What Really Happens When You Drink The "Shaman Drink" Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is an extremely potent hallucinogenic brew, traditionally used by indigenous Amazonian communities. Image: Apollo / Flickr. CC BY 2.0

It is arguably the most powerful hallucinogen on the planet, and until recently had been written off by lawmakers and academics as a dangerous narcotic, fit neither for consumption nor scientific investigation. Yet indigenous Amazonian communities have been using ayahuasca to treat all manner of physical and psychological ailments for centuries, and thanks to a recent spike in Western intrigue, the doors to research into this consciousness-altering liquid are finally opening.

What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew used in shamanic healing rituals and initiation rites throughout the Amazon. It is made by boiling the leaves of a plant called chacruna (Psychotria viridis) with the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriospsis caapi). The former contains a potent psychedelic compound called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which, interestingly, is found in nearly all the plants and animals we eat. However, upon arrival in the gut it is destroyed by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase, so it doesn’t reach the brain and produce its hallucinogenic effects.

That’s where the B. caapi comes in: It contains compounds called monoamine oxidase inhibitors that block these enzymes and ensure the DMT reaches the brain intact, resulting in an intense psychedelic trip, typically lasting four to six hours.

Banisteriopsis Caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors that prevent enzymes in the gut from breaking down DMT. Image: Aya2 by Apollo via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

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