Over the past couple decades, consciousness adventurers from all around the world have been journeying to the Amazon rainforest in search of the sacred medicinal properties bore by its plant life. The medicine of which we speak is known as ayahuasca, a traditional brew that the Amazonian natives have used in shamanic practice for centuries. In recent years, Ayahuasca and the psychological journeys that it can induce have become so popular, that it seems to have become veritably trendy to partake in a ritual, especially among young adults and the psychedelically predisposed. Ironically, however, we realize that there are many individuals - even some who have ingested it - that do not understand what it is exactly that makes ayahuasca so magical, and what sets it apart from the other psychoactive compounds.
So, what is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is not simply one substance, but rather a carefully crafted concoction created by brewing at least two Amazonian plants together, often more. The primary ingredient, and the image that comes to most people's mind when thinking of ayahuasca, is the vine Banisteriopsis caapi. The vine is shredded and brewed together with the leaves of other indigenous plants, such as Diplopterys cabrerana, Psychotria viridis and Jurema preta. This combination of plants, if done correctly, results in a potion that contains both a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and DMT and is guaranteed to bring about an experience unlike any other. The strength and effectiveness of Ayahuasca can vary wildly, as it depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients and the experience of the shaman that is brewing it.
DMT and MAO Inhibition
The intense experiences that ayahuasca is known for are a direct result of the DMT combined with the MAO inhibition. Naturally, our bodies contain monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme that reacts to DMT and immediately begins breaking it down - drastically reducing its effectiveness and life span. However, with an MAO inhibitor - often either hamine, hermaline, or d-Tetrahydroharmine - the enzymes are unable to rapidly break down the DMT, resulting in a long and intense journey as the DMT runs its unobstructed course.
The effects of ayahuasca
Ayahuasca experiences are incredibly powerful, usually lasting between 4 to 6 hours. Rather than being described as a 'trip,' many describe it as a vision; a dream-like state in which spirits, animals, deities, and guides are manifested and even interacted with. Some individuals come back saying they have seen the future, or that they have visited regions of the world that they have never before been to. Others have said that they were granted the ability to fly over prismatic plains or what seemed like realms of geometric synchronization. While under the effects of ayahuasca, it is as if the individual's mind has been taken from this reality, and placed into another. Being responsible for such profoundly powerful effects, it is clear to see how this concoction has earned its place in spiritual practice and guidance among Amazonian natives.
While many people will speak of the intense psychological effects of ayahuasca, it is also important that the physical effects of it are also addressed. Consuming ayahuasca, for most people, tends to be paired with purging - vomiting and even diarrhea in some cases. Traditionally, this purging is viewed as a cleansing experience in which the traveler is able to associate this expulsion with underlying traumas that they are ridding themselves of. Other physiological effects can include cold flashes, tremors, increased heart rate, variations in blood pressure, and profuse sweating.
Though ayahuasca use in the proper environment is considered to be a safe practice, there is one theoretical concern that anyone taking it should be aware of. Tyramine is a compound that is found within many types of foods and is broken down by the body's MAO enzymes. Under the effects of MAO inhibition, however, it is understood that tyramine cannot be properly dealt with. Excessive amounts of tyramine in the body can potentially lead to a hypertensive crisis. Again, in the case of ayahuasca, this is only a theoretical complication, as no such reaction has ever been documented.
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Ott, Jonathan. "Pharmahuasca: Human Pharmacology of Oral DMT Plus Harmine." Taylor & Francis. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 171-177. doi:10.1080/02791072.1999.10471741 N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.