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Ayahuasca is a complex and powerful brew or tea that exerts many psychoactive effects on users. It stimulates the senses, and enhances emotions and spiritual introspection.

Ayahuasca also has medicinal properties in purging the body and treating mental health issues. Despite these properties, ayahuasca has regulatory barriers and some adverse side effects. Read on to learn more about this complex and controversial drink.

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca plant

Ayahuasca plant

Ayahuasca (or hoasca) is a psychoactive brew made from two hallucinogenic plants (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis). Traditionally, this brew is used by the natives of South America for its hallucinogenic properties in their spiritual and cultural practices [R].

The brew is traditionally made by boiling the bark and stems of the two plants (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) [R].

Archeological evidence suggests that the earliest use of ayahuasca was more than four thousand years ago [R].

In the 20th century, the popularity of ayahuasca began spreading around the world because of globalization and religious tourism [R].

Despite having cultural significance, the legality of ayahuasca is a controversial issue. Ayahuasca contains DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) which is banned around the world under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 [R, R].

In the United States, ayahuasca plants are legal, but the brews containing the illegal substances (DMT) are illegal for recreational use. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of using ayahuasca plants for religious purposes under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 [R].

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic blend that causes psychedelic effects, which are stimulating by mixing different sensations. These unique sensations allow the users to experience an out-of-body spiritual journey that delivers advice or counseling to the users [R].

Because of these psychedelic effects, ayahuasca is associated with shamanism. The ayahuasca-induced state of mind allows users to enter a trance state and hallucinate [R].

Mechanism of Action of Ayahuasca

The ayahuasca brew contains varying concentrations of psychedelic drugs (DMT and MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids), depending on the batch. These psychedelic drugs work in tandem to exert its effects on the brain.

Administration of these psychedelic drugs creates an altered state of mind. Users experience introspective properties such as visions, recollection of previous memories, and enhanced emotions [R].

The ayahuasca brew contains harmine and harmaline, which selectively inhibits MAO-A (Monoamine oxidase-A) in the gut. MAO-A is an enzyme that breaks down (oxidizes and degrades) certain chemicals and neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine) [R].

DMT and serotonin have similar structure

DMT and serotonin have similar structures.

DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a common but potent chemical found in many different plant species. It has similar molecular structures to serotonin, and could also be degraded by MAO-A (an enzyme that breaks down serotonin).

Inhibition of MOA-A allows DMT to be absorbed in the gut, unmetabolized. It then enters the bloodstream where DMT can cross the blood-brain barrier [R].

In the brain, DMT binds to serotonin receptors (5-HT1A, -2A, and -2C), trace amine associated receptors (TAAR6), and sigma receptors (Sig-1R), causing hallucinogenic and antidepressive effects [R].

People administered ayahuasca showed increased brain activities in regions are associated with physical sensations, emotional arousal, and subjective feelings state (frontal and paralimbic brain regions) (DB-RCT) [R].

Desired Short-Term Effects of Ayahuasca

Although most of the ayahuasca’s effects are subjective to the user, there are some appealing effects that are consistent between users. Ayahuasca’s appealing short-term effects include:

  • Feeling of excitement [R]
  • Change in rate of thinking [R]
  • Change in quality of thinking [R]
  • Euphoria [R]
  • New insights [R]
  • Hallucinogenic visions [R]
  • Emotional arousal [R]
  • Increased introspection [R]
  • Positive mood [R]

Top 4 Health Benefits of Ayahuasca

The ayahuasca brew is a complex blend that ranges slightly in additives and ingredients depending on the brew and the region. The various mixtures alter the uses, potencies, effects, and color of the brew [R].

Despite these minor differences, ayahuasca has some health benefits and satisfying intended effects on the user.

1. Ayahuasca Clears the Body of Parasites

Ayahuasca helps clear the gut and digestive tract of human parasites in 2 steps.

The first step is that ayahuasca has intense purgative properties that physically clear the body of parasites and microbial organisms. By blocking MAO-A in the gut, it also increases serotonin in the gut, which may induce vomiting and diarrhea. This can clear the body of worms and other parasites [R, R].

The harmine and harmaline (harmala alkaloids) found in ayahuasca are antiparasitic agents that chemically kill the parasites without significantly causing harm to the individual [R, R, R].

These agents are also antimicrobial agents that kill bacterial organisms such as E. coli, Salmonella, and yeast (in cell-based studies) [R, R].

2. Ayahuasca Reducs Depression

Ayahuasca targets regions of the brain that are associated with emotion processing and motivation (frontal and paralimbic) [R].

In several small-scale clinical studies, ayahuasca helped with depression and anxiety, including recurrent cases [R, R, R]. It has rapid and sustained anti-depressive effects [R] The only known side effect was vomiting. There was potential for tolerance [R, R].

Ayahuasca increased blood flow to the brain regions that control mood and emotional states (nucleus accumbens, insula, subgenual area).

The chemical DMT of ayahuasca may help with depression by activating serotonin receptors in these regions (5-HT1A, -2A, and -2C) [R, R, R].

3. Ayahuasca May Cure Drug Addiction

As a hallucinogen, ayahuasca induces changes in personality or behavior and causes anti-addictive effects [R, R].

In the appropriate contexts, ayahuasca use might contribute to substance addiction treatment through interconnected body-oriented, psychological, and spiritual experiences, which lead to a diminishment in cravings [R].

Ayahuasca enhances creative thinking while decreasing conventional thinking. This increases psychological flexibility and thus helps with addiction[R].

In small study involving 12 participants, ayahuasca-assisted therapy helped with substance abuse [R].

4. Ayahuasca As a Potential Cancer Therapeutic

Despite anecdotal stories about individuals using ayahuasca as a therapeutic for certain forms of cancer, there are very few studies available regarding its safety and effectiveness as a cancer treatment. Legal restrictions make these studies difficult to proceed.

Ayahuasca helps with cancer by:

How Ayahuasca combats cancer

How Ayahuasca combats cancer


Side Effects of Ayahuasca

Although the most prominent side effects of ayahuasca are diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, these valued purgative qualities are not considered adverse because the effects are intended [R].

Both patients and healers believe that ayahuasca acts as a cleansing agent that expels the negatives of a disease in order to restore an individual to health [R, R].

Regardless of the intended effects, the adverse effects of ayahuasca are potentially dangerous and fatal. Ayahuasca consumption should be cautioned, and the effects should be understood before administration.

1. Ayahuasca Consumption Produces Strong Physical Symptoms

Ayahuasca contains DMT and harmine, which increases blood pressure, heart rate, and rectal temperature, and dilates the pupils [R].

Harmine also induces tremors in individuals (through serotonin) [R].

In most circumstances, ayahuasca only poses a moderate risk for heart and blood pressure problems in most healthy individuals. However, some people develop hypertension after ayahuasca use [R].

Ayahuasca also elevates certain hormones in the body (prolactin, cortisol, and growth hormone), causing a rise in body temperature and rate of breathing [R].

As a consequence of the physical effects of ayahuasca, other symptoms include profuse sweating and shivering [R].

2. Ayahuasca May Be Toxic

Short-term usage of ayahuasca is relatively safe and harmless. Due limited clinical studies and literature on ayahuasca, the toxicity of ayahuasca use in pregnant mothers and long-term use is still unknown [R].

In pregnant rats, ayahuasca is toxic to both the baby and the mother. The toxicity displayed appears to be dose dependent [R].

When combined with certain foods and medications that increase serotonin, ayahuasca causes serotonin syndrome, which may be fatal [R].

Symptoms include initial euphoria, nausea, and confusion followed by tremors, vomiting, convulsions, and loss of consciousness. In extreme cases, death can occur [R].

There has been one reported death directly associated with the intoxication of ayahuasca [R].

3. Ayahuasca Causes Short-Term Psychological Distress

Ayahuasca is used primarily for its psychological and emotional cathartic effects. Individuals who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies associate these effects with experiencing spirituality and deeper insights [R].

However, during casual ayahuasca use, individuals may experience strong emotional intensity. DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) generates aversive psychological effects or short term psychotic episodes. Fortunately, these effects are only temporary and wear off after a few hours [R].

Similar to other hallucinogens, individuals with personal or family psychiatric history of psychotic or manic episodes are more at risk of developing these episodes when using ayahuasca. It is still unclear why some people suffer psychotic reactions to ayahuasca [R].

Possibly, a genetic metabolic error and the presence of a hallucinogen (DMT) can act secondarily on the brain, causing an altered state of consciousness and psychosis [R].

Joe has seen a few people who suffered long-term damage from Ayahuasca use. They had PTSD-like symptoms (fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, etc.). In those cases, they took too much.

Ayahuasca Retreat and Ceremony


Due to popularity, facilities that specialize in ayahuasca retreats in South America are growing in numbers, and the retreats are being tailored towards Westerners [R].

Ayahuasca retreats usually involve an Amazonian shaman leading ceremonies or sessions in which the tourists drink ayahuasca tea subjective to an intended psychological or physical effect [R].

The format of these retreats consists of night-long ayahuasca sessions with one to two days’ rest, artistic activities, and academic presentations. Subsequent ayahuasca sessions follow the periods of rest [R].

People join ayahuasca retreats for spiritual or personal development, emotional healing, or the development of personal self-awareness [R].

Genes That Affect How People Respond to Ayahuasca

The following are genes that facilitate the breakdown ayahuasca. These genes not only lessen the effects of ayahuasca but also facilitate the excretion of the brew:

  • CYP2D6 gene: Codes for an enzyme (human cytochrome P450 isozyme 2D6) that breaks down harmine [R]
  • MAO-A gene: Codes for an enzyme (Monoamine oxidase A) that breaks down DMT [R]

The following are receptors affected by ayahuasca:

  • 5-HT1A (Serotonin receptor) [R]
  • 5-HT2A (Serotonin receptor) [R]
  • 5-HT2C (Serotonin receptor) [R]
  • TAAR6 (Trace amine associated receptor) [R]
  • Sig-1R (Sigma receptors) [R]

SelfDecode has these genes.

Experiences with Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca consumption is a polarizing experience among different users.

For one individual, their experience with ayahuasca was hallucinogenic and invigorating. That individual was able to see the “changing densities, shapes, and colors of what once were solid, fixed material things.” Ayahuasca gave new insights for that individual.”

For another individual, their experience with ayahuasca was terrifying but enlightening. The intensity of the experience for the individual was overpowering as sensations, perceptions, and emotions drastically change. According to them, “I get sucked down into a dark abyss. I am now completely on my own in an empty universe. A space that feels endless, yet claustrophobic. I have never felt this alone before. The only entity alive in this universe is me, nothing else. I have no sense of a material body at this point. I am only a “consciousness of self” that floats around in a cold, dead, dark void. Whatever this place is, it feels like hell.” This individual cautions, “To anyone thinking about trying Ayahuasca I would say this: It is an amazing experience, but you have to know what you are getting yourself into. I had read a lot about it and thought I was prepared, I wasn’t.”

Health Tools I Wish I Had When I Was Sick

At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.

That’s why I decided to create tools that will help others cut down the guesswork:

  • Lab Test Analyzer – a software tool that will analyze your labs and tell you what the optimal values are for each marker — as well as provide you with actionable tips and personalized health and lifestyle recommendations to help you get there.
  • SelfDecode – a software tool that will help you analyze your genetic data from companies such as 23andme and ancestry. You will learn how your health is being impacted by your genes, and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.
  • SelfHacked Secrets – an ebook where we examine and explain the biggest overlooked environmental factors that cause disease. This ebook is a great place to start your journey if you want to learn the essential steps to optimizing your health.
  • SelfHacked Elimination Diet course – a video course that will help you figure out which diet works best for you
  • Selfhacked Inflammation course – a video course on inflammation and how to bring it down
  • Biohacking insomnia – an ebook on how to get great sleep
  • Lectin Avoidance Cookbook – an e-cookbook for people with food sensitivities
  • BrainGauge – a device that detects subtle brain changes and allows you to test what’s working for you
  • SelfHacked VIP – an area where you can ask me (Joe) questions about health topics

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  • Marylou Sanchez

    Why this article is under recreational drugs? Ayahuasca is consider a Medicine and it is NOT recreational. It is a teacher-Master plant and preparation is advisable before taking it in a ceremonial setting. with the guide of a Shaman or facilitator. It is a very powerful tea. The interaction with the feminine spirit of Ayahuasca is very rewarding, something that I didn’t find with the short experience of DMT.
    Answers to all those life questions., healing of past experiences, interaction with the spiritual world and much much more. ……and eventually with our own shadow/ego /darkness. Nothing to be afraid but something to work in transforming our own life.

  • Mohammad

    This is a great website.

    I was surprised that under “Drugs and Nootropics”, Iboga was not listed. It is perhaps produces better results than even Ayahuasca


  • Marcine

    Sorry Fran, see above comment meant as reply here.

  • MArcine

    DMT smoked is very different from a brew of aya. About 15 minutes of either your birth or your death experience. No purging but it is transcendent. may be helpful to you. Or Dr. rick Strausman’s work.

  • Jacks

    Does this mean you can take this to kill E coli permanently?

  • Fran

    What about if DMT is smoked? Thanks

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