Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew stimulates the senses & can reduce mental health issues. Learn more about this controversial drink.

Ayahuasca is a complex and powerful brew or tea that exerts many psychoactive effects on users and enhances emotions and spiritual introspection.

Ayahuasca also has medicinal properties in purging the body and treating mental health issues. Despite these properties, ayahuasca has regulatory barriers and some adverse side effects.

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca plant
Ayahuasca plant

Ayahuasca (or hoasca) is a psychoactive brew made from two hallucinogenic plants (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis). Traditionally, this brew is used by the natives of South America for its hallucinogenic properties in their spiritual and cultural practices [1].

The brew is traditionally made by boiling the bark and stems of the two plants (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) [2].

Archeological evidence suggests that the earliest use of ayahuasca was more than four thousand years ago [3].

In the 20th century, the popularity of ayahuasca began spreading around the world because of globalization and religious tourism [4].

Despite having cultural significance, the legality of ayahuasca is a controversial issue. Ayahuasca contains DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) which is banned around the world under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 [5, 6].

In the United States, ayahuasca plants are legal, but the brews containing the illegal substances (DMT) are illegal for recreational use. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of using ayahuasca plants for religious purposes under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 [7].

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic blend that causes psychedelic effects, which are stimulating by mixing different sensations. These unique sensations allow the users to experience an out-of-body spiritual journey that delivers advice or counseling to the users [8].

Because of these psychedelic effects, ayahuasca is associated with shamanism. The ayahuasca-induced state of mind allows users to enter a trance state and hallucinate [8].

How Does Ayahuasca Work?

The ayahuasca brew contains varying concentrations of psychedelic drugs (DMT and MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids), depending on the batch. These psychedelic drugs work in tandem to exert its effects on the brain.

Administration of these psychedelic drugs creates an altered state of mind. Users experience introspective properties such as visions, the recollection of previous memories, and enhanced emotions [9].

The ayahuasca brew contains harmine and harmaline, which selectively inhibits MAO-A (Monoamine oxidase-A) in the gut. MAO-A is an enzyme that breaks down (oxidizes and degrades) certain chemicals and neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine) [10].

DMT and serotonin have similar structure
DMT and serotonin have similar structures.

DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a common but potent chemical found in many different plant species. It has similar molecular structures to serotonin, and could also be degraded by MAO-A (an enzyme that breaks down serotonin).

Inhibition of MOA-A allows DMT to be absorbed in the gut, unmetabolized. It then enters the bloodstream where DMT can cross the blood-brain barrier [9].

In the brain, DMT binds to serotonin receptors (5-HT1A, -2A, and -2C), trace amine associated receptors (TAAR6), and sigma receptors (Sig-1R), causing hallucinogenic and antidepressive effects [11].

People administered ayahuasca showed increased brain activities in regions are associated with physical sensations, emotional arousal, and subjective feelings state (frontal and paralimbic brain regions) [12].

Desired Short-Term Effects of Ayahuasca

Although most of the ayahuasca’s effects are subjective to the user, there are some appealing effects that are consistent between users. Ayahuasca’s appealing short-term effects include:

  • A feeling of excitement [13]
  • Change in rate of thinking [13]
  • Change in quality of thinking [13]
  • Euphoria [14]
  • New insights [14]
  • Hallucinogenic visions [14]
  • Emotional arousal [12]
  • Increased introspection [15]
  • Positive mood [15]

Top 4 Health Benefits

The ayahuasca brew is a complex blend that ranges slightly in additives and ingredients depending on the brew and the region. The various mixtures alter the uses, potencies, effects, and color of the brew [16].

Despite these minor differences, ayahuasca has some health benefits and satisfying intended effects on the user.

1) Clears the Body of Parasites

Ayahuasca helps clear the gut and digestive tract of human parasites in 2 steps.

The first step is that ayahuasca has intense purgative properties that physically clear the body of parasites and microbial organisms. By blocking MAO-A in the gut, it also increases serotonin in the gut, which may induce vomiting and diarrhea. This can clear the body of worms and other parasites [17, 8].

The harmine and harmaline (harmala alkaloids) found in ayahuasca are antiparasitic agents that chemically kill the parasites without significantly causing harm to the individual [18, 17, 19].

These agents are also antimicrobial agents that kill bacterial organisms such as E. coli, Salmonella, and yeast (all cell-based studies) [17, 20].

2) Reduces Depression

Ayahuasca targets regions of the brain that are associated with emotion processing and motivation (frontal and paralimbic) [12].

In several small-scale clinical studies, ayahuasca helped with depression and anxiety, including recurrent cases. It has rapid and sustained anti-depressive effects with the only known side effect being vomiting. However, there was potential for tolerance [21, 22, 23, 22, 21, 23].

Ayahuasca increased blood flow to the brain regions that control mood and emotional states (nucleus accumbens, insula, subgenual area).

The chemical DMT of ayahuasca may help with depression by activating serotonin receptors in these regions (5-HT1A, -2A, and -2C) [22, 23, 14].

3) May Help Drug Addiction

As a hallucinogen, ayahuasca induces changes in personality or behavior and causes anti-addictive effects [24, 25].

In the appropriate contexts, ayahuasca use might contribute to substance addiction treatment through interconnected body-oriented, psychological, and spiritual experiences, which lead to a diminishment in cravings [26].

Ayahuasca enhances creative thinking while decreasing conventional thinking. This increases psychological flexibility and thus helps with addiction[27].

In a small study involving 12 participants, ayahuasca-assisted therapy helped with substance abuse [28].

4) Potential Cancer Therapeutic

Despite anecdotal stories about individuals using ayahuasca as a therapeutic for certain forms of cancer, there are very few studies available regarding its safety and effectiveness as a cancer treatment. Legal restrictions make these studies difficult to proceed.

Ayahuasca helps with cancer by:

How Ayahuasca combats cancer
How Ayahuasca combats cancer

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4687784/

Side Effects

Although the most prominent side effects of ayahuasca are diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, these valued purgative qualities are not considered adverse because the effects are intended [23].

Both patients and healers believe that ayahuasca acts as a cleansing agent that expels the negatives of a disease in order to restore an individual to health [30, 31].

Regardless of the intended effects, the adverse effects of ayahuasca are potentially dangerous and fatal. Ayahuasca consumption should be cautioned, and the effects should be understood before administration.

1) Produces Strong Physical Symptoms

Ayahuasca contains DMT and harmine, which increases blood pressure, heart rate, and rectal temperature, and dilates the pupils [13].

Harmine also induces tremors in individuals (through serotonin) [32].

In most circumstances, ayahuasca only poses a moderate risk for heart and blood pressure problems in most healthy individuals. However, some people develop hypertension after ayahuasca use [33].

Ayahuasca also elevates certain hormones in the body (prolactin, cortisol, and growth hormone), causing a rise in body temperature and rate of breathing [33].

As a consequence of the physical effects of ayahuasca, other symptoms include profuse sweating and shivering [34].

2) Long-term Use May Be Toxic

Short-term usage of ayahuasca is relatively safe and harmless. Due to limited clinical studies and literature on ayahuasca, the toxicity of ayahuasca use in pregnant mothers and long-term use is still unknown [33].

In pregnant rats, ayahuasca is toxic to both the baby and the mother. The toxicity displayed appears to be dose dependent [35].

When combined with certain foods and medications that increase serotonin, ayahuasca causes serotonin syndrome, which may be fatal [36].

Symptoms include initial euphoria, nausea, and confusion followed by tremors, vomiting, convulsions, and loss of consciousness. In extreme cases, death can occur [34].

There has been one reported death directly associated with the intoxication of ayahuasca [37].

3) Ayahuasca Causes Short-Term Psychological Distress

Ayahuasca is used primarily for its psychological and emotional cathartic effects. Individuals who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies associate these effects with experiencing spirituality and deeper insights [38].

However, during casual ayahuasca use, individuals may experience strong emotional intensity. DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) generates aversive psychological effects or short term psychotic episodes. Fortunately, these effects are only temporary and wear off after a few hours [39].

Similar to other hallucinogens, individuals with a personal or family psychiatric history of psychotic or manic episodes are more at risk of developing these episodes when using ayahuasca. It is still unclear why some people suffer psychotic reactions to ayahuasca [40].

Possibly, a genetic metabolic error and the presence of a hallucinogen (DMT) can act secondarily on the brain, causing an altered state of consciousness and psychosis [41].

Joe has seen a few people who suffered long-term damage from Ayahuasca use. They had PTSD-like symptoms (fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, etc.). In those cases, they took too much.

Ayahuasca Retreat and Ceremony


Due to popularity, facilities that specialize in ayahuasca retreats in South America are growing in numbers, and the retreats are being tailored towards Westerners [42].

Ayahuasca retreats usually involve an Amazonian shaman leading ceremonies or sessions in which the tourists drink ayahuasca tea subjective to an intended psychological or physical effect [43].

The format of these retreats consists of night-long ayahuasca sessions with one to two days’ rest, artistic activities, and academic presentations. Subsequent ayahuasca sessions follow the periods of rest [30].

People join ayahuasca retreats for spiritual or personal development, emotional healing, or the development of personal self-awareness [30].

Genes That Affect How People Respond to Ayahuasca

The following are genes that facilitate the breakdown ayahuasca. These genes not only lessen the effects of ayahuasca but also facilitate the excretion of the brew:

  • CYP2D6 gene: Codes for an enzyme (human cytochrome P450 isozyme 2D6) that breaks down harmine [44]
  • MAO-A gene: Codes for an enzyme (Monoamine oxidase A) that breaks down DMT [44]

The following are receptors affected by ayahuasca:

  • 5-HT1A (Serotonin receptor) [11]
  • 5-HT2A (Serotonin receptor) [11]
  • 5-HT2C (Serotonin receptor) [11]
  • TAAR6 (Trace amine-associated receptor) [11]
  • Sig-1R (Sigma receptors) [11]

SelfDecode has these genes.

User Experiences with Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca consumption is a polarizing experience among different users.

For one individual, their experience with ayahuasca was hallucinogenic and invigorating. That individual was able to see the “changing densities, shapes, and colors of what once was solid, fixed material things.” Ayahuasca gave new insights for that individual.”

For another individual, their experience with ayahuasca was terrifying but enlightening. The intensity of the experience for the individual was overpowering as sensations, perceptions, and emotions drastically change. According to them, “I get sucked down into a dark abyss. I am now completely on my own in an empty universe. A space that feels endless, yet claustrophobic. I have never felt this alone before. The only entity alive in this universe is me, nothing else. I have no sense of a material body at this point. I am only a ‘consciousness of self’ that floats around in a cold, dead, dark void. Whatever this place is, it feels like hell.” This individual cautions, “To anyone thinking about trying Ayahuasca I would say this: It is an amazing experience, but you have to know what you are getting yourself into. I had read a lot about it and thought I was prepared, I wasn’t.”

About the Author

Nattha Wannissorn - PHD (MOLECULAR GENETICS) - Writer at Selfhacked

Nattha Wannissorn, PhD

PhD (Molecular Genetics)

Nattha received her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and her undergraduate degree in Molecular and Computational Biology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Aside from having spent 15 years in biomedical research and health sciences, Nattha is also a registered holistic nutritionist, a certified personal trainer, has a precision nutrition level 1 certification, and is a certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner. As a holistic practitioner with a strong science background, Nattha is an advocate of science literacy in health topics and self-experimentation.

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