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

Ben Taub 22 Apr 2017, 18:01

Is Ayahuasca Dangerous?

Jordi Riba, who studies the effects of ayahuasca on the human brain as part of the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme, told IFLScience that “the active principles from both B. caapi and P. viridis are cleared from the organism after a few hours, so toxicity and overdosing is very unlikely.”

However, while the brew may be safe from a physical perspective, Riba says that without the correct preparation, taking an ayahuasca trip can be psychologically damaging. “Some people may experience anxiety due to the intense and unusual nature of the experience. This is most often the case with travelers to the Amazon who take ayahuasca with people they don’t know or trust in an unfamiliar setting.”

Indeed, while members of indigenous Amazonian communities are primed from birth to be able to deal with the visions encountered during their ayahuasca trips, Western backpackers can often be overwhelmed by their psychedelic experiences.

What are the Benefits of Ayahuasca?

As scary as it sounds, the mind-expanding trip generated by ayahuasca has been found to have therapeutic value. “People who have taken ayahuasca report having been confronted with painful personal issues. They claim to have gained new insights into these issues, helping them to come to terms with them,” says Riba. “We have even seen people manage to overcome heavy cocaine and opiate addictions after a series of ayahuasca sessions.”

Amazingly, one Beckley/Sant Pau study found that taking ayahuasca produced an anti-depressant effect in individuals who had failed to respond to any other treatment for their depression. Even more remarkable was the fact that this improvement in symptoms was noticed almost immediately after the ayahuasca session and persisted for several weeks – a period Riba calls “the after-glow”, and which he says offers a “vital window of opportunity for psychotherapy,” as patients tend to be much more open and receptive at this time.

Harnessing the ayahuasca after-glow may, therefore, lead to faster, longer-lasting treatments than those currently used for depression, such as SSRIs. Uncovering the neurological mechanisms behind this after-glow effect is the next big challenge for ayahuasca researchers, and several pieces of the puzzle have already been discovered.

Ayahuasca is used by indigenous groups throughout the Amazon. Image: Lubasi via Wikimedia Commons

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