallucinations or visual stimulation, such as seeing halos around moving objects. Additionally, some studies have found that psychedelic drugs, including ayahuasca, can cause changes in brain structure and personality.

Is Ayahuasca addictive?

The risk of developing a dependence or addiction to ayahuasca is relatively low. To date, no peer-reviewed evidence demonstrates that the use of the tea (or DMT) leads to tolerance building. Yet, these effects do not preclude a behavioral addiction to the experience of using the drug. Though drinking ayahuasca tea has been described as “miserable,” some individuals frequently use the substance as a form of self-therapy and for the supposed benefits of ayahuasca.

Because the possibility of hallucinogen-caused brain damage can be so severe, those who frequently abuse ayahuasca, take increasing amounts of it, or spend more and more time trying to secure stashes of it, should seek addiction treatment or therapy.