Collage of Syrian Rue Flower and Psilocybin

An Intro to Psilohuasca, the Latest Understudied Psychedelic Drug Combo

The use of psilohuasca is a relatively new practice that is still steeped in mystery.

DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Fact Checked By:
Published on
Updated July 12, 2024

Mareesa Stertz, a filmmaker, went to Holland in search of psilohuasca to liberate her “anxiety-wrought overactive mind,” which had caused issues her entire life and seriously impacted her sleep. She had long not been “able to turn off” when she laid down in bed each night, Stertz said during an episode of Merry Jane’s Healing Powers series, which she presented. 

The use of psilohuasca is a relatively new practice, and in seeking it out, Stertz was embarking on a psychedelic journey that few others have taken. Psilohuasca is purported to have many of the same effects as mushrooms but could be more likely to deliver a “breakthrough” dose effect that research suggests may have greater therapeutic benefits as it likely induces increased neuroplasticity. But with so many unknowns and no historical lineage of use, it is not clear yet whether there are little understood risks.

How Does Psilohuasca Affect the Body? 

The use of psilohuasca — a combination of psilocybin mushrooms and Syrian rue, which contains harmala alkaloids, a group of compounds that play an important role in ayahuasca preparations — is a relatively new practice, likely dating back just several decades, and it exists outside of traditional psychedelic medicine work. The experience is reported to be longer-lasting than a conventional mushroom trip, and significantly more intense as a result. It is unclear how exactly this happens, given a near total lack of data on the subject. 

READ: The Western Medical Model for Psychedelics Is Built on Cultural Erasure

Harmala alkaloids include drugs that work as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which research suggests may lead to the dangerous serotonin syndrome if taken with SSRI antidepressants. MAOIs may also potentially dullen the experience of MDMA, ketamine, or mescaline and pose their own host of dangers if taken at the same time. 

With psilocybin, however, the MAOI appears to amplify the experience, according to trip reports. (Interestingly, harmala alkaloids have also been discovered in small quantities in at least four Psilocybe species, though in low concentrations that are unlikely to be psychoactive.)

Psilohuasca always contains psilocybin mushrooms (hence the “psilo”), but can utilize certain MAOIs, like Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), or caapi (Banisteriopsis caapi), the plant which activates the DMT in the other ayahuasca ingredients (typically chacruna; Psychotria viridis, though other plants can also be used) when they are brewed together. The MAOI amplifies the psychoactivity of the tryptamine present in the Amazonian potion by preventing enzymes called monoamine oxidases, which in some cases control reactions within cells, from breaking down the drug in their usual manner — hence the term “monoamine oxidase inhibitors.”

Mushrooms growing in wild
Psilocybe cubensis. Image Courtesy of Dick Culbert via flickr.

“I have heard considerable anecdotal evidence to the effect that pre-treatment by Syrian rue seeds, B-carboline-rich seeds of Peganum harmala … used in [ayahuasca], can potentiate the effects of [psilocybin] mushrooms, pursuant to this general notion of B-carbolines as all-purpose potentiators of visionary drugs,” ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott wrote in a 1996 MAPS newsletter. “However, nobody has proffered hard evidence of this, even with the most rudimentary controls.”

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Ott noted the notorious variability of psilocybin mushrooms’ potency, even in commercially-cultivated batches. “Vague reports to the effect that when I took three pairs (or three grams) of mushrooms after swallowing a handful of ground-up Syrian rue seeds are worthless for the purpose of establishing synergy or antagonism,” Ott wrote. “Nevertheless, inasmuch as so many people have avowed that Syrian rue seeds potentiate [psilocybin] mushrooms, there must be some truth to this.”

In TiHKAL, a book on tryptamines, co-author Alexander Shulgin considers the claim that harmaline and Syrian rue seeds potentiate the effect of psilocybin mushrooms. Shulgin did not dismiss the apparent likelihood that Syrian rue increases the effect of shrooms, but he explains that both the plant and the mushroom are psychoactive in their own right, and that people sometimes assume Syrian rue has little effect on its own. How exactly they interact with each other remains to be seen, and efforts to explain the process at this stage could risk being speculative.

Safety of Psilohuasca

There are concerns around the consumption of psilohuasca, given that it has neither a long history of widespread usage nor any scientific data proving its safety. There has been a case, written up into the scientific literature, in which a large dose of Syrian rue tea proved toxic.

On at least one other occasion, someone who had been taking MAOI antidepressants was hospitalized after eating mushrooms, though the causation was far from clear as he was on several other medications. There have been warnings about the use of antidepressants and psychedelics due to the risk of serotonin syndrome. Others may believe that a mushroom trip alone is strong enough, and that prolonging it with another plant is unnecessarily risky. 

What It’s Like to Take Psilohuasca

Stertz took two grams of mushrooms and, an hour before, a dose of Syrian rue, an MAOI, and after two hours of severe discomfort and “moving shit through the body,” the visions appeared. “Fluorescent colored waves and patterns took over, and I felt about eight years old shooting laser beams out of my hands while taking a tour of the universe,” she said. 

Syrian Rue flower growing in wild
Syrian Rue. Image Courtesy of Adrián Pablo Rodríguez Quiroga via WikiCommons.

The patterns morphed into a river which ferried her to the foot of a mountain, shimmering in light. “A magnetic force was drawing me up,” Stertz recalled, explaining that the peak of the experience lasted a little over an hour. “The higher I climbed, the more I realized that everything around me was composed of these energetic entities that were basically the building blocks of reality. I found myself bathed in a light and came to realize that light was God and that God is everything, including me.”

Psilohuasca can, like ayahuasca, involve intense vomiting, and can lead to disorientation and distress during trips which may last up to 10 hours, double that of mushrooms, according to anecdotal trip reports which say the peak can last for more than 90 minutes. On Erowid, an encyclopedia of first-person drug experiences, a person referred to as “L” by her partner, reported a challenging experience in which she became distraught and began screaming. 

“L was now going nuts. wailing and screaming,” her partner wrote. “She became very rough. hitting things and causing loud noises …  I spent about an hour trying to talk her back down to reality.” He reported that they had “absolutely trashed” their bedroom in the process of the hectic trip, which they underwent without supervision from a tripsitter or shaman. “L feels a bit lost by it. She feels like she went crazy.”

Feelings of anxiety and mistrust can be amplified during psychedelic experiences. Especially without the presence of a trained guide, and structured integration, people can struggle to make sense of the trip afterwards and have enduring feelings of instability. Set and setting is key, too, and people can have vastly differing experiences within the same space. “Some people in certain settings can have nightmare experiences, while for others, it’s the most comfortable setting in the world,” Dr. Leor Roseman from Exeter University’s psychology department told DoubleBlind previously

All of this is to say, that especially for the psychedelically-naive, taking psilohuasca at home alone can be potentially perilous. But finding a reputable facilitator is not easy either, underlining the difficulty of accessing safe experiences. 

“I’ve sat with psilohuasca about 50 times,” another underground guide told DoubleBlind.  “Combining mushrooms and the ayahuasca vine is a beautiful, heart-opening marriage. There are more tears, more release. People go a little deeper, a little longer.”

There is a relative dearth of not just data on psilohuasca, but authoritative writing about it on the internet, reflecting how it is a relatively new and niche area of psychedelics, and how few experienced and knowledgeable practitioners have begun serving it. “There are still a lot of people that are serving medicine that probably shouldn’t, because they’re not professional,” the guide said. “They’re also scared to have too much out there in writing,” due to its illegality. In any case, there are not many people out there who only serve psilohuasca. 

It is not something Stertz recommends taking lightly, though, despite tripping with it once more following her film, since the physically grueling experiences were “hard on the system.”

Today, Stertz says that living without preconceptions and expectations, as she came to understand as paramount during the trips, is an ongoing process and that the lessons are the sort that take lifetimes to learn. It shows that even the most powerful psychedelics can only provide a window into paradise, and that it is the job of the psychonaut to do the work to live it every day. “Let me tell you,” she says of the intense trips, “it was not a party.”

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