Ayahuasca: Side Effects, Addiction, & Treatment

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Ayahuasca is a traditional herbal brew consumed in some countries in the Amazon region during healing ceremonies practices. This drink includes compounds that impact the brain and may pose health risks.

Derived from the Quechua language, ayahuasca combines aya, meaning spirit or soul, and huasca, signifying rope or vine. Ayahuasca is prepared using the Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis plants. The compounds found in ayahuasca have therapeutic potential for enhancing mood and alleviating symptoms of depression.

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This guide highlights the side effects, potential dangers, and addictive potential of the Ayahuasca drug.

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew, originating from the Amazon Basin, created by combining the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of the chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis).

While the plants themselves are not prohibited in the United States, the leaves contain DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a psychoactive substance that triggers profound hallucinatory experiences. DMT is regulated as a Schedule I controlled substance, recognized for its high abuse potential and lack of accepted medical application. That said, recent research suggests Ayahuasca might offer therapeutic benefits for treating opioid dependencies and alcoholism, as well as mitigating depressive symptoms.

Ayahuasca has been central to spiritual and healing rituals for hundreds of years, despite some instances of adverse and even Ayahuasca death on occasion.

The brew is also referred to by various names, such as:

  • Yagé
  • Huascaagé
  • Daime
  • The Tea
  • La Purga

Crafting this reddish-brown tea is a lengthy process, yielding a concoction with a pronounced bitter taste.

The combination of the vine and shrub extends the duration of the psychoactive effects. Without the vine’s alkaloids, though, DMT’s impact would be brief, lasting for no more than 20 minutes. When the vine and shrub are ingested together as Ayahuasca tea, the experience spans from 4 to 8 hours.

While Ayahuasca is deeply rooted in the religious and spiritual traditions of some indigenous communities, its appeal has spread globally among those seeking enlightenment, emotional healing, or the unique experience offered by an Ayahuasca journey.

Some people venture to countries like Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil to participate in multi-day retreats led by shamans proficient in preparing and administering the brew, ensuring the well-being of all attendees. Ayahuasca should never be used without the guidance of a seasoned shaman, as the intense and dramatically altered state of consciousness triggered by the brew requires careful supervision over several hours.

Participants are usually advised to avoid cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sexual activity, and caffeine before attending an Ayahuasca ceremony to cleanse their system.

Adhering to vegetarian or vegan diets for 2 to 4 weeks before the ceremony is also commonly recommended to detoxify the body, intensifying the overall experience.

A woman holds her hands to her face as she thinks about ayahuasca effects

Ayahuasca Side Effects

The legality of the plant materials used to make Ayahuasca leads some people to assume that consuming this psychedelic tea is without risk. This is not the case, and there have been instances where individuals have suffered fatal consequences shortly after ingesting Ayahuasca. The unpredictable strength of the tea increases the risk of adverse outcomes.

Many people report severe nausea and vomiting, alongside profound hallucinations and changes in sensory perception, after taking Ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca effects typically manifest 30 minutes to an hour after drinking, peaking at 1 to 2 hours, with the overall experience lasting around 4 to 6 hours.

The immediate physical side effects like vomiting and diarrhea – known as purging – are generally unpleasant. These reactions are so prevalent that they’re considered by many as a necessary part of the cleansing process the tea purportedly offers. That said, such symptoms can lead to severe dehydration, increasing the risk of potentially lethal outcomes like cardiac arrest and seizures. Additionally, for those on antidepressants, Ayahuasca’s interaction with serotonin in the brain could be fatal.

Despite these risks, individuals who have consumed Ayahuasca often report undergoing intense, sometimes enlightening, but also potentially terrifying, experiences akin to near-death phenomena.

Short-term physical effects of Ayahuasca consumption can include:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Hallucinatory experiences
  • Euphoric sensations
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Higher heart rate
  • Rise in body temperature
  • Paranoia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Research into the long-term effects of Ayahuasca is ongoing. Preliminary findings indicate it may not significantly affect the functioning of a healthy brain. Psychedelics, though, can lead to enduring psychosis and HPPD (hallucinogen persisting perception disorder), which involves sporadic hallucinations or visual disturbances, like seeing auras around moving objects. Beyond this, some research suggests that psychedelic substances, Ayahuasca included, have the potential to alter brain structure and personality traits.

Many people report experiencing transformative, lasting changes in their lives following their Ayahuasca sessions. These profound shifts are often attributed to the impact of Ayahuasca on the brain’s neurological function.

Emerging evidence suggests that Ayahuasca could have several health benefits, especially in terms of enhancing brain health. Researchers believe that the key components of Ayahuasca, DMT and β-carbolines, may help protect and repair brain cells.

Research suggest that Ayahuasca may help your brain become more mindful and boost your mental health. One study with 20 participants found that drinking Ayahuasca once a week for a month worked equally as well as an 8-week program focused on mindfulness in improving how accepting people are — a key part of being mindful that’s beneficial for mental well-being.

Ayahuasca may also help people dealing with depression, PTSD, and addiction problems.

A study involving 29 individuals who hadn’t responded well to other depression treatments found that just one dose of Ayahuasca made a big difference in reducing depression symptoms compared to a placebo.

Is Ayahuasca Addictive?

The likelihood of becoming addicted to Ayahuasca is considered to be low. Currently, there is no peer-reviewed research indicating that consumption of Ayahuasca (or its active component, DMT) results in the development of tolerance. However, this does not exclude the potential for people to develop a behavioral addiction to the sensations experienced during its use. Despite the often unpleasant nature of consuming the tea, some people may repeatedly use it for self-medication purposes.

Given the significant risks associated with hallucinogen-induced brain damage, anyone who finds themselves using Ayahuasca excessively, consuming larger doses over time, or dedicating considerable effort to obtain the substance are advised to pursue addiction treatment or counseling.

Ayahuasca Addiction Treatment

In addressing the challenges associated with ayahuasca use, it’s helpful to distinguish between traditional ceremonial use, which is deeply rooted in cultural practices, and non-traditional use that may lead to problematic behaviors. The latter can sometimes result in psychological dependence, where individuals may use ayahuasca in an attempt to escape reality, self-medicate for mental health issues, or due to a fascination with the altered states of consciousness it can produce.

Given the primarily psychological nature of problematic ayahuasca use, treatment focuses on psychological support and integration therapy. This approach helps people process their experiences, understand the underlying issues driving their use, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Therapy can include:

  • CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy): To identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors related to ayahuasca use.
  • Psychotherapies: For deeper exploration of emotional and psychological reasons behind the use, facilitating healing and growth.
  • Integration therapy: Specifically aimed at individuals who have undergone profound or challenging psychedelic experiences, helping them integrate these experiences into their everyday lives in a meaningful way.

Support from peers who have gone through similar experiences can be invaluable. Community support groups, whether online or in-person, offer a platform for sharing experiences, challenges, and successes. These groups can provide emotional support, understanding, and practical advice for navigating the journey away from problematic use.

Holistic therapies can complement traditional psychological treatments by addressing the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of recovery. Practices such as meditation, yoga, and art therapy can help individuals reconnect with themselves, manage stress, and express emotions non-verbally.

Approach treatment with cultural sensitivity and respect for the person’s beliefs and experiences with ayahuasca. Understanding the cultural context and spiritual significance of ayahuasca for the individual can aid in creating a more personalized and effective treatment plan.

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Get Treatment for Drug & Alcohol Addiction at California Detox

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