Sections of vine are macerated and boiled alone or with leaves from any of a large number of other plants, including Psychotria viridis (chakruna in Quechua) or Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chaliponga). The resulting brew contains MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids and the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic which is active orally only when combined with an MAOI. Harmala alkaloids in Banisteriopsis caapi serve as MAOIs in ayahuasca. Following that the ayahuasca tradition has met other shamanic plant-medicine cultures in a globalised world the brews sometimes substitute plant sources such as Syrian Rue or other harmala-containing plants in lieu of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, but the vine itself is always central to traditional usage.
Brews are also made with no DMT-containing plants; sometimes they are made with plants such as Justicia pectoralis, Brugmansia and sometimes made with no plants other than the ayahuasca vine itself. The potency of this brew varies radically from one batch to the next, both in strength and psychoactive effect, based mainly on the skill of the shaman or brewer, as well as other admixtures sometimes added. Natural variations in plant alkaloid content and profiles also affect the final concentration of alkaloids in the brew, and the physical act of cooking may also serve to modify the alkaloid profile of harmala alkaloids.
Individual polymorphisms in the cytochrome P450-2D6 enzyme affects the ability of individuals to metabolize harmine. Some natural tolerance to the regular use of ayahuasca (say, once weekly) may be seen as an upregulation of the serotonergic system. A phase 1 pharmacokinetic study on Ayahuasca (as Hoasca) with 15 volunteers was conducted in 1993, during the Hoasca Project. A review of the Hoasca Project has been published.
The spelling ayahuasca is the hispanicized version of the name; many Quechua or Aymara speakers would prefer the spelling ayawaska. In the central Andeans of Perú, Ayacwasca means: "Ayac" (spirit or dead) and "Wasca" (vine, cord or rope) Harmine compounds are of beta-carboline origin. The three most studied beta-carboline compounds found in the B. caapi vine are harmine, harmaline and tetrahydraharmine. These compounds block MAO A and MAO B. This inhibition allows DMT to diffuse past the membranes in the stomach and small intestine and eventually get through the blood-brain barrier. Without the MAOIs, DMT would be metabolized and would not have an effect when taken orally.
While non-native users know of the spiritual applications of ayahuasca, a less well-known traditional usage focuses on the medicinal properties of ayahuasca. Its purgative properties are highly important (many refer to it as la purga, "the purge"). The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhea it induces can clear the body of worms and other tropical parasites, and harmala alkaloids themselves have been shown to be anthelmintic Thus, this action is twofold; a direct action on the parasites by these harmala alkaloids (particularly harmine in ayahuasca) works to kill the parasites, and parasites are expelled through the increased intestinal motility that is caused by these alkaloids.
Dietary taboos are almost always associated with the use of Ayahuasca; in the rainforest, these tend towards the purification of one's self - abstaining from spicy and heavily seasoned foods, fat, salt, caffeine, acidic foods (such as citrus) and sex before, after, or both before and after a ceremony. A diet low in foods containing tyramine has been recommended, as the speculative interaction of tyramine and MAOIs could lead to a hypertensive crisis. However, evidence indicates that harmala alkaloids act only on MAO-A, in a reversible way similar to moclobemide (an antidepressive that does not require dietary restrictions). Psychonautic experiments and absence of diet restrictions in the highly urban Brazilian ayahuasca church União do Vegetal also suggest that the risk is much lower than conceived, and probably non-existent.
Today, the name 'ayahuasca' can mean a variety of botanical concoctions containing one or more MAOIs and DMT or one of its chemical analogues. The synthetic pharmahuasca is sometimes called ayahuasca as well. In this usage, the DMT is generally considered the main psychoactive active ingredient, while the MAOI merely preserves the psychoactivity of orally ingested DMT, which would otherwise be destroyed in the gut before it could be absorbed in the body. Most ayahuasqueros and others working with the brew claim the B. caapi vine to be the defining ingredient; according to them, it is not ayahuasca unless B. caapi is in the brew. The vine is considered to be the "spirit" of ayahuasca, the gatekeeper and guide to the otherworldly realms.
In some areas, it is even said that the chakruna or chaliponga admixtures are added only to make the brew taste sweeter. This is a strong indicator of the often wildly divergent intentions and cultural differences between the native ayahuasca-using cultures and psychedelics enthusiasts in other countries.
In modern Europe and North America, ayahuasca analogues are often prepared using non-traditional plants which contain the same alkaloids. For example, seeds of the Syrian rue plant are often used as a substitute for the ayawaska vine, and the DMT-rich Mimosa hostilis is used in place of chakruna. Australia has several indigenous plants which are popular among modern ayahuasqueros there, such as various DMT-rich species of Acacia.
In modern Western culture, entheogen users sometimes base concoctions on Ayahuasca. When doing so, most often Rue or B. caapi are used with an alternative form of the DMT molecule, such as psilocin, or a non-DMT based hallucinogen such as mescaline. Nicknames such as Psilohuasca, Mush-rue-asca, or 'Shroom-a-huasca, for mushroom based mixtures, or Pedrohuasca (from the San Pedro Cactus, which contains mescaline) are often given to such brews. Such nicknames are by many considered inappropriate and culturally insensitive seeing as "huasca" means "vine" and none of the above are vines, nor do the psychedelic experimentalist trappings of such concoctions bear any resemblance to the medicinal use of Ayahuasca in its original cultural context. This is usually only done by experienced entheogen users who are more familiar with the chemicals and plants being used, as the uninformed combination of various neuro-chemicals can be dangerous.
It seems unlikely that Ayahuasca could ever emerge as a "street-drug", given the difficulty of making the tea and the intense experience it provides. Most Western users employ it almost exclusively for spiritual purposes, in line with both traditional, animist usage and organized churches such as the União do Vegetal (or UDV). With the exception of UDV, a diet is almost always followed before use, including a day of fasting. In traditional settings, the "dieta" is followed to spiritually cleanse the body before and after the experience.
In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, the most famous of them being Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (or UDV), usually in an animistic context that may be shamanistic or, more often (as with Santo Daime and the UDV), integrated with Christianity. Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world. Similarly, the US and Europe have started to see new religious groups develop in relation to increased ayahuasca use. PaDeva, an American Wiccan group, has become the first incorporated legal church which holds the use of ayahuasca central to their beliefs. Some Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazon rainforest regions, forming Ayahuasca healing retreats that claim to be able to cure mental and physical illness and allow communication with the spirit world. Anecdotal reports and scientific studies affirm that ritualized use of ayahuasca may improve mental and physical health, but it is thought to be a potential risk for a psychotic outbreaks in susceptible individuals, although no supporting scientific research data is available.
Several notable celebrities have publicly discussed their use of ayahuasca, including Sting, Tori Amos, and Paul Simon (who wrote the song Spirit Voices about his experience with the brew in the Amazon).
Recent years have seen notable media attention to the position of the UDV church in the United States. After having their importation and use of Hoasca tea challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice, and then having the issue settled in their favor by the U.S. Supreme Court, the church gained some notoriety. This mirrors in some ways the experiences of UDV and Santo Daime churches in Europe, where legal authorities have taken interest in their activities in France, Germany, Holland and Spain.
Holland was an early Western context for the spread of ayahuasca use. Supporting a large Brazilian population, Santo Daime members in particular made efforts to spread the philosophy of ritualized ayahuasca use. In the mid-to-late 1990s one group, the Amsterdam-based Friends of the Forest, was formed by Santo Daime members to introduce ayahuasca to Europeans and others with "allergies to Christianity." They did this by introducing "New Age" rituals incorporating basic ritual structure, celebrating with songs in the Daime tradition (Portuguese waltzes), English language songs, ambient music and mantras and kirtan. They existed at least until the Dutch authorities raided a Santo Daime ritual in progress, and other ayahuasca-oriented groups sensed that an obvious public profile was not in their best interest. Amsterdam is also among the few cities in Europe where one can find, in addition to Cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms and peyote, ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves, and plants for ayahuasca analogues in the tradition of Jonathan Ott's so-called "ayahuasca borealis."
Writer Kira Salak describes her personal experiences with ayahuasca in the March 2006 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine The article includes a candid description of how ayahuasca cured her depression, as well as provides detailed information about the brew. Here is an excerpt from the article about Dr. Charles Grob's landmark findings:
The taking of ayahuasca has been associated with a long list of documented cures: the disappearance of everything from metastasized colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction, even after just a ceremony or two. It has been medically proven to be nonaddictive and safe to ingest. Yet Western scientists have all but ignored it for decades, reluctant to risk their careers by researching a substance containing the outlawed DMT. Only in the past decade, and then only by a handful of researchers, has ayahuasca begun to be studied. At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine.
In 1993 Dr. Grob directed the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. He and his team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. Unlike most common anti-depressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there . 'Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs],' Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is 'a rather crude way' of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution in maintaining abstinence.
But after forcing down the foul-tasting brew, she was catapulted to a place so dark her husband feared he had 'lost his wife to the world of spirits'. Her life flashed before her as the hallucinogen took hold. She faced demons, saw herself as a terrified four-year-old and curled up on the floor, shivering, retching and muttering for two days.
'I think I went through an experience of death at a certain point, when I was no longer a body or a soul or a spirit or anything,' Allende says matter-of-factly. 'There was just a total, absolute void that you cannot even describe because you are not. And I think that's death.'
Nevertheless, the process proved transformative. Allende emerged aching but lucid and was able to complete [a trilogy she was writing], now being adapted for film by the co-producers of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Other common admixtures:
DMT admixture sources:
The cultivation of plants from which psychotropic substances are obtained is not controlled by the Vienna Convention. . . . Neither the crown (fruit, mescal button) of the Peyote cactus nor the roots of the plant Mimosa hostilis nor Psilocybe mushrooms themselves are included in Schedule 1, but only their respective principles, mescaline, DMT and psilocin.
A fax from the Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board to the Netherlands Ministry of Public Health sent in 2001 goes on to state that "Consequently, preparations (e.g.decoctions) made of these plants, including ayahuasca, are not under international control and, therefore, not subject to any of the articles of the 1971 Convention."
The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants are somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. That said, some people are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A court case allowing União do Vegetal to use the tea for religious purposes in the United States, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 1, 2005; the decision, released February 21, 2006, allows the UDV to use the tea in its ceremonies pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Religious use in Brazil was legalized after two official inquiries into the tea in the mid-1980s, which concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual uses.
In France, Santo Daime won a court case allowing them to use the tea in early 2005; however, they were not allowed an exception for religious purposes, but rather for the simple reason that they did not perform chemical extractions to end up with pure DMT and harmala and the plants used were not scheduled. Four months after the court victory, the common ingredients of Ayahuasca as well as harmala were declared stupéfiants, or narcotic schedule I substances, making the tea and its ingredients illegal to use or possess. See and for more information.
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