For thousands of years, indigenous people native to the Amazon have ingested a mystical and potent plant-based brew called ayahuasca. Often sipped during carefully curated ceremonies hosted by a plant medicine facilitator or shaman, ayahuasca’s effects are often intertwined with immense healing and profound spirituality. Although the origin story of ayahuasca has been befuddled by the passage of time and lack of archaeological evidence, the various traditional shamanistic rituals that guide the usage of this plant-based brew remain not only important—but necessary—to the experience.
Over the span of a few decades, ayahuasca has expanded beyond the confines of indigenous communities scattered across South American countries. Tourists from all over the Western world are flocking to ayahuasca retreats in countries like Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil to obtain healing and a heightened sense of their own spirituality. Despite the long-established use of this plant medicine, the concrete benefits of ayahuasca are just coming to light through the lens of science.
How exactly can this plant medicine benefit your own life? Before we attempt to meld the scarce research with centuries of traditional healing to unearth the ayahuasca benefits, let’s first explore what ayahuasca is and how the experience transpires.
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What Is Ayahuasca? A Quick Overview of the Ayahuasca Experience
Native to South America, Ayahuasca is a psychotropic brew traditionally used for religious and healing purposes by indigenous Amazonian people. It’s typically made from an amalgamation of two main plant-based ingredients: Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis.
The psychoactive component of the brew is typically a shrubby plant called Psychotria viridis, which in some instances is substituted by Psychotria carthagenensis or Diplopterys cabrerana. The leaves of this plant contain the extraordinarily dynamic and mind-morphing hallucinogen DMT.
Banisteriopsis caapi is a vine that doesn’t actually create any psychedelic effects, but rather is used as an MAOI, or monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Our bodies naturally contain the MAO enzyme in the stomach, which would keep the DMT from reaching the bloodstream. Without the MAO inhibitor, the DMT would get broken down by these enzymes in your liver and damper the psychedelic and spiritual experience.
Usually, the ingestion of ayahuasca, often referred to as a “plant spirit,” launches the individual into an enigmatic realm that reflects the wisdom and harmony of Mother Earth in many forms. Commonly referred to as “realms,” these powerful hallucinations tend to help people unwrap past traumas that have been suppressed, allowing them to re-enter their normal state of consciousness with a reinvigorated outlook on everyday life.
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“When we ingest this medicine we’re entering another dimension and in that realm there are things that aren’t familiar to us,” says Vanessa Caldarelli, the owner of Posada Natura, a Costa Rican wellness retreat that hosts ayahuasca ceremonies. “There are things that we don’t deal with on a daily basis. We see things that are real, but they just aren’t in our normal conscious reality.”
The details of the session are fully contingent on the plant medicine facilitator or shaman that is guiding the subject. At Posada Natura, each ayahuasca ceremony is tailored toward the specific group “sitting” that night, and the specific facilitator leading the way.
This personalized approach is developed after visitors are screened, with the program and group size contingent upon the experience and mental state of each individual. The length and details of the ceremony also hinge on the retreat and traditions put forth by the shaman or facilitator.
At the SpiritQuest Shamanic Sanctuary, founded by the late Don Howard, the standard program consists of four ceremonies over eight full days. Posada Natura typically integrates around three ayahuasca ceremonies into its program (which also includes mindful activities like nature walks and yoga), though this is subject to change depending on the group and plant facilitator.
Aside from the ceremony itself, each program also includes specific guidelines for preparation and integration. Over the weeks prior to ceremony, participants are asked to follow a strict diet (often called a “dieta”) that varies depending on the ritual. It’s also common for participants to abstain from alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and sex in order to prepare the body for the experience.
Benefits of Ayahuasca for Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, and Addiction
Despite the highly specific tradition that surrounds this psychedelic, the ayahuasca experience has benefited people from all walks of life. This plant medicine has proven particularly effective for those dealing with conditions such as depression and PTSD. There’s a fair amount of research that scratches the surface of these benefits, along with treasure troves of anecdotal accounts from participants who experienced life-altering effects from ayahuasca.
“The medicine will illuminate the roots of everything that’s causing you dissonance in your life. And it will also help you heal,” says Caldarelli. “There’s a purgative aspect of the medicine that brings us through releasing these really deeply stuffed emotional blockages that are the source of our depression or anxiety or whatever it is that we’re trying to heal.”
Here’s a closer look at what existing research and seasoned experts have to say about the benefits of ayahuasca for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction treatment.
Ayahuasca for Depression and Anxiety
Early scientific evidence appears to back the belief that ayahuasca could be a useful tool in combating depression.
A recent study published in March 2019 found that ayahuasca could help with treatment-resistant depression. The double-blind randomized trial involved 29 patients, some of whom were given a single dose of ayahuasca and others a placebo. The results showed that ayahuasca produced significant antidepressant effects compared to the placebo.
Other research has examined ayahuasca’s ability to modulate levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that regulates emotional and cognitive processes. Cortisol levels are thought to play a major role in the onset of depression, and properly regulating it has become a critical aspect of treatment. Recent findings suggest that ayahuasca could modulate salivary cortisol levels, once again showcasing its potential value as a natural antidepressant.
In another study observing 57 ayahuasca ceremony attendees in the Netherlands and Colombia found that ratings of depression and stress dramatically dropped after the ceremony and persisted for four weeks. Interestingly, the researchers found a correlation between the magnitude of ego dissolution and the individual’s level of life satisfaction, mindfulness, and overall changes.
Ayahuasca and Treatment for PTSD
Akin to the positive effects that ayahuasca sessions appear to have on depression, sparsely available evidence also portrays this plant medicine as a useful tool for PTSD patients. In one study published in April 2018, researchers postulated that the effects of ayahuasca may target traumatic memories and provide healing in PTSD patients.
The researchers behind this study state that DMT, one of the alkaloids found in ayahuasca, activates sigma 1 receptors (SIGMAR1), which is a multi-faceted stress-responsive receptor that promotes cell survival, neuroprotection, neuroplasticity, and neuroimmunomodulation. As MAOIs prevent the degradation of DMT, this appears to allow PTSD patients to retrieve repressed memories, making them easier to identify and alter.
Read: The Ayahuasca Privilege
As per usual with psychedelics, more research is needed to understand the full extent of how ayahuasca interacts with the sigma 1 and other receptors, but this particular study can be backed up by the anecdotal experiences many have had at ayahuasca ceremonies. Still, it’s important to note that this plant medicine shouldn’t be treated as a cure-all, but rather a specialized tool in a toolbox that includes therapy and other healing modalities.
“A lot of the time, people with depression or PTSD are not necessarily going to get a miracle cure from the ayahuasca ceremony,” says the director of the plant medicine program at Posada, who wished to withhold their name. “It has to really be put in proper context that ayahuasca can be something that can be enormously beneficial, but it works best when it’s in combination with other support.”
Ayahuasca Benefits for Addiction Treatment
Multiple studies have also shown that ayahuasca could be a useful tool in fighting addiction to substances like alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine. When it comes to research, the apparent value of ayahuasca for addiction treatment may have the most solid scientific backing of all aforementioned mental conditions.
In a 2014 study that included interviews with therapists who administered ayahuasca for addiction treatment and 14 individuals who underwent said treatment, researchers discovered that ayahuasca could support recovery and prevent relapse when taken under “carefully structured settings.”
Another report observing ayahuasca-assisted treatment for substance abuse within a Native Canadian community in British Columbia came to a similar conclusion, showing that subjects displayed positive psychological and behavioral changes after undergoing ayahuasca-assisted therapy.
While scientific evidence remains relatively sparse, this hasn’t stopped people struggling with substance addiction and other mental conditions from reaping the benefits (at least anecdotally) of ayahuasca ceremonies. Shelby Bryant, an artist and healer who participated in an ayahuasca ceremony at Posada Natura, tells DoubleBlind that the experience had reshaped her views on alcohol use. Although she never considered herself to have a severe issue with alcohol, the plant medicine helped awaken her true calling, one that required her to change her drinking habits in order to reach her own personal potential.
“The big realization I had on ayahuasca was about alcohol. I drank normally like other people drank, but I had this overwhelming knowing that the light I was meant to spread in this lifetime is being hampered by alcohol,” she explains. “That experience with ayahuasca was a switch flipped. I completely lost interest in alcohol.”
The success that Posada Natura has had with treating addiction has prompted the retreat to launch specialized long term plant medicine programs for addiction recovery and veterans. Outside ayahuasca ceremonies, the initiative will offer long-term care through supportive tools and resources that include experienced mental healthcare providers from the United States. Other retreats have also had similar success in treating substance dependency issues.
Other Ayahuasca Health Benefits: Brain Health, Overall Well-Being, Acceptance and Mindfulness
There is also some scientific insight showing that certain components of ayahuasca may offer neuroprotective and neurorestorative properties to the brain. We’ve already noted how DMT appears to activate sigma 1 receptors (SIGMAR1) and enhance cell survival, neuroprotection, neuroplasticity, and neuroimmunomodulation. Similarly, in a test-tube study observing the effects of DMT on human brain cells, the DMT increased cell survival and protected the brain cells from damage that occurs due to lack of oxygen.
It’s not just the DMT from ayahuasca that seems to foster brain health, but also the alkaloids in the main ingredient Banisteriopsis caapi. A 2017 animal study showed that the main alkaloids found in this vine stimulated neural stem cell proliferation, migration, and differentiation in the brains of adult mice. The modulation of brain plasticity could contribute to the apparent antidepressant effects of ayahuasca.
Furthermore, the natural β-carboline alkaloid harmine, which is bountiful in Banisteriopsis caapi, has been looked at in preclinical studies for its neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects. It also improved memory and learning capabilities in different animal models. All in all, researchers have called for harmine to be further evaluated in preclinical and human studies.
Even if there’s no tangible condition that is being treated, ayahuasca ceremony participants can still experience immense benefits from the plant medicine, particularly when it comes to improving overall well-being.
This improvement in well-being could be especially helpful for people suffering from physical conditions like cancer. In a 2018 comparison study, four weekly ayahuasca sessions appeared to increase mindfulness and acceptance more than an eight-week mindfulness training program.
On a soulful level, ayahuasca has been lauded for its ability to magnify spirituality even in people who aren’t particularly connected to that side of themselves. Whether you’re searching for spiritual guidance or simply curious about taking the psychedelic, the resulting trip is oftentimes impactful and life-altering. According to Caldarelli, people have come away from Posada Natura prepared to leave behind unsatisfying careers or ready to change other aspects of their lives.
“I think that ayahuasca can be very illuminating in giving somebody a perspective on their spiritual life just as a whole no matter what tradition the person is in or not in a tradition at all,” Caldarelli says. “It can be very illuminating in finding one’s own path, in finding one’s own sense of direction, one’s own sense of relationship of what’s important in that sector of their life.”
Shelby Bryant is evidence of this life-altering shift that the plant medicine bestows upon those who welcome her into their bodies and souls. A media producer from New York City, she returned from Costa Rica yearning to reconnect with nature, which prompted her to move to California. She completely shifted her previous career to focus more on art and healing. On a personal level, she explained that ayahuasca had helped her develop a tighter bond with spirit, and also changed her overall perception of how psychedelics should be used.
“Before ayahuasca, I had spiritual tendencies, but this was what really made me feel like I am a very spiritual person. I am one with nature and the universe. It really felt like returning home to our true essence,” Bryant says. “It was also so revolutionary to me, to use psychedelics as plant medicine in a ceremonial setting, it changed my relationship to how I use psychedelics in my life now.”
Risks of Ayahuasca (And How to Avoid Them)
While the immeasurable benefits of ayahuasca have been bestowed among more and more people, there are certainly risks that should be taken into consideration. On the bodily level, the ayahuasca ceremony can sometimes induce temporary bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, and even paranoia.
Certain medications may also have adverse interactions with this plant concoction, especially those that have a direct impact on the serotonergic system, such as antidepressants. Many ayahuasca retreats will request that participants taper off SSRIs or stop taking other medications.
Research has also shown that high doses of ayahuasca could increase heart rate and blood pressure, which could be potentially dangerous for someone with a heart condition. People with a history of schizophrenia or other psychiatric disorders should avoid ingesting ayahuasca, as it could potentially worsen psychiatric symptoms.
Nonetheless, reports of fatal or life-threatening reactions to ayahuasca appear to be few and far between. That doesn’t mean you should just ingest this plant without proper planning and guidance, however. Danger can arise if the plant facilitator or shaman is untrained or careless when it comes to dosing and guidance.
As Caldarelli explains it, an ayahuasca session can introduce someone to hell realms and entities who are not exactly safe. But with proper preparation, these so-called hell realms can be incredibly powerful and lead to life-altering benefits. However, the risk of being unprepared for these potentially frightening realms is why it’s crucial to attend an ayahuasca ceremony with a highly experienced and trustworthy plant facilitator or shaman. Not only will this ensure a safer experience, but also a more effective one.
“I’ve seen so much suffering come out of the medicine,” Caldarelli explains. “But you can experience a hell realm with the proper guidance and it’s actually really therapeutic and healing. Because the heal realm is within you, you’re going into your own shadow where there’s gold that can be transmuted and integrated so that you can live a better life or to your fullest potential.”
It’s not just the traditional psychedelic motto of “set and setting” that needs to be adhered to when consuming ayahuasca. There seems to be universal agreement that having a seasoned guide is the key to unlocking the full potential of the experience. And moreover, it’s critical to vet your guide with a series of questions, such as those listed here, to ensure that they are experienced and skilled in harm reduction. It’s also important to note that while there exist a number of competent, seasoned guides, there are also a number of phonies with histories of sexual abuse, even during ceremony. Among the primary harm reduction tenets relating to ayahuasca is to ensure your guide is accountable to community guidelines and trusted not to take advantage of ceremony attendees.
“A skilled medicine person will be able to receive the information from spirit through opening this portal that’s opened in the medicine work, receiving the information that’s needed for each person,” says Caldarelli. “A really good medicine person isn’t the one doing anything, the reason they’re a good medicine person is because they’re able to be as clear of a channel as possible so that the divine can flow through.”
It’s clear that ayahuasca can provide immeasurable benefits to so many people, whether they’re looking for a psychedelic experience or need help overcoming difficult mental struggles. But the main takeaway from all compiled research and anecdotal reports is that this plant medicine should be taken in a safe and respectful manner with a trustworthy and experienced plant facilitator or shaman.
Tyler Koslow is a writer and editor with experience in cannabis, music, and general tech. You can find his words in High Times, Merry Jane, and Weedmaps News, among other publications. When he’s not tapping away at his laptop keyboard, you can find him stuck in a three-hour synth loop, pestering his chubby orange cat, or taking in the sights on a leisurely hike.