What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic tea made from brewing together certain vines and leaves native to the Amazon. While sometimes referred to as an illicit drug, ayahuasca is a combination of the ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves from the chacruna shrub (psychotria viridis). Neither plant is illegal in the US. However, the leaves contain the compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychotropic responsible for reports of intense hallucinations. DMT, unlike the plant that contains it, is classified as a Schedule I drug with high addiction potential and no medical use. Emerging studies, however, show there may be some benefit in using ayahuasca to treat opioid addiction and alcoholism.

For centuries, ayahuasca was used as a medicine and in religious ceremonies, despite the negative and fatal reactions that have occurred.

Ayahuasca is also known as huasca, yagé, brew, daime, the tea, and la purga. The plant was named by the Quechua and means “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul.” It takes hours to brew the red-brown tea. The result has an unpleasant, bitter taste. The vine and shrub are brewed together to lengthen the effects of the substance. Without the vine’s alkaloids, drinking the leaves’ DMT would cause effects lasting approximately 20 minutes. When the plants are combined, the effects of ayahuasca tea can last between 4 and 8 hours.

Effects Of Ayahuasca

Because the tea’s plant material is legal in the US, many people believe that drinking the hallucinogenic tea is safe. However, all drug use carries risk and some people have died immediately after using the substance. The tea is especially dangerous because its intensity is difficult to measure; batches vary in potency. 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”) can follow ayahuasca consumption. These symptoms are so commonly experienced, in fact, that many believe they’re an essential component of the experience and help to “purify” the body. Vomiting and diarrhea can potentially be 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.

Featured Centers Offering Treatment for Ayahuasca Addiction

The short-term physical effects of ayahuasca include:

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

The long-term effects of ayahuasca are still being studied. Some research suggests its use is unlikely to noticeably impair a normally 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.

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Ayahuasca Addiction And Dependence

The risk of developing a dependence or addiction to ayahuasca is relatively low. To date, no peer-reviewed evidence demonstrates that use of the tea (or DMT) leads to a tolerance. This doesn’t mean that a behavioral addiction to the experience of using the drug can’t still occur. Though drinking the tea has been described as “miserable,” some individuals frequently use the substance as a form of self-therapy.

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.

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