Ayahuasca, A Cautionary Tale For Tourists Eager To Try This Shamanic Brew

Ayahuasca, a plant-based brew that gives people a psychedelic experience, can be fatal, especially when mixed with other drugs. Jairo Galvis Henao/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Danielle Andrew 15 Mar 2017, 20:29

Last night’s ABC Foreign Correspondent highlighted how Australians have been travelling to South America to seek the mystical experiences and healing properties of the plant brew ayahuasca. The Conversation

Spiritual leaders known as shaman have been using this brew for hundreds of years for healing and religious purposes. It’s prepared by boiling plants from the Amazon and reducing the brew. Either the shaman or the person who wants to be healed (or both) can drink it.

But the program shows the dangers of using such a powerful drug while overseas where there is little regulation over the retreats that offer it.

What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca has two main ingredients, both of which are needed for the drug to have its psychoactive effects.

One is a plant containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the same compound found in many plants, including Australia’s national floral emblem, the wattle. Usually, if you eat or drink dimethyltryptamine, an enzyme in your stomach called monoamine oxidase quickly metabolises it into non-psychoactive chemicals. So, on its own, dimethyltryptamine has almost no psychoactive effect.

But among the millions of plants in the Amazon, shaman somehow realised mixing two plants could create a brew to provide a mystical experience and powerful visions. This second plant contains chemicals known as reversible monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which “neutralise” monoamine oxidase. So, dimethyltryptamine is free to be absorbed into the body, unaltered.

Dimethyltryptamine then activates the same receptors in the brain activated by psychedelic drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin (found in some mushrooms).

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