Ayahuasca (also called yage) is appearing more and more frequently in the media and in the common people these days, and many are reporting scavenging experiences with a strong therapeutic effect. I often get questions about ayahuasca and will answer some of these here.
What is it?
Slightly simplified, ayahuasca is a drink that is mainly cooked by two types of plants from South America. One is a climbing plant called ayahuasca (baisteriopsis caapi) which contains DMT, which is it psychoactive the substance in the drink. DMT is found naturally in a number of plants, but when one ingesting this substance usually it is digested by the enzymes in the stomach and therefore has none psychoactive effect. When combining this plants with the leaves of a shrub called chacruna (psychotria viridis) on the other hand (or others, depending on the country in which the tea is made), allows the body to take it up orally. AOther ingredients that can be added to ayahuasca tea include ayahuma bark, capirona bark, uchu sanago and wyra caspi bark.
Why do you do it?
Classic psychedelics (fungi / psilocybin, LSD, peyote / mescaline and DMT) appear to have good psychotherapeutic effects for several disorders, including depression, anxiety and addiction. In addition, many people use it to "find themselves" or find solutions to problems in life, from personal to professional. Gabor Maté's explanation in this lecture sounds good in my ears, but there are many other interesting hypotheses out there too. When it comes to research on ayahuasca, it is operated in a different way from, for example, psilocybin, LSD and MDMA due to large pharmacological variations in the brew itself. Therefore, clinical trials are not initiated and it will take a long time before it can be approved as a drug in the West. But there are still some interesting observational studies out there that are worth looking at. For example this.
How does it work?
This is actually a little uncertain. One could argue that there is a purely physiological effect of psychedelics reducing activity in an area called Default Mode Network, which increases activity in the rest of the brain and forms new nerve pathways. This makes it easier to think differently and break habits. One can also argue that it is a purely psychological process where you get the opportunity to become your own therapist by becoming extra conscious of your own thought processes for a few hours. Most people probably think that it is both and that the physiological and psychological cannot be separated. It has long been concluded that the right "set and setting", or state of mind and environment, is a decisive factor for good results. This means that the pure pharmacological effect cannot be isolated from the environment, as you can with most medicines available today.
Where to do it?
In Scandinavia, there are several ayahuasca ceremonies that are held on a regular basis, often arranged by traveling "ayahuasqueros". The price may vary, but it is not uncommon for two to four thousand per person for a weekend. This is then in a group setting with 5-15 participants. Ayahuasca is not legal in Norway. Outside Norway, there are several legal alternatives, both traveling events and regular "retreats". There is a list of which countries ayahuasca is legal in here. There are many good "ayahuasqueros", but also some that have been heavily criticized. My recommendation is to make sure you have a good support system around you and do proper research before you buy airline tickets.
What does the risk picture look like?
The pharmacology of ayahuasca is more complex than, for example, classic psychedelics alone (LSD, psilocybin, DMT, mescaline) and this means that you have a few more things to look out for. First, ayahuasca can be very dangerous to combine with several medications, including antidepressants, antipsychotics, medications used to treat Parkinson's, cough medications, weight loss medications and more. In addition, consuming ayahuasca can increase heart rate and blood pressure more than with classic psychedelics, which can lead to dangerous side effects if you have a heart condition.
Read more about the risk picture for taking psychedelics here.
In addition, one has the same risk picture for psychological consequences as for classic psychedelics, with a special focus on people who have been diagnosed with psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar depression or the like. This means that there are physiological and psychological risks associated with the use of ayahuasca and anyone considering using ayahuasca should weigh the risks and benefits, and ensure that medical help is available.
Read more about possible alternatives to psychedelic therapy here.