Understanding ayahuasca ingredients and their effects can help you be safe and have an optimal experience during your retreat.
The practice of ayahuasca ceremonies has now spread around the world. This means, depending on the cultural background and knowledge of the shaman who made it, the ingredients in your ayahuasca brew may be different. Or be known by different names.
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is the name of an entheogenic tea that has been brewed by the people of the Amazon basin for thousands of years. Sometimes known as ayawaska, caapi, yajé, or yagé, the drink – which is part of the long cultural history of many indigenous South American groups – is often demeaned as an “ayahuasca trip” when taken elsewhere. This usually means it is being used purely to create the “trippy” psychedelic effects often associated with recreational drugs.
The brew’s true use, however, is to be taken as part of traditional rituals and in sacred ceremonies designed to increase a person’s feeling of connection with life and the universe. An ayahuasca brew will traditionally be prepared by an experienced shaman, sometimes called an ayahuasquero. These are the only people who know how to brew the natural drink safely. The brew will then be taken by a group often in a protected and guided environment, likely one chosen for its natural beauty and a place which is home to the plants which are brewed.
The main ayahuasca ingredients
A complete ayahuasca brew will contain, in the scientific sense, an MAOI (MonoAmine Oxidase Inhibitor) and DMT (DiMethylTryptamine). These can take the form of:
The facilitator – Banisteriopsis Caapi
Sometimes called simply caapi, yagé or ayahuasca itself, the banisteriopsis caapi vine is the only plant which is usually found in every variant of the drink. The vine is not the ingredient directly responsible for the major psychoactive effects. Rather, it is an enabler of the effects produced by the other main ingredient.
But caapi is usually regarded as the key ingredient because it contains harmala alkaloids which act as MAOIs. This type of substance inhibits the monoamine oxidase present in the human stomach, allowing the main psychoactive agent in the drink to enter the bloodstream and eventually reach the brain.
On top of this, caapi produces a peaceful effect of gentle euphoria by allowing several neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine to stay in the brain for longer.
The mix – Psychotria Viridis
Depending on where you are or where your facilitator was initiated, psychotria viridis may be referred to as amiruca or samiruka (Ecuador) or chacruna (Brazil and Peru). “Chacruna” roughly translates as “mix”, as in the thing you mix with the caapi to produce the desired effects.
This plant contains DMT, the psychoactive part of the ayahuasca brew. DMT can actually be present within the human body without having any effect – the monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the stomach prevents it from entering the bloodstream. Now, with the caapi inhibiting the MAO, the DMT is free to have effects such as:
- Changes in visual and auditory perception
- Reduction in fear and shame response
- Increase in empathy
- Increase in a feeling of interconnectivity
These two plants alone, caapi and chacruna form the traditional ayahuasca recipe, and by themselves are extremely powerful when taken in the right set and setting. Sometimes a brew may contain additives that can be dangerous for some people or produce undesirable effects for certain people that are intolerant, so it is important to ask before you drink if there are any additives. An ayahuasca brew done right requires no additives and will give the perfect experience for someone who is ready to drink with an experienced facilitator. Some additives that are commonly used are listed below:
Again, depending on your shaman’s origins or where they were trained, they may refer to justicia pectoralis as piri piri, masha-hari or, perhaps most commonly, tilo. The main reason why this plant or something like it is may be added as an ayahuasca ingredient, is that it is believed to reduce nausea and vomiting, a common side-effect of drinking the brew. Although, it should be noted that purging is a therapeutic experience and is often the required when clearing blockages and eliminating something that doesn’t belong in you.
It is vital that if justicia pectoralis is part of your experience that you drink plenty of water throughout. This is because the plant contains coumarin, a compound which flushes uric acid out of the body. This makes it great for people with circulatory disorders but also a potential source of kidney stones if you allow the acid to build up in your kidneys.
Brugmansia or Datura
These deliriants, sometimes called maikoa or more commonly toé, are sometimes present in ayahuasca, though generally in smaller amounts. There are some shamans who choose to use higher levels. It can be extremely dangerous because it can cause the person to lose consciousness or become delusional. Completely different from the visual and auditory hallucinations you experience with psychedelics, these delusions are indistinguishable from reality. In addition, afterwards many individuals are also left in a highly suggestible state.
This makes it very important that you are fully aware of whether either of these substances is going to be present in the brew. The heightened emotional and mental vulnerability engendered by this state makes it critical that you know and trust all of those who you share this sort of experience with.
Common side effects of ayahuasca
The most common side effect of ayahuasca is purging in the form of nausea, though diarrhea is also possible, and sweating, crying, shaking or laughing can be other ways of releasing energies that are blocked within
Most ayahuasca side-effects that can be physically harmful can be avoided by refraining from consuming certain foods, drinks, medicines and supplements before ingesting the brew. Any facilitator should advise their group of this well before the experience begins.
The most notable medicine to avoid taking is antidepressants. This is because MAOIs of the type found in the caapi vine are often used medicinally as part of antidepressant medication already.
The effects of ayahuasca
These are some of the most common questions about ayahuasca:
Q. How long do the effects last?
A. Between 4 to 6 hours would be the average length.
Q. How do I know what ingredients are in my specific ayahuasca drink?
A. Making ayahuasca is not something you can learn to do overnight and there are many different shamans, many of whom hail from different cultural backgrounds and schools of thought as to what makes the best brew.
It is only by speaking with your facilitator that you can know what is in the brew and how each ingredient will affect you.
Q. Can I have a “bad trip”?
A. As with using all consciousness modifying plants and substances, a negative experience is possible. Most true devotees of ayahuasca would advise against using the brew if all you want is a “trip”, however. There is a reason why so many ayahuasca retreats exist in the parts of South America where the use of the drink is a traditional cultural rather than a recreational activity. These isolated spots, often of great natural beauty, are usually created to enhance the experience, deepening the drinker’s connection with the Earth and the natural world.
Again, by building a solid relationship with your facilitator you will be able to discuss how to get the most out of your retreat. If you are deeply concerned about any potential effects, it is well worth consulting an experienced professional to discuss what any specific ingredients do and what you hope to gain through your experience with ayahuasca.
The most common way to have a bad trip is trying to control the ayahuasca experience, the best key is to let go and experience whatever comes up in the journey. Retreats that have workshops to prepare you for the experience and teach you tools to navigate the journey are well worth considering to have an optimal experience with ayahuasca.