Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea originally from South America. It contains DMT, a powerful psychedelic that shifts your perception of reality and may alter your sense of self.
In recent years, Ayahuasca use has become more popular internationally. Research suggests that Ayahuasca use may have therapeutic mental health benefits, especially when it comes to addiction, depression, and overcoming grief.
Here’s a look at how Ayahuasca works, as well as its ingredients, effects, possible benefits, risks, dosage, and more.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a South American psychedelic drink first made by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin.
Ayahuasca use is common across Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, and parts of Brazil. In some cultures, people use Ayahuasca as spiritual medicine; in other cultures, people drink it more casually, as a way to socialize and connect over shared visions. Dosage and ceremonial traditions also vary from culture to culture.
Ayahuasca is a drink made from jungle plants that contain two specific compounds: N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).
DMT is a powerful hallucinogen and is responsible for most of Ayahuasca’s psychedelic effects. However, DMT isn’t orally active if you take it alone; your liver breaks it down before it can reach your brain and you won’t feel any effects.
For that reason, Ayahuasca must also contain an MAOI-a compound that alters brain activity by preventing monoamine oxidase enzymes in your digestive tract from breaking down DMT. The presence of an MAOI allows DMT to reach your brain, causing Ayahuasca’s psychedelic effects.1
The most common plants in Ayahuasca are the leaves of the Psychotria vidis shrub, which is rich in DMT, and the bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi, or b caapi vine, which acts as an MAOI.2 However, preparations may vary by region, and both plants can be replaced as long as the substitutions provide both DMT and an MAOI.
Ayahuasca may also contain other jungle plants, which shamans add for ceremonial or spiritual value. According to traditional Amazonian medicine, these plants do a variety of things: calming your mind, drawing out negative spiritual energy, or bringing you closer to ancestors who have died, for example.
Ayahuasca recipes vary greatly from culture to culture and region to region.
Is Ayahuasca DMT?
Ayahuasca’s main psychedelic ingredient is DMT. However, Ayahuasca differs from pure DMT in several ways.
DMT is a molecule with powerful psychedelic effects. It can cause hallucinations, an altered perception of reality, shifts in your sense of self, and ego-death—the feeling that you’re a connected part of the people and things around you, as opposed to a separate person.
Typically, pure DMT comes in crystal form and is smoked, which causes an intense psychedelic experience that lasts about 20 minutes.
Ayahuasca combines DMT with an MAOI in a tea that you drink, causing a more gradual psychedelic experience that lasts about 6-10 hours.
Another important aspect of Ayahuasca is the ceremony that surrounds it. Your mindset and environment impact how you experience psychedelics, and the ritual of taking Ayahuasca may influence your session (and any benefits you feel).
What does Ayahuasca feel like?
Ayahuasca’s effects last for about 6-10 hours, depending on how strong the tea is and how often you drink it (in many ceremonies you drink Ayahuasca multiple times).
Ayahuasca can cause: 3
- Ego death (a feeling of oneness with the world around you)
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Altered sense of time
- Mystical experiences (the perception that you’re communicating with spiritual beings, a sense of enlightenment, etc.)
- Increased empathy
- Increased self-awareness
- Loss of psychological control (could be a positive or negative experience)
People react to Ayahuasca differently. You may feel a euphoric sense of personal expansion, or you may feel anxiety and fear. It’s not uncommon to have both positive and negative experiences at different points throughout the ceremony.
Research suggests that Ayahuasca may have several therapeutic benefits. Studies show that it helps with:
- Processing grief
However, Ayahuasca research is still in its early stages. Many studies are small or poorly controlled, and while results look promising, it’s too early to make definitive statements about Ayahuasca’s benefits.
Several studies have found that Ayahuasca may help people recover from drug or alcohol addiction.
In a small 2013 study, addicts did two expert-led Ayahuasca ceremonies combined with four days of group therapy.
The Ayahuasca-assisted therapy led to a significant decrease in drug and alcohol use, and 100% of participants reported long-lasting positive effects after their experience. 4
Another small study found that people struggling with addiction saw significant improvements in recovery after doing an Ayahuasca ceremony. The study’s authors propose that Ayahuasca may cause people to lower their psychological defenses, leaving them more open to exploring painful aspects of their lives or themselves. 5
Research on Ayahuasca and addiction is still early, but results look promising. Studies on other psychedelic drugs have also found benefits for managing addiction. 6
Ayahuasca may also help with depression. A 2022 review found that depressed people saw rapid, long-lasting improvement in depressive symptoms after taking Ayahuasca.
In several studies, the improvement happened after one or two Ayahuasca sessions. Depressive symptoms decreased as soon as one day after treatment and were still better at a 6-month follow-up. 7
In a 2020 study, 50 grieving people attended a traditional Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru. They reported significant improvements in grief-related symptoms, starting as soon as 15 days after the ceremony and lasting up to 12 months later. 8
The study found that Ayahuasca use increased people’s ability to decenter—to consider a perspective outside their own and look at their life situation objectively, which is a useful strategy for processing grief. Those who took Ayahuasca were also more likely to confront painful thoughts and emotions instead of avoiding them.
The Ayahuasca Experience
There are at least 30 different South American cultures that use Ayahuasca, and each one has its own unique Ayahuasca recipes, traditions, and practices. As a result, Ayahuasca ceremonies vary.
However, many Ayahuasca experiences involve three distinct aspects: the tea, ceremony, and shaman.
Ayahuasca tea is the psychoactive brew you drink during an Ayahuasca ceremony.
Ayahuasca recipes typically include P. vidis leaves for DMT and B. caapi bark for MAOIs, but the shaman may also use additional plants. There are many different preparations that vary by region.
The shaman typically oversees the brewing process. The ingredients are crushed and boiled in water, often for multiple days. The result is a viscous brown liquid with a notable smell and bitter, muddy taste. The shaman adds or removes water until the tea is the right consistency, cools it, and strains it to remove impurities.
At that point, the tea is ready to serve.
Note that there’s no standardized recipe for Ayahuasca and the strength of the brew varies depending on the shaman preparing it.
For most Ayahuasca ceremonies you’ll be lying or sitting down alongside your fellow participants. The shaman will bless the brew and the ceremonial space, then pass out the tea (or have an assistant pass out the tea).
It usually takes about 30-60 minutes for you to feel Ayahuasca’s effects. 9
In most cases, you drink the tea multiple times, either at the shaman’s direction or until you feel the Ayahuasca. Depending on how many times you drink, an Ayahuasca ceremony can last anywhere from 4-12 hours. 1,10
During the ceremony, the shaman may sing or chant traditional songs called icaros. In traditional medicine, icaros are meant to give you guidance during the ceremony, and are thought to call in beneficial plant spirits while keeping bad spirits away.
Ayahuasca shamans vary by region. In some cultures, they’re considered healers (called curanderos) who help people with physical and spiritual ailments. In other cultures, where Ayahuasca is taken more casually or for social purposes, shamans are simply those who know how to brew Ayahuasca.
Shamanism is often passed down over generations, with parents teaching children how to collect plants, brew Ayahuasca, and perform ceremonies properly, which includes aspects of traditional medicine knowledge—connecting to spirits and guiding the experience.
There are an increasing number of Western shamans offering Ayahuasca ceremonies. While some may be qualified, many others aren’t—they lack the cultural and technical knowledge to make Ayahuasca properly.
If you’re going to take Ayahuasca, consider finding a shaman whose family has had generations of experience with the brew. The brew will be better and the overall experience will likely be more controlled.
How to prepare for Ayahuasca
Preparation for Ayahuasca varies depending on the shaman running the ceremony. Some shamans don’t recommend any particular preparation, while others prescribe strict changes to diet or lifestyle in the weeks (or even months) leading up to the ceremony.
Ayahuasca Diet, or Dieta
One of the more common preparations for Ayahuasca is the dieta, a specific diet meant to get you ready for the ceremony.
The dieta often cuts out foods that, in Amazonian traditional medicine, will invite in bad spirits. In many cases, the dieta is quite simple: rice and white fish, for example, with little to no salt or fat added.
Often, certain plants are either encouraged or off-limits. Many indigenous Amazonian cultures believe that every plant contains a spirit, and that eating or avoiding specific plants leading up to the Ayahuasca ceremony will change your experience, based on which spirits visit you.
If your shaman recommends a dieta, he or she will do so before you arrive for the ceremony. It’s up to you whether or not you decide to follow it, and how strictly.
Keeping an open mind
It’s a good idea to go into an Ayahuasca ceremony with an open mind. If you’re willing to explore whatever you experience instead of trying to run from it, even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment, you’re less likely to have a bad time.
What could go wrong with Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca, like any psychedelic, comes with certain risks.
Technically, it’s possible to overdose on Ayahuasca. Too much of it can cause serotonin syndrome—an overload of serotonin in your brain that leads to rapid heartbeat, insomnia, muscle rigidity, and high blood pressure.
However, the odds of an Ayahuasca overdose are exceedingly rare.11 You would have to drink several times more Ayahuasca than you typically would during a ceremony.
The bigger physical risk comes from improperly prepared Ayahuasca tea. Untrained or poorly trained people running ceremonies may add the wrong plants or prepare them incorrectly, which can lead to problems.
For that reason, it’s important to choose your ceremony carefully. Look for an established shaman and, if you can, talk to people who have worked with him or her in the past, to get a sense for how the experience went.
Ayahuasca is an intense experience and it has the potential to be psychologically challenging. A bad Ayahuasca experience can range from unpleasant to traumatic.
A 2019 review found that most people describe Ayahuasca ceremonies as positive experiences and say that they saw long-term improvements in quality of life after taking Ayahuasca. 3
However, a smaller number of people may have overall negative experiences, which can lead to anxiety or other negative mental states that last for several weeks or even months after the ceremony.
To minimize the chance of a negative experience, it’s a good idea to go into an Ayahuasca ceremony with an open mind. Trying to run from your experience may make it worse. It’s best to enter an Ayahuasca ceremony with a willingness to explore whatever comes up, even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment.
Ayahuasca interacts with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a common class of antidepressants that includes:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac®)
- Citalopram (Celexa®)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro®)
- Paroxetine (Paxil®, Pexeva®)
- Sertraline (Zoloft®)
SSRIs enhance Ayahuasca’s effects to a dangerous degree. Taking Ayahuasca while on SSRIs can cause severe serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal, especially if you don’t have access to a hospital. 12
Do not take Ayahuasca and SSRIs together. As always, check with your doctor before consuming to avoid drug interactions and to consider your medical history before you proceed.
Is Ayahuasca addictive?
Ayahuasca is not known to be addictive and its risk of abuse is low. 13
How to source ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is illegal for general use in the United States. There’s an exception for religious ceremonies, with two approved churches—Santo Daime and União do Vegetal—that are allowed to give members Ayahuasca as part of a sacrament.
Clinical trials for Ayahuasca
One legal way to source Ayahuasca is to sign up for a clinical trial. Psychedelic research is growing and you may be able to take part in a study that gives participants Ayahuasca in a safe, controlled environment. You can search for active clinical trials on the U.S. government’s clinical trial website.
Sourcing Ayahuasca on your own
Taking or possessing Ayahuasca for general use is illegal. We do not encourage you to break the law. That said, if you decide to find an Ayahuasca ceremony on your own, there are a few things to consider so that you can find a safe and reputable Ayahuasca facility.
Most people strongly recommend taking Ayahuasca under the supervision of an experienced shaman. Shamans can brew the Ayahuasca properly and look after you throughout the ceremony, and they know how to manage negative Ayahuasca experiences.
As Ayahuasca becomes more popular, a growing number of inexperienced people are offering Ayahuasca ceremonies. If possible, consider talking to previous ceremony attendees about their experience, or find a shaman through a friend you trust.
Many people also travel to Peru or Ecuador to take Ayahuasca, where it’s legal and there are established Ayahuasca retreats with amenities and staff to support the ceremony.
Ayahuasca Frequently Asked Questions
How do you pronounce Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is pronounced “eye-uh-WAH-skuh,” with an emphasis on the third syllable. It is a Spanish adaptation of “ayawaska,” which is the compound Quechua word made up of “aya” (“soul”) and “waska” (“vine”).
Is Ayahuasca legal in the United States?
At the time of this article’s publication, Ayahuasca and its active compound, DMT, are federally illegal in the United States. Possessing or ingesting DMT is a crime, with an exception for religious use. However, Ayahuasca is legal in many South American and Central American countries.
Can Ayahuasca be detected in a drug test?
The active ingredient in Ayahuasca, DMT, is detectable in urine for up to 24 hours after you take it. However, most standard drug tests do not test for Ayahuasca (which would show up as DMT) or any other hallucinogens, regardless of when you took them.
Does Ayahuasca make you throw up?
It’s common to vomit after taking Ayahuasca, although not everyone will. It’s a possible side effect of the drug. According to traditional belief, throwing up can be an important part of the Ayahuasca ceremony. Many cultures consider vomiting a way of purging negative energy and preparing yourself for your Ayahuasca experience.
Can I microdose with Ayahuasca?
While it’s technically possible to microdose Ayahuasca, it’s practically quite difficult to do so. Ayahuasca takes multiple days to make, requires specialized jungle plants that aren’t readily available in North America, and must be drunk fresh. Most people microdose with LSD (acid) or psilocybin (mushrooms) instead.
Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic with potential benefits, as well as potential risks.
Ayahuasca is illegal in most cases. If you choose to take Ayahuasca, do so with appropriate preparation. Find a shaman or ceremonial retreat you trust, make sure you’re in a good headspace and comfortable physical environment, and keep an open mind as you go into the experience.
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11. Lanaro R, Calemi DB de A, Togni LR, et al. Ritualistic Use of Ayahuasca versus Street Use of Similar Substances Seized by the Police: A Key Factor Involved in the Potential for Intoxications and Overdose? J Psychoactive Drugs. 2015;47(2):132-139. doi:10.1080/02791072.2015.1013202
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