Ayahuasca: A Psychedelic Brew

By Dylan Smart


In the city of Manaus, in the Amazon of Northern Brazil, an ancient tradition brings religious shamans together through a psychoactive herbal tea called ayahuasca (I-ah-woss-kah). Ayahuasca consumption orchestrates a psychedelic state comparable to hallucinogens like LSD. Centuries have seen ayahuasca used in religious ceremony to strengthen spiritual ties and heal addiction.

Ritualistic ayahuasca use sparked the interest of American scientist Dennis McKenna and his team of researchers in the early 1990’s. McKenna, an Enthopharmocologist, specializes in studying drug use across cultures. The team traveled to Manaus to study a group of 15 experienced ayahuasca users. Founded in Brazil in the early 1950’s, the ayahuasca users were part of a church called The União do Vegetal (UDV) – “the Union of the Plants”. UDV members consume ayahuasca a minimum of two times per month and up to several times per week.

Ingredients in Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca contains two simple ingredients both native to the Brazilian Amazon: a shrub called psychotria viridis and a vine called banisteriopsis caapi. The psychoactive ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – the most potent psychedelic drug discovered – rests within the ancient tea of ayahuasca. The psychotria viridis shrub contains large amounts of DMT. But DMT remains orally inactive because an enzyme in the liver called monoamine oxidase degrades DMT’s simple molecules before they leach into the blood stream. The banisteriopsis caapi vine, however, contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. This inhibitor gives DMT passage through the liver where it merges into the circulatory system and flows to the brain. A psychedelic state ensues. How the ancient shamans knew how combine these two ingredients remains unknown.

Amazonian Shamans combine the banisteriopsis caapi vine with the psychotria viridis plant in a tea to produce psychedelic effects.

Scientific journals harbour little research on this oral delivery system which produces a different psychedelic experience than conventional DMT use. James Kent, an American writer, articulates the difference between smoking DMT and drinking ayahuasca in a documentary by Mitch Schultz called DMT: the Spirit Molecule.

Smoking DMT is sort of like the drive-by shooting of psychedelics. You’re in one place, BANG! You’re in another place and then BANG! You’re back down, so it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for that narrative of “who am I? What am I doing here? Why am I in this space? What am I learning?” It’s almost like there’s too much information to process in that few minute span to integrate once you drop back down. Orally active ayahuasca tends to pick you up and gently carry you into the space and hug you, embrace you, clean you and show you all sorts of mystical visions and then it very gently brings you back down like you are floating on a feather back to the ground.

The ritualistic history behind ayahuasca compelled McKenna and his team to study this spiritual tool and bring some quantified data back to North America.McKenna compared an experimental group of 15 experienced ayahuasca users to a control group that never consumed ayahuasca. McKenna matched the two groups on criteria such as age, gender, substance abuse history and diet. After the experimental group returned from their four hour long ayahuasca experience, McKenna and his administration evaluated both groups using standardized tests.

McKenna’s Study: The Results

McKenna found that the experienced ayahuasca users scored significantly higher on psychological tests evaluating multiple facets of cognition. These tests included the UCLA Auditory Verbal Learning Test where subjects recall a lists of nouns, and the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire which measures three aspects of personality: novelty seeking, harm avoidance and reward dependence.

McKenna and his researchers noticed something else. Of the 15 experiences ayahuasca users, 11 reported suffering from psychological distress in the form of anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse before joining the UDV. The subjects claimed that their involvement in the União do Vegetal, and ritualistic ayahuasca consumption that accompanies it, put their psychological disorders into complete remission.


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Strassman, R. J., Qualls, C., R., Uhlenhuth, E., H., Kellner, R. (1994).
Dose-response study of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine in Humans. Archives of General Psychiatry, 51, 98-108. doi: doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950020009001.
Schultz, M. (Director). (2010). DMT: The Spirit Molecule [Documentary]. United States: Spectral Alchemy.