Understanding ayahuasca

Understanding ayahuasca - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Ayahuasca has been described as “Hollywood’s hip, heavy hallucinogen”. This psychoactive brew is not only increasingly popular but also somewhat of the moment. 

Lots of celebrities have now had the spiritual experience that comes after drinking this psychedelic mixed drink made from the Psychotria viridis shrub and the Banisteriopsis caapi tropical vine of the Amazon region. Through it causing an altered state of consciousness, many ayahuasca users feel as if they have discovered the meaning of life.

“In my 50 plus years on this planet, this is the unparalleled greatest feeling I’ve ever had,” said actor, rapper, and film producer Will Smith of his ayahuasca experiences. He described how he felt as if he was “floating deep in outer space… trillions of light-years away from the earth”.

He also sensed a mother figure that he knew would “never leave me”. A mother figure like this is commonly sensed in ayahuasca visions.

Smith said he realized: “If I’m this beautiful, I don’t need number one movies to feel good about myself. If I’m this beautiful, I don’t need hit records to feel worthy of love. It’s about being able to find that contentment within yourself – not with external stimuli.”

Other celebrities who are said to have also had ayahuasca experiences are actress Megan Fox; singer Miley Cyrus; actress Susan Sarandon; actress and singer Lindsay Lohan; musician Sting; and authors William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

How long does ayahuasca take to have an effect?

Most people who drink the hallucinogenic brew speak enthusiastically and even fervently about what happened to them afterward. This is even though many think it tastes foul and some physical effects are often seemingly not pleasant, with hot and cold flashes, vomiting, and diarrhea – known as “purging” – frequently occurring in the first hour.

This is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience. It represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of someone’s life.

Typically, ayahuasca’s effects peak one to two hours after drinking it. They usually last for four to six hours.

A great many people say their ayahuasca experience has given them a complete life transformation. They talk afterward about how drinking the ayahuasca brew has allowed them to make profoundly positive life changes.

However, while the ayahuasca plant itself is not illegal in the US, the active ingredient DMT in most brews is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal and in the same category as heroin. Specific religious groups in America have been legally granted the right to use ayahuasca for ritual purposes.

Why do people drink ayahuasca?

Why do people drink ayahuasca - Tikvah Lake Recovery

“Ultimately what ayahuasca does is it cuts to the chase of spiritual investigation,” says Jonathan Goldman, a spiritual healer based in Oregon and a leader of ayahuasca ceremonies. “People come to it for all sorts of reasons – but the motivation is to bring themselves into contact with their deeper self.”

Various tests on the brain while people are under the influence of ayahuasca show it causes activity in brain areas involved in emotions, processing, and memory. It seems to especially interact with the visual cortex of the brain, the region of our brains that receives and processes visual information from the retina.

In a study by the Brain Institute at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, the visual cortex was activated when looking at some photographs and less active when people in the study group closed their eyes, which is normal. But after drinking ayahuasca brew, the cortex was as active whether looking at photographs or with eyes closed. In fact, sometimes with eyes shut it was even more active.

Most people who drink an ayahuasca brew describe how they have spiritual experiences and transcendental revelations regarding their life’s meaning, how they can be their greatest ideal, and the true nature and reality of our world and often the entire universe too. Many say it is a spiritual awakening following their ayahuasca-induced ego-death – followed by a rebirth.

Frequently, people say they were given access to a higher power that is a spiritual healer and mentor. Hallucinations that occur are often recognized or interpreted as repressed memories, interactions with spirits, or an expression of emotional and mental states. It is said to cure the soul and offer complete clarity.

Gerard Armond Powell is a wealthy American entrepreneur who, after an ayahuasca experience in 2015 helped him beat depression, founded Costa Rica’s Rythmia Life Advancement Center. This luxury retreat specializes in spiritual awakening through ayahuasca experiences. Powell’s vivid descriptions of ayahuasca experiences reveal a great deal about why people drink it.

“I’m a regular guy that had an extraordinary experience,” says Powell. “Now I’ve become a cheerleader for a plant that transformed me from a broken multi-millionaire suicidal alcoholic and drug addict with a lifetime of suffering to a happy, free, and purpose-driven individual who can do anything but is addicted to nothing.

“The scariest part of ayahuasca, the thing that scares us the most, is that we might see ourselves. But when you reunite with your soul, everything that you think changes, and all of the pain goes away.

“First time I died on ayahuasca I was scared to death. Then I realized I was no longer afraid to die. It’s quite a gift. A man who owns two shots of ayahuasca owns all of the knowledge that there has ever been.

“Happiness is one meeting away, and it’s a meeting with yourself. You already know everything, ayahuasca simply makes you aware of it.”

Are there any dangers from using ayahuasca?

Using ayahuasca has intensely powerful effects. These are often described as supernatural in essence – and are largely out of the user’s control. That is, what will happen and what they will “see” just happens.

Consequently, sometimes the effects of drinking an ayahuasca brew can cause temporary yet significant emotional and mental distress. Ayahuasca can also cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle spasms, tremors, hyperthermia, excessive sweating, impairment of motor function, dizziness, and vertigo.

There have also been some deaths associated with ayahuasca use. But these are usually because of unknown existing heart conditions, interaction with other drugs, or from taking dangerous risks.

What is the history of ayahuasca?

What is the history of ayahuasca - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Ayahuasca is actually the Hispanicized version of a word from the Quechuan languages that are spoken in the Andean states of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia. In the Quechuan languages, aya means “soul, corpse, spirit”, and waska means “woody vine, rope”. The word ayahuasca is often translated as meaning “vine of the soul” or “spirit vine”.

Although popular now, ayahuasca is by no means a new discovery. There is evidence of ayahuasca being used 1,000 years ago. This came to light when a bundle with the residue of ayahuasca ingredients was found in a cave in Bolivia in 2010.

Christian missionaries from Spain in the 16th Century came across native people in the Amazonian basin using ayahuasca. Their first reports actually described it as “the work of the devil”.

Much more recently, authors William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg tried ayahuasca. A book called The Yage Letters, published in 1963 is a collection of correspondence from the early 1950s between Burroughs and Ginsberg. It details Burroughs’ trip to the Amazon rainforest in search of yagé (another word for ayahuasca) and ends with letters written in 1960 that describe Ginsberg’s yagé experience.

Ayahuasca became even more widely known when Terence McKenna wrote about his adventures in the Amazon basin in his book True Hallucinations, published in 1989. In the decades since then, awareness of ayahuasca has gradually grown. Now there are ayahuasca healing retreats all around the world.

How is ayahuasca prepared and used?

Sections of Banisteriopsis caapi vine are collected, then cleaned and macerated (softened by soaking in a liquid or by beating). Next, they are boiled either alone or with leaves from other plants. These plants include Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chaliponga and chacropanga), Mimosa tenuiflora, and Psychotria viridis (chacruna), and often other ingredients too depending on who is preparing it.

The brew that’s created through this process can contain the hallucinogenic tryptamine drug DMT. It naturally occurs in certain plant species. Brews can also be made with plants that do not have DMT, such as Justicia pectoralis instead of Psychotria viridis.

DMT is a Schedule I controlled substance in America – meaning it is illegal to make, buy, possess or distribute. The cities Oakland and Santa Cruz have recently decriminalized DMT, but it’s still illegal under state and federal law.

An ayahuasca brew’s preparation usually takes several hours. The prepared plant material is added to a large pot of water, which is boiled until the volume is significantly reduced. The psychoactive effect and potency of ayahuasca brews vary depending on the skill of its creator as well as natural variations in plant content. 

Ayahuasca use in traditional cultures in South America varies with some using it for shamanic reasons. Others do it with more of a social purpose.

Experienced ayahuasca users advise against drinking an ayahuasca brew unless with a shaman or someone who’s vastly experienced with it. These experts should lead the ceremony and stay throughout the entire process.

Prior to drinking the ayahuasca brew, people are usually told to avoid sex, red meat, and spicy foods. Purging – which can include vomiting and diarrhea – is usually part of the ceremony. It is believed to be a way of letting go of negative energy and pent-up emotions.

Can ayahuasca help with mental health?

Many ayahuasca users report that it has helped them to beat depression, anxiety, and/or addiction. Recent studies have backed this up. 

In 2020, researchers found that after ayahuasca use more than 80 percent of people who’d met diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder showed clinical improvements. Questionnaires showed major reductions in depression. These findings were published in the scientific journal Nature.

Then in 2021, peer-reviewed medical journal The Journal of Affective Disorders published details of a study carried out from 2017 to 2020 that showed ayahuasca was positive for treating depression and anxiety. This research approached nearly 12,000 people who had a diagnosis of depression or anxiety when they tried ayahuasca.

Around a third (32 percent) said their depression was “completely resolved” after their ayahuasca use. Nearly a half (46 percent) said their depression had “very much” improved.

Similarly, there was a great improvement in those suffering from anxiety with more than half (54 percent) saying it was “very much” improved. Sixteen percent said their anxiety had “completely resolved”. Factors associated with greater improvement were the number of ayahuasca sessions, as well as the number of personal mental and emotional insights experienced.

While these findings are exceptional, the authors of the study recognized that as a cross-sectional analysis, it could not assess treatment efficacy. They also acknowledged that those who responded to their survey were more likely to be those people with positive ayahuasca experiences.

“Ayahuasca, like any psychedelic, is a tool,” says Alli Feduccia, a neuropharmacologist and researcher at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), an American nonprofit organization working to raise awareness and understanding of psychedelics. “It’s probably not the right tool for everyone, but with properly trained people to help administer it and provide the necessary after-care, it has great potential to relieve a lot of mental health conditions and symptoms.”

Our friendly experienced team has treated people with all types of mental health problems.  After carefully listening, we offer several personalized treatment options for the best, swiftest, and most enduring recovery.

Call us today to speak about how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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