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Health Effects of Banisteriopsis caapi + Side Effects

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

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Brain

Banisteriopsis caapi is a plant famous for its use in ayahuasca. However, it may have other uses on its own. Read on to learn about how Banisteriopsis caapi may protect against Parkinson’s disease, improve depression, and protect the brain.

What Is Banisteriopsis caapi?

Banisteriopsis caapi (B. caapi) is a plant that is used throughout the Amazonian region alone or in combination with Psychotria viridis to form ayahuasca [1, 2].

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogen commonly used in some South American indigenous rituals. However, some shamans and churches in the region use Banisteriopsis caapi without Psychotria viridis [3, 1].

Banisteriopsis caapi has components that inhibit MAO-A and serotonin uptake [4].

Indigenous Use

The Piaroa are an ethnic group located in southern Venezuela who use Banisteriopsis caapi (known as tuhuipä or capi) for a variety of purposes. Unlike other Amazonian societies, the Piaroa do not use Banisteriopsis caapi to make ayahuasca [1].

Instead, shamans consume the cambium, or the elbow of the plant, 1 to 6 hours before smoking another psychoactive plant called yuhuä or yopo. Shamans typically use Banisteriopsis caapi during ceremonies, for both healing and ritual purposes [1].

When taken alone, shamans say that Banisteriopsis caapi helps enhance people’s empathy, allowing them to give guidance in the community [1].

It is also used in Piaroa society as a [1]:

  • Hunger suppressant
  • Stimulant
  • Hunting aid (improving vision)

Importantly, the antidepressant effect of Banisteriopsis caapi and its widespread use throughout Piaroa society may have helped promote and maintain their social stability [1].

Components

Alkaloids

The three main alkaloids in Banisteriopsis caapi, known as beta-carbolines or harmala alkaloids, are harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline [5].

The alkaloids are MAO inhibitors and responsible for Banisteriopsis caapi’s potential brain enhancement, antioxidant, antidepressant, and anti-Parkinson’s effects [6, 7, 8, 9].

One study identified additional alkaloids: banistenoside A, banistenoside B, and harmol [6].

Proanthocyanidins

Two other active components are antioxidant flavanols known as proanthocyanidins: epicatechin and procyanidin B2 [6].

These are also partly responsible for Banisteriopsis caapi’s MAO-B inhibition [6, 10].

Natural Sources and Resin

Banisteriopsis caapi can be consumed in multiple ways. The dried bark of its large branch contains the highest concentrations of banistenoside A, banistenoside B, tetrahydroharmine, harmine, epicatechin, and procyanidin B2 [6].

Additionally, Banisteriopsis caapi stems can be used to make tea [7].

Banisteriopsis caapi supplements are sold as a resin extract, resin liquid, or as the vine, itself. Note, however, that they are not approved by the FDA for any conditions due to the lack of solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for supplements but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing with Banisteriopsis caapi.

How Does Banisteriopsis caapi Work?

MAO Inhibitor

The beta-carbolines harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline are MAO-A inhibitors [6].

In the gut, they prevent MAO-A from breaking down N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), allowing it to travel to the brain and pass the blood-brain barrier [5].

Furthermore, this MAO-A inhibition stimulates dopamine release, which may help with Parkinson’s disease symptoms [9].

Tetrahydroharmine also inhibits serotonin reuptake, which helps the DMT in ayahuasca cause hallucinations [7, 4].

Serotonin reuptake inhibition may also have antidepressant effects [11].

Harmine, harmaline, epicatechin, and procyanidin B2 inhibit MAO-B [10, 6].

MOA-B inhibitors may improve Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases by reducing oxidative neurodegeneration in cells [12].

Serotonin and Dopamine Boost

In rat brain cells (rat striatal slices) harmaline and harmine from Banisteriopsis caapi increased dopamine release [9].

In rat fetuses, harmaline increased brain levels of serotonin and dopamine, but not norepinephrine [13].

Health Effects

Insufficient Evidence for:

1) Parkinson’s Disease

In a study of 30 people with newly diagnosed Parkinson’s disease, one dose of Banisteriopsis caapi improved motor function for all patients. The effects appeared after one hour and lasted for 3 more hours [14].

However, all Banisteriopsis caapi patients experienced adverse effects. They all experienced nausea/vomiting and abnormal, involuntary movements and tremors. Additionally, most of them also reported dizziness, diarrhea, and agitation, and one patient experienced confusion/hallucinations [14].

In rat brain cells, the harmaline and harmine from Banisteriopsis caapi stem extracts inhibited MAO-A. This suggests that these beta-carbolines may increase dopamine levels, which are lower in Parkinson’s disease [9].

Banisteriopsis caapi and other MAO-B inhibitors also fight motor symptoms and problems found in Parkinson’s disease based on animal studies [15, 12, 16].

In both human and animal cells, harmine and harmaline strongly inhibit human MAO-B enzymes while epicatechin and procyanidin B2 do so moderately [10].

However, in rat brain cells, beta-carbolines did not significantly inhibit MAO-B [9].

In mouse cells, harmaline and harmine reduced brain damage from various toxins (MPTP and MPP+) that cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms in humans and other primates. Based on this model, these beta-carbolines may slow down Parkinson’s progression by protecting the brain against oxidative cell damage [17].

Taken together, a small clinical trial and some animal and cell research cannot be considered conclusive evidence that Banisteriopsis caapi improves Parkinson’s disease. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.

2) Depression and Anxiety

In 2 small trials on 12 people, a single dose of ayahuasca helped improve both depression and anxiety. In another trial on 9 people, it reduced panic and hopelessness but had no effects on state- or trait-anxiety [18, 19, 20].

Chemical analyses of Banisteriopsis caapi suggest that this plant may be responsible for some of the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects of ayahuasca. The harmine and harmaline in Banisteriopsis caapi inhibit MAO-A, while tetrahydroharmine moderately inhibits serotonin reuptake. These two mechanisms may reduce depression [8, 11].

In mice, harmine from Banisteriopsis caapi had antidepressant effects [21].

In fish, exposure to infused ayahuasca reduced anxiety [22]

Furthermore, harmine stimulated the birth of brain cells (by increasing BDNF levels) and reduced depressive behavior in rats [23].

Harmaline, harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmol (a by-product of harmaline) caused adult nerve cell formation (neurogenesis) in mice [7].

Importantly, the birth of brain cells (neurogenesis) helped fight anxiety and depression in animal studies, This activity resembles antidepressant drugs that stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain [24, 7, 25, 26, 27].

The evidence to support the use of Banisteriopsis caapi for depression and anxiety comes from 3 small trials (which didn’t even test the plant alone but as part of ayahuasca) and some animal and cell-based research. Further clinical research is required to shed some light on this potential benefit.

Animal Research (Lack of Evidence)

No clinical evidence supports the use of Banisteriopsis caapi to enhance and protect brain function. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

Brain Enhancer and an Antioxidant

In mouse brains, harmine, tetrahydroharmine, harmaline, and harmol stimulated [7]:

  • Neurogenesis
  • Stem cell growth, migration, and production

According to a review of 2 animal cells and 9 animal studies, harmine increased BDNF and protected the brain. It decreased [28]:

  • Inflammation
  • Oxidative stress
  • Nerve cell damage and death due to overactivation of receptors (excitotoxicity)

Furthermore, it improved memory and learning in animals [28].

In cells, epicatechin and procyanidin from Banisteriopsis caapi acted as antioxidants [6].

In mice, beta-carbolines reduced brain damage caused by dopamine and the Parkinson’s-like toxins MPTP and MPP+ [17].

Side Effects

Keep in mind that the safety profile of Banisteriopsis caapi is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is not a definite one, and you should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.

In the only clinical trial using Banisteriopsis caapi alone, the adverse effects reported include [14]:

  • Moderate or severe nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Confusion/hallucinations
  • Abnormal involuntary movements or worsened tremor

High doses of harmine (> 60 mg) may also cause nausea and/or vomiting [29].

In animals, harmaline and harmine induced tremors [30].

Harmine caused Purkinje cell loss in rodents, which may cause this tremor. Purkinje cells release the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain [31].

Overuse of plants containing beta-carboline may be toxic. Beta-carboline intoxication has been reported to cause [32]:

  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Loss of control over body movement (locomotor ataxia)
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Confusion/agitation

In rats, ayahuasca caused higher activation in the brain areas involved in serotonin release, causing some temporary brain injury [11].

Drug Interactions

Supplement/Herb/Nutrient-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let them know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.

The combination of Banisteriopsis caapi with tryptamine-containing plants (such as ayahuasca) may cause hallucinations [1].

Dosage

Because Banisteriopsis caapi is not approved by the FDA for any conditions, there is no official dose. Users and supplement manufacturers have established unofficial doses based on trial and error. Note that the effects increase with the dose and discuss with your doctor which dose of this plant (if any) may help in your case [33].

Recreational Use

Blog posts suggest that, due to differences in individual response as well as variability in vine strength, it is best to start at low concentrations such as 10 g and increase as needed (up to 100 g).

In fact, some users complain about supplement websites that the Banisteriopsis caapi supplements purchased did not include a dosage recommendation.

Parkinson’s Disease

In people with Parkinson’s disease, daily doses of 20-40 mg of banisterine (a Banisteriopsis caapi alkaloid) improved the symptoms [31].

Limitations and Caveats

Due to the lack of human studies on Banisteriopsis caapi, few conclusions can be drawn on its effectiveness and additional risks or side effects.

Banisteriopsis caapi vines may vary widely in alkaloid concentrations, which may negatively or positively impact individual use. In fact, in the Amazon region alone, there are at least 30 different species of Banisteriopsis caapi with their own prescribed use due to wide chemical variation [10].

User Experiences

The opinions expressed in this section are solely those of the Banisteriopsis caapi users, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. Their reviews do not represent the opinions of SelfHacked. SelfHacked does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare providers because of something you have read on SelfHacked. We understand that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.

One user who took 100 g mentioned visual hallucinations and difficulty moving but still reported having a “clear mind.” This user experienced frequent “purging” and intense nausea.

Another user took 110 g and experienced little effect. It caused blurriness, but the user reportedly remained clear-headed. The user also could not sleep afterward.

Furthermore, another person reported movement issues and had to stay on a mountain for 6 hours because of it.

Want Better Ways to Improve Your Mood?

If you’re interested in natural and more targeted ways of improving your mood, we at SelfHacked recommend checking out this mood DNA wellness report. It gives genetic-based diet, lifestyle and supplement tips that can help improve your mood. The recommendations are personalized based on your genes.

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About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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