Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
Often, other ingredients are added, however, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin who have been using this brew as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years use the word Ayahuasca to refer to one specific plant: Banisteriopsis caapi.
Aya means “soul,” and waska means “woody vine,” thus Ayahuasca can be translated as “vine of the soul.” (There’s an interesting film about Ayahuasca that goes by this name – Vine of The Soul.”)
For these Amazonian tribes, Banisteriopsis caapi is not just the “spirit” of Ayahuasca, but a gatekeeper and guide to otherworldly realms.
What’s in it?
Banisteriopsis caapi contains several alkaloids, such as harmine and harmaline, which act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), much like Syrian Rue, “Canaanite Ayahuasca.” B. caapi also contains tetrahydroharmine, a weak serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI).
When harmine was first discovered in B. caapi, it was called telepathine after one of its effects: a sense of telepathic communication among users. However, it was later found that telepathine was the same entheogenic alkaloid found in Peganum harmala, which was already known as harmine.
Harmaline too has entheogenic properties.
Ayahuasca may also be regarded as a nootropic. Studies suggest that harmine may have cognitive-enhancing effects.
Effects and Side Effects
Once drank, it usually takes 30 minutes to 1 hour for B. caapi’s effects to be felt. The peak comes after about 2 hours. The trip lasts no longer than six hours.
While not generally used as a hallucinogen alone, it is sometimes used as such. After all, we do have naturally-occurring DMT in our bodies. Normally, that DMT is deactivated in our guts, but the MAOIs in Ayahuasca, block the DMT deactivation and allows us to go deeper in meditation and other altered states of consciousness. Visionary experiences with B. caapi alone would probably require a rather high dose, though.
Interestingly, Banisteriopsis caapi has shown to have antidepressant effects that has been linked to the process by which new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain structure with a role in learning and memory, are produced. It has been confirmed that harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline stimulate generation of new brain cells (at least in vitro.)
The more common effects of harmine and harmaline at modest dosage is tranquility and purgation. Caapi’s main effects are purgative, clearing the body of worms and parasites by vomiting, diarrhea, and hot/cold flushes. Harmala alkaloids are also anthelmintic, and thus kill parasites.
Spiritually, the purgative properties of Ayahuasca represent the release of negative energy and built-up and repressed emotions. It’s also a sort of purgatory, which allows one to purify oneself before transcending to spiritual realms whether by ingesting DMT or by other spiritual practices.
Other side effects may include tremors, nausea, autonomic instability, hyperthermia, motor function impairment, sedation, relaxation, vertigo, dizziness, and muscle spasms.
Ayahuasca Prepatory Diet
Going through a purification (typically 3-7 days) before ingesting Ayahuasca can help prepare one to the experience, both physically and spiritually.
While the urban Brazilian Ayahuasca church União do Vegetal, does not observe a special diet, in the rainforest, a purificatory diet is observed, which involves abstaining from meat, spicy and heavily seasoned foods, excess fat, salt, caffeine, and acidic foods (such as citrus). Moreover, sex is discouraged before, after, and during a ceremony.
How to Prepare Ayahuasca Tea?
- The first step is to chop the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (or pound it with a mallet, or beat it against a strong surface, if you want to do it the traditional way) until it’s all in as small as possible pieces.
- Then, boil the plant together with any optional additions (see below) in water for several hours, until the water is reduced significantly in volume and the solution has a syrupy consistency.
- Finally, filter through a strainer to eliminate sediments.
- As soon as it cools down, it is ready to be consumed.
Various psychoactive plants are occasionally added to Ayahuasca for different reasons.
The main reason is to increase the hallucinogenic properties to the drink, which is often achieved by adding a DMT-containing plant. In Santo Daime, a Brazilian Ayahuasca church, the MAOI containing plant is said to provide the Power, while the DMT containing plant is said to provide the Light. This is because DMT increases the vision, while the MAOI enables and empowers it.
Without the inhibition of MAO-A by B. caapi, DMT would not be able to diffuse past the membranes in the stomach and small intestine, and cross the blood–brain barrier to activate receptor sites in the brain. Thus, DMT is activated by MAOI.
Traditional Ayahuasca brews are usually made with Caapi as a MAOI, while DMT sources and other admixtures vary from region to region.
The most common ingredient in Ayahuasca besides Banisteriopsis caapi is the shrub Psychotria viridis (Chacruna), the leaves of which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Other plants containing DMT commonly used in Ayahuasca include:
- Leaves of Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chaliponga and chagropanga)
- Root bark of Mimosa tenuiflora (M. hostilis)
- Mucuna pruriens
Unfortunately, DMT-containing plants are illegal for consumption in many countries.
Other DMT-containing plants are sometimes used, such as various Acacias.
Non-containing DMT plants commonly used in Ayahuasca include:
- Justicia pectoralis – a relaxant and general tonic noted for its pleasant smell. Some strains may be hallucinogenic.
- Brugmansia suaveolens (Toé) – analgesic and may increase the potency of Ayahuasca.
- Sacred Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), also known as Mapacho.
- Brunfelsia grandiflora.
- Ilex guayusa, a relative of Yerba mate.
Warnings and other Need-to-Know Information
The combination of specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as Prozac), and most other antidepressants, with MAO inhibitors such as Ayahuasca can kill.
Ayahuasca may moderately increase heart rate and blood pressure, which is why it should not be used by people with risk of heart disease without the supervision of a doctor.
It is not recommended to take Ayahuasca without the permission of a doctor and a trip sitter to watch over you. (Check if, and where, I’m available to serve as a trip sitter.)
Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. Banisteriopsis caapi and its chemical constituents are not a controlled species in the United States, which means that all parts of the plant and its extracts are completely legal.
Even though Banisteriopsis caapi is legal in the US and in most other countries with the exception of some countries where it may be illegal such as Australia and France, you can’t buy Ayahuasca on Amazon with the exception of a Caapi oil product and a live plant. It is currently available on eBay however.