Ayahuasca: Potential Medicine Or a New Addictive Substance

Last Updated: December 18, 2019

People of Amazon have been taking Ayahuasca for hundreds of years. In fact, they believe this drink brings them closer to the spiritual world.
Even some recent scientific studies suggest it may enhance creativity. Also, it may change one’s outlook on life. All things considered, it seems to be quite a promising substance for the medical community. However, in some cases, its hallucinogenic properties and addictive potential create suspicion.

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a brew that produces mind-altering effects on drug users and has a long history of use. They prepare it from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi. It may also contain other plant extracts. In most cases, they add the leaves of Psychotria Viridis. That way, they get a more intense effect. It has widespread use in traditional shamanic practices. They call these Ayahuasca ceremonies.

How Ayahuasca Affects The Brain?

There are two ways Ayahuasca causes changes in the consciousness. First, the chemicals in Banisteriopsis caapi themselves have some of the mind-altering properties. Next, the leaves of Psychotria Viridis contain a potent chemical, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
DMT is a potent psychedelic compound that occurs naturally in the body. In addition, some plants also contain it. It works on certain brain areas. It activates the receptors of serotonin and dopamine in there. As a result, one experiences an altered state of consciousness.
As a matter of fact, when one takes DMT, an enzyme digests it in the stomach. This feature does not allow to get high. It seems the ancient people were very good in science. To prevent this, they take it with the Ayahuasca vine.
The vine contains certain chemicals that can block the activity of the enzyme. They call these monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). When one takes the mixture, it results in a cumulative effect.

Can Ayahuasca Cause Addiction?

Indeed, psychedelics are not addictive in nature. That is to say, it does not cause physical dependence like the opiates or cocaine. However, the risk of psychological dependence is always present. One should note that in psychological dependence, only the brain wants the drug.

Is Ayahuasca Retreat A Risky Affair?

There are some reasons why participating in Ayahuasca tea ceremonies may be risky. The first one is potential exposure to very high doses of Ayahuasca. This can be more damaging if one takes it under the supervision of a fake or inexperienced shaman. Moreover, there are reports of rape and sexual molestation in the retreats.
For these reasons, there is a need for extra care during the practice.

Ayahuasca Side Effects

Its use causes severe hallucinations. The most common are seeing things that do not exist. Besides, one may also feel like talking to the spirits. Shamans call this spiritual awakening. On the other hand, medical professionals say this is just one of the hallucinogens.
The physical effects of Ayahuasca may include one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Higher pain tolerance
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Enlarged pupils

Otherwise, the effects may be more profound if one already has a heart disorder. Thus, for such condition, it is better to not have the idea of trying this drink.
There have been reports of deaths due to an allergic reaction to Ayahuasca. Therefore, take proper care if there are any concerns about this.

What Are The Potential Benefits Of Ayahuasca?

After it came to the western world in the 1950s, many scientists have attempted to see if it is useful. There is anecdotal evidence on its role in treating mental depression and anxiety. However, conclusive results still seem years away.

The Bottom-line

Taking Ayahuasca may be beneficial for some people. This is only if they take it under the supervision of an experienced shaman. Also, it is important to be aware of all illnesses which may worsen the experience after participating in this practice. Reported cases of death and sexual molestation should be among the concerns. This should be before joining the Ayahuasca ceremony.
Its legal status in the US is debatable. Not illegal in itself, DMT is a schedule I substance. This is according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Still, the religious use is legal.
It is not addictive. However, there are reports of increasing numbers of calls to various poison centers. This indicates its use has surged in the recent years. It is better to know the principles of drug addiction treatment.
The decision to join Ayahuasca ceremony is personal matter. Even so, it is vital to take care of one’s health and legalities beforehand. It may be risky or fruitful, all depends on one’s response and fate.

Page Sources

  1. M. V. Uthaug, K. van Oorsouw, K. P. C. Kuypers. Sub-acute and long-term effects of ayahuasca on affect and cognitive thinking style and their association with ego dissolution. Psychopharmacology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6182612/2018; 235(10): 2979–2989.
  2. Agurell, S., B. Holmstedt, J.-E. Lindgren & R. E. Schultes 1969. Alkaloids in certain species of Virola and other South American plants of ethnopharmacologic interest. Acta Chem. Scand.23: 903–916.

Published on: April 27th, 2017

Updated on: December 18th, 2019

About Author

Peter J. Grinspoon, MD

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is an experienced physician with long-term clinical practice experience. As a former analgesic addict, Dr. Grinspoon knows precisely how important it is to provide patients with effective treatment and support. Medical writing for him is the way to communicate with people and inform them about their health.


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