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Medical Psychedelics

What is Ayahuasca?

Written by Joseph Mcqueen

“When you drink ayahuasca, and you get to see divinity, you can almost never speak of it because it’s too big for words.” ― Gerard Armond Powell

When William Burroughs, famed beat writer, entered the Amazonian basin not long after killing his wife and in a tormented addiction to Opium, he stumbled upon a drug that would change his life.  “This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced. Yage is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses.” He said in his book the Yage papers. Yage is another name for the hallucinogenic mixture of plants drunk in certain regions of the Amazon rainforest better known as Ayahuasca, an ancient psychoactive drink that has been a part of shamanic ritual for years. In this article, as part of our ‘what is drugs’ Series, we will be investigating this mysterious mixture and looking into the history, culture and science behind Ayahuasca. We’ll talk about the ceremony, controversy and preparation involved in so-called Ayahuasca retreats in South America and beyond. 

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Ayahuasca is defined as “a decoction (concentrated liquid) made by prolonged heating or boiling of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub” by the Alcohol and Drugs foundation. In simpler terms, heat up two particular plants into a hot green broth and hey presto, you have a hallucinogen. What does Ayahuasca look like? Well, to be blunt, it doesn’t look very appetizing, nor does it taste very appetizing. The mixture looks like a mushy green tea and the taste has been described as “bitter, salty and yeasty”. Not ideal. Ayahuasca can be taken personally, but is more likely to be taken as a part of an Ayahuasca retreat.

Organised trips where a group of people will be guided through an Ayahuasca ceremony together, often led by a Shaman. You can look at some of the top rated Ayahuasca retreats here. They mostly take place in southern american countries like Peru and Mexico, but can be found across the world. Ayahuasca is also very interesting legally. The mixture itself isn’t illegal, however because it contains DMT a schedule 1 drug in the US you could be arrested for possessing it. Ayahuasca is only legally allowed for specific religious procedures in approved churches. Ayahuasca is legal in many countries in Southern America where there are indigenous tribes still using it to practice rituals.

The History of Ayahuasca

One of the oldest hallucinogens, Ayahuasca has its origins among the Amazonian tribes of South America, for whom the plants needed were readily available. It is believed that in early Aztec tribes, Shamanic figures within the group would use Ayahuasca to communicate with ancestors and spirits. In fact, a pouch containing Ayahuasca was discovered that dated back over a thousand years.

However, this compound may be even older. There are some claims that the drug has been in use in Southern American tribes for over 5000 years. Of course, it is almost impossible to accurately know this. Many guesses have been made based on the fact that Ayahuasca is so integral to many Amazonian tribes, but many tribes have no or little written history. What we do know is that Spanish invaders encountered the drug and deemed it the work of the devil.

How Does it Feel?

An Ayahuasca trip is often described as very intense, but quite a spiritual experience. Described as being different to other psychedelics as it often incorporates the natural sounds occurring around the user. The trips can lead to revelations, and often lead to a feeling of acceptance about events that have happened in the user’s life. Ayahuasca trips are unique though and sometimes people can have bad experiences. It’s impossible to predict whether you’ll have a good or bad trip, but making sure that you’re ready mentally and in a safe environment can help.

How Does it Effect the Brain?

So where in the brain does Ayahuasca affect? There is a growing amount of research that seems to suggest Ayahuasca has quite a widespread effect on many brain areas. The active chemicals that create the psychedelic effects of Ayahuasca come in two parts, each from the different plants used in the mixture. Psychotria viridis contains DMT and the other component plant, Banisteriopsis caapi, contains chemicals called Harmine and Harmaline. DMT (a drug that we have discussed before) seems to bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, perhaps leading to the hallucinogenic effects experienced in Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Haemine and Marmaline are known as Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs), which act by inhibiting the breakdown of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, Dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which in high levels can lead to psychedelic outcomes. MAOIs are sometimes used in the treatment of depression as well, which could explain some of the therapeutic benefits of Ayahuasca. 


Perhaps not surprisingly considering the growing research into Psychedelics and mental health, Ayahuasca has been linked to improving depressive symptoms. A recent study by Jiminez-Garrido and team looked into a sample of 40 participants, some of whom had mental disorders, including depression. They were then sent on an Ayahuasca retreat and their mental health measured after. They found that  “Remarkably, at the 1-month follow-up, 61% of participants who initially met the diagnostic criteria no longer met the criteria for any psychiatric disorder.” and that “overall, 83.2% of participants reported a clinical improvement. This improvement lasted until the 6-months follow-up.”

All rather incredible findings that suggest Ayahuasca has a rather potent medical potential. It has also been shown to have benefits when used to treat some substance abuse issues. Research shows that, in the correct and safe environments, Ayahuasca can reduce dependency on certain substances, even more evidence of its potential medical benefits. Scientists seem to be in agreement that Ayahuasca and DMT need more research done into them. From a more holistic approach, analysis was conducted on what the leaders of Ayahuasca retreats believed to be the benefits of Ayahuasca, particularly for treating disorders such as depression and eating disorders.

Some of the leaders believed that it was Ayahuasca “facilitates physical, spiritual, mental and emotional healing; enhances and reorganizes relationships with symptoms, self, community and creation”. A very interesting interpretation of the many benefits here.


A very obvious down-side of Ayahuasca is that it can often produces quite… unpleasant side effects when ingested. Many people after taking Ayahuasca will start vomiting and even sometimes be prone to diarrhea. This is likely due to the plants being used having a slightly toxic effect on the body. Some people have described these initial side effects as hell. Ayahuasca can also cause a significantly increased heart rate as well as feelings of dizziness.

Some also claim that there are problems with the way Ayahuasca retreats are run. People claim that they are not only forms of cultural appropriation, but also exploitative of Native peoples. Writer Kevin Tucker believes that Ayahuasca retreats are endemic of colonialism, in that we lack meaning in our world so will create a market of using another’s culture to find an artificial meaning. Damaging their culture in the process. This is a compelling argument and something I think each person considering an Ayahuasca retreat must consider first.

My Own Experiences 

I’ve never taken Ayahuasca, but a friend’s dad once recounted the experiences he had on his retreat in Brazil to myself and a group of uni friends. He described the entire experience as equal parts odd and magical. Meeting with a group of strangers, all there for an Ayahuasca experience and then carted onto a minibus out to the rainforest. When there, they sat in a make-shift marquee made from bamboo and leaves. Listening to the rain falling about them as a man in a shaman outfit poured them each a glass of Ayahuasca.

He said that he wasn’t sure if the man was a genuine Shaman, or someone being paid to play the part, either way he said it was convincing. Once the ceremony had been blessed they all drank their Ayahuasca. He said the trip was incredible and that the shaman was an incredible guide, making sure everyone was safe and ok. He said he felt totally connected with his past, accepting of all the events that had led up to where he was right now. He also said he was sick… A lot.   


Ayahuasca is a mysterious, powerful and spiritual drug with a long and ancient history. Ayahuasca retreats may have their issues, but it’s clear that the therapeutic and recreational benefits of this compound are many. It is a drug that I hope to one day try, in the correct and safe environment and with the right people. As always it is important to note that this is a very powerful hallucinogen and should be treated with respect. If you are considering taking it, make sure that you are in the correct headspace and have thought about this decision thoroughly. Where better to finish than with another quote from William S. Burroughs’ Ayahuasca experience: “You see everything from an hallucinated viewpoint.  Ayahuasca is not like anything else”

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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

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About the author

Joseph Mcqueen

Joseph is a cannabis journalist in the UK. His search and love for the truth in the cannabis industry is what drives him to write.