Ayahuasca is a traditional Amazonian plant medicine utilized in ceremonial healing.  Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic tea made from potent psychotropic plants indigenous to the Amazon Rain Forest.  The term ayahuasca is taken from the Quechua language, aya- which means death or spirit and huasca which means vine.


Ayahuasca

In the mid-1800’s, Spruce and von Humboldt were two of the first European explorers to encounter the ayahuasca decoction (Strassman 2001).  These early explorers reported hearing tales of the beverage’s effects: stories of visions, “out-of-body-travel,” predictions of the future, location of lost objects, and contact with the dead.  Upon experimentation, these explorers verified the tea’s mystical properties.  Spruce determined that the various regional concoctions (ayahuasca, yage, hoasca, caapi) all utilized the Banisteriopsis vine in combination with the leaves of some other presumably psychoactive plant.  

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Ayahuasca tea is named for the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapiand is generally prepared by boiling the shredded stalk of the woody ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the tryptamine-rich Psychotrochia viridisbush, known commonly in the Peruvian Upper Amazon as chacruna.  Although there are a number of ways to prepare ayahuasca tea, sometimes involving different tryptamine sources or the addition of other plants, at our center we prepare our ayahuasca exclusively from the cielo variety of the Banisteriopsis vine and from chacruna leaves.  

From a Western perspective, this combination of plants provides the necessary alkaloids involved in promoting the mysterious ayahuasca experience: namely, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a few beta-carbolines.  From the traditional Shipibo perspective, ayahuasca tea is a plant medicine which when used properly in healing ceremony, facilitates contact with healing plant spirits.  The tea is named for the ayahuasca vine which provides the force of the medicine.  In the Shipibo tradition, the spirit of ayahuasca is feminine.  She is madre ayahuasca, the mother of the healing plant spirits of the Amazon.  Chacruna is also a healing master plant.  From the traditional perspective, chacruna is the source of ayahuasca visions.

Chacruna is known to be rich in the psychedelic indoleamine DMT (River and Lindgren 1972).  The Baniseriopsis vine ayahuasca is the source of the assisting beta-carbolines.  Thus, the combination provides the psychoactive alkaloids: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and the beta-carbolines: harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (THH). The subjective and physiological effects of isolated DMT in humans has been reported to closely resemble those of the structurally related indolealkylamine LSD (Strassman et al., 1994, 1996).  However due to its low bioavailability and rapid metabolism, when used alone, DMT must be injected to induce a response.  The effects of ingested DMT can be amplified through beta-carbolines.  This phenomena is known as the “ayahuasca effect.”  The beta-carbolines harmine and harmaline have been shown to reversibly inhibit monoamine oxidase A, while THH weakly inhibits the uptake of serotonin.  MAO inhibition facilitates the bioavailability of ingested DMT and delays its metabolism.  MAO inhibition and serotonin uptake inhibition increase central and peripheral serotoninergic and catecholamine activity while facilitating the psychoactivity of DMT (Callaway 1999).  

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It is for these reasons that one must avoid foods rich in tyramine (such as meats that are potentially spoiled or pickled, aged, smoked, fermented, or marinated; alcoholic beverages, and fermented foods, such as most cheeses) and medications which affect serotonin levels when taking ayahuasca.  If these foods or medications are combined with ayahusca, serotonin levels can be raised to dangerously toxic levels.  

Ayahuasca has also been shown to transiently elevate blood pressure.  Additionally, in some cases, individuals experience significant psychological stress during the experience.  It is for this reason that extreme caution should be taken with those who may be at risk of heart disease.  

Some Western scientists have focused their energies on the “the ayahuasca effect” and role of DMT in the ayahuasca experience.  Some individuals have offered the possibility that like the opiates and the cannabinoids, DMT may be acting on an endogenous human system.  DMT is produced endogenously and is actively transported across the blood brain barrier (Strassman 2001).  In 1965 DMT was isolated in human blood and in 1972 DMT was isolated in human brain tissue.  It has since been isolated from cerebrospinal fluid and urine.  Its endogenous function is not clear and the site of DMT production has not been clearly identified.   It is possible that DMT is produced in the pineal gland where the necessary enzymatic machinery exists to produce a methylated indoleamine.   Peripheral production of DMT is also possible.  Some suggest that endogenous DMT in human beings may play a role in mystical experiences including those of near-death.

Although ongoing DMT research and the possibilities for endogenous DMT are fascinating, traditional ayahuasca ceremony involves much more than this mysterious molecule.  Some traditional Shipibo shamans remark that the isolated chemical DMT provides only the formula for the visions but does not carry the spirit of the ceremonial ayahuasca experience.  Our practice of traditional ayahuasca seeks to provide profound and lasting healing as opposed to a temporary visionary experience, and involves several components.  

First, our medicine prepared from whole plants.  Although unpleasant to the taste, ayahuasca tea has a number of properties beyond the psychedelic properties of DMT.  The ayahuasca vine itself is a strong purgative which provides deep cleansing in collaboration with the visionary experience.  Furthermore, properly prepared and utilized, ayahuasca tea can facilitate access, for those willing, to the mystical visionary world of the healing plant spirits celebrated in traditional Shipibo culture.  

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Next, in the Shipibo tradition, in order to open yourself to the more subtle aspects of traditional plant medicine, one should maintain a traditional diet to maximize your healing experience with the plants.  We provide our guests with a plant-derived purgative, azusena mixed with oje, as an initial vomitive.  This azusena mixture invokes vomiting and sometimes diarrhea and cleanses the individual from previously ingested impurities.  The vomitive prepares them to initiate a traditional diet which generally involves the following dietary and behavioral restrictions: no sweets, no salt, no fatty foods (allowing in some cases, minimal vegetable oil), no dairy products, no pork or red meat, no spicy foods, no sex and no alcohol or drugs.

Lastly, traditional ayahuasca ceremony is guided by appropriately trained shamans.  As the ayahuasca experience can be very intense and even psychologically destabilizing, one should be very careful when choosing a proper ceremonial guide.  As mentioned, at our center, our ceremonies are guided by traditionally trained master Shipibo healers: Ricardo and his assistants.  Our ceremonies are performed for healing and for learning.  As mentioned elsewhere in the site, our guests review their intentions with Ricardo and once on the diet are invited to ceremony.  There, they are guided through the experience by Shipibo icaros, mystical healing songs sung by the shamans while under the effect of the ayahuasca (con la mareacion de ayahuasca).  The shamans universally teach that these icaros are learned from the plants themselves and are sung to channel the healing energy of master plants.  These songs are learned during extensive traditional diets and often under the guidance of an experienced master.

 



References

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Rivier, L., Lindgren, L., 1972.  Ayahuasca, the South American hallucinogenic drink: an ethnobotanical and chemical investigation.  Econ. Botany 26, 101-129.

Strassman RJ (1994)  Human psychopharmacology of LSD, dimethyltryptamine and related compounds.  In: Pletscher A, Ladewig D (eds) 50 years of LSD: current status and perspectives of hallucinogens.  Parthenon, London.

Strassman RJ (1994) Human psychopharmacology of N, N-dimethyltryptamine.  Behav Brain Res 73:121-124.

Strassman, Rick.  DMT the Spirit Molecule.  Park Street Press, 2001.