Ayahuasca Drug of the Month: download
Transcript and Sources
What exactly is it? Where does it come from in nature? How is it turned into useable form? How is it consumed?
Now it’s time for our drug of the month, where we give you an introduction, and the science, history, and recent trends behind a different drug each month. Last month, we explored a class of synthetic, lab-developed anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals known as benzodiazepines. For June, our Drug of the Month has also helped many of its users with anxiety, but is a completely plant-based brew and has deeply spiritual roots. While its origins and effects remain a mystery to most people, ceremonies and retreats involving its consumption have become popular enough to be skewered by The Onion, in a headline reading “Shaman Dreading Another Week Of Guiding Tech CEOs To Spiritual Oneness.” This month, we will of course be discussing ayahuasca.
The term ayahuasca is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, but ayahuasca is actually a powerfully psychedelic and entheogenic brew made from the caapi vine and an admixture such as psychotria viridis (P. viridis). The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca is Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, which actually comes from the P. viridis or whatever DMT-containing admixture is brewed with the caapi vine, but brews made from DMT-containing plants alone remain inactive when ingested orally, without the monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) from the caapi vine. The brew is used as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the Indigenous peoples of Amazonian Peru, many of whom believe their people received the instructions in its use directly from the plants and plant spirits themselves.
Ayahuasca was first described described to the Western world in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, a colleague of Albert Hoffman, while conducting botanical fieldwork among indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest. Tangentially, Schultes was also one of the first westerners to alert the world about the destruction of the rainforest and disappearance of its native people. The word “ayahuasca” comes from Quecha, a native language in Peru, with “aya” meaning soul or spirit, and “huasca” meaning vine.
People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth and the true nature of the universe, as well as deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can. This is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening and what is often described as a rebirth. In addition, it is often reported that individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers. The vomiting or physical purge that often accompanies the experience is considered by many shaman and practitioners to be a primary purpose of drinking ayahuasca, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Purging effects may also include nausea, diarrhea, and hot or cold flashes.
The ingestion of ayahuasca has also been known to cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. However, t least three deaths of Western tourists related to the consumption of ayahuasca has been reported since 2000. The deaths may have been due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants.
The traditional preparation of ayahuasca is chemically straightforward, with shamans macerating sections of the caapi vine and boiling it with the leaves of the psychotria viridis or other DMT-containing plants.
In modern Europe and North America, ayahuasca analogues are often prepared using non-traditional plants which contain the same alkaloids. For example, seeds of the Syrian rue plant can be used as a substitute for the caapi vine, and the DMT-rich Mimosa hostilis is used in place of chakruna or the viridis. Pharmahuasca refers to a pharmaceutical version using a pharmaceutical MAOI instead of a plant.
That’s all for the introduction episode on ayahuasca. Next week, Sam will be back with the science behind how this spiritual substance interacts with the body.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
And now it’s time for the Drug of the Month. Last week, Rachelle started June of with an overview of Ayahuasca, a not an individual drug but a psychedelic brew with multiple components, but most notably Dimethyltryptamine or DMT. For this, our second installment, I’ll be diving into the science of Ayahuasca: how it interacts with the body on a macro and micro level, along with some of its desirable and undesirable effects.
As Rachelle explained, Ayahuasca is a brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf. The later contains the compound DMT, which is pretty widely known in pop culture as a powerful psychedelic, and the former contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), which allows the DMT to activate. DMT has the chemical formula C12H16N2, and MAOIs are a class of compounds and therefore have no set chemical formula.
Taken individually, neither of these effect your body, but when taken together they create a very strong chemical reaction that can have a profound impact on people’s lives.
When you drink ayahuasca, the brew enters your stomach where some very interesting things happen. If you were drinking DMT without the MAOI, the monoamine oxidase enzymes in your stomach would break it down and make it pass through your digestive system without any psychoactive effect. But with a complete ayahuasca brew, the MAOI do exactly what their name says, and inhibit the actions of monoamine oxidase enzymes. This lets the DMT remain intact rather than being oxidized, so that it is able to pass through the stomach and small intestine and eventually cross the blood-brain barrier.
Once in the brain, DMT binds non-selectively with a wide variety of serotonin receptors, with the strongest affinity for the 5HT-1A and 5HT-1B receptors. However, the strong psychedelic effects come mostly from the 5-HT2A receptor, which is tied to cognition, perception, and imagination.
Tripping on ayahuasca is a roughly 3-hour experience, peaking about 90 minutes after ingestion. This is a stark contrast to smoking DMT, which is a much shorter-lived experience lasting only about 5 to 15 minutes in totality. Smoking also does not require the presence of an MAOI to produce the effect, since it does not go through your stomach so the DMT doesn’t need protection from your digestive enzymes to make it to your brain.
The psychedelic effects of DMT are somewhat similar to others such as LSD or psilocybin, with a few unique characteristics. In addition to the typical euphoria, time dilation, and visual hallucinations, many people who have used DMT report feeling like they are in, or in contact with, another dimension. These reports often include seeing or even communicating with other beings, sometimes interpreted as extra-terrestrial life, or sometimes as fantastical elves, and what exactly they appear as probably depends a lot on the user’s own mindset and beliefs. Famed psychonaut and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna coined the term “machine elves” to refer to these creatures.
As for physical effects, ayahuasca can slightly elevate your blood pressure, heart rate, pupil diameter, and body temperature. Vomiting and diarrhea are also very common, so common in fact that it is a typical part of the ayahuasca experience, with those taking it in a spiritual setting seeing it as a representation of the release of negativity or emotional baggage that the user wants to expel from their body.
Of course, there are also some dangers that come with consuming ayahuasca. It is possible to overdose on DMT, and rat studies have found the LD-50, where 50% of subjects die, to be 110 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. However, this is very rare in humans, and is more of a risk when smoking or injecting DMT than when consuming it as part of an ayahuasca brew.
The bigger danger actually comes from the MAOI. While in ayahuasca it’s simply used to protect the DMT so it can get to your brain, it can also interact with certain medications like SSRIs, which stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and includes antidepressants like Prozac. This combination can prove lethal, so anyone considering consuming ayahuasca should make sure to confirm they are not using any medications that will negatively interact with it.
Aside from its recreational and spiritual uses, there is a growing movement of people using ayahuasca medically. The most widely accepted medical use is helping people overcome depression or addiction to alcohol or other drugs, and long-time listeners will remember our previous guest Randy Hencken describing how he was able to overcome his heroin addiction at an ayahuasca clinic in Mexico. However, as Randy also mentioned, this does come with some risks and there may be safer ways to do this, such as with other less dangerous psychedelics like LSD. The medical research on this is still pretty sparse, but organizations like MAPS are investigating it further and we may see some breakthroughs in the coming years.
That’s all for the science of ayahuasca. Next week, Rachelle will be back to tell you about the history of this potent psychedelic brew.
When did people start using it? Who uses it now? How have the laws and societal attitudes about it evolved over time?
Before getting into our next segment, we just wanted to make a quick correction. During last week’s episode, Sam mistakenly stated that a previous guest Randy Hencken had used ayahuasca to overcome his addiction. In fact, Randy was treated with ibogaine. We apologize for this error.
And now it’s time for the Drug of the Month, where we take a closer look at a different drug each month. For June, we’ve been learning more about Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew originating in the Amazon, and last week, Sam went over the science of how it interacts with the human body. On today’s episode, we’ll go over the history of Ayahuasca.
The origins of Ayahuasca are shrouded in mystery and obscurity, and while many may assume that’s because the memory of how this ancient brew was first developed has been lost over the millennia, the answer may actually be the opposite. In fact, ayahuasca may be a much more recent invention than previously believed. It is often claimed, especially on tourism or retreat websites, that the Ayahuasca brew is over 5,000 years old, with use dating back to approximately 3,000 BC. However, as it turns out, most authors or anthropologists who support this claim can trace their own assertions back to a single article written in the 1980s about an elaborately carved bowl, depicting mythological figures, which the author speculates was “probably” used in ayahuasca ceremonies. No testing for residues of DMT or caapi vine were done on the bowl, and despite the lack of any other evidence that the bowl ever contained ayahuasca, writers continue to cite that article or other articles that have themselves cited that article, and all the way back, until it has become “common knowledge” that ayahuasca is 5,000 years old, despite the lack of scientific evidence. [source]
What’s more certain is that indigenous groups in the Amazon have been ingesting DMT, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in ayahuasca, for thousands of years, but far more likely, through smoking DMT-containing plants or sniffing it in powdered form. As Sam mentioned last episode, when DMT is smoked or sniffed rather than drunk, it does not have to be combined with the protective powers of the ayahuasca vine in order to bypass the stomach enzymes. Devices for sniffing, including trays and little tubes, containing DMT residue were found in the Andean highlands of Peru, and were dated 900 to 200 BC, meaning the use of DMT is still at least 2,000-3,000 years old.
Notably, however, there’s no evidence that the Inca Empire, which emerged in the 1400s and who were highly sophisticated botanists, had recorded any use or encounters with the ayahuasca brew or vine. Likewise, European explorers who began exploring the Amazon in the 1500s did not mention ayahuasca in any their records, despite taking meticulous notes of other psychoactive plants they encountered, such as tobacco and coca. Written descriptions of the ayahuasca vine first appeared in the 1700s, and those were descriptions of the B caapi vine being chewed alone. It is entirely unclear how the synergy between the ayahuasca vine and DMT-containing plants was discovered or when the brew was first developed.
More recently, anthropologists have pointed to significant musical and structural similarities in ikaro, the song used in ayahuasca healing rituals, across various indigenous tribes. Similarly, despite different indigenous communities having vastly different languages, the use of the contemporary northern Quechua language is common in all ayahuasca shamanism, which indicates much more recent origins. Because northern Quechua was the common language spoken by early European missionaries and the indigenous people they preached to, some anthropologists believe it is likely that the use of ayahuasca was secretly spread through Jesuit missionary camps.
Fastforward to 1954, when Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes wrote the first account of the ayahuasca brew outside of indigenous communities. In 1981, an American named Loren Miller, who was the director of California-based International Plant Medicine Corporation, took a sample of ayahuasca back to the United States. Miller then patented ayahuasca and in 1986 obtained exclusive rights to sell and breed the plant. The indigenous people of the Amazon did not find out until ten years later, and several years of legal challenges ensued. Eventually, the US Patent and Trademark Office acknowledged that Miller’s patent was without basis, because there was nothing distinctive or novel about the plant specimen he patented. But ironically, they did so not on the evidence that indigenous people’s had been breeding and using the plant throughout the Amazon for generations, but because another specimen brought back to America was on display at the Chicago Field Museum. The agency also did not acknowledge the argument that ayahuasca’s religious value warranted an exception from patenting. So, a year later, the Patent and Trademark Office reversed its ruling and reinstated Miller’s patent, but it was only for the specific genome that he brought back, and did not apply to any other strain of the plant, thus rendering his patent essentially worthless. That patent expired in 2003 and cannot be renewed.
In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, usually in an animistic context that may be shamanistic or, more often, integrated with Christianity. The most famous of these religions are Santo Daime, which was founded in the 1930s, and the União do Vegetal (known as UDV), which was formed in the 60s. Both now have members and churches throughout the world. In the United States, Santo Daime and UDV have both fought legal battles to allow for the ritual use of ayahuasca, and have so far been successful. Even more recently, Westerners have teamed up with shamen in the Amazon rainforest regions, to form ayahuasca healing retreats for American and European tourists. Many fear that too many tourists are simply looking for a quick fix to their modern-day melancholy or to experiment recreationally with the drug, and that the deeply spiritual significance behind the brew is being lost.
That’s all for this week’s segment of Drug of the Month, the History of Ayahuasca. Next week, Sam will be back with more on recent trends and news.
How have usage rates changed recently? How has the law changed? What is the modern culture like? News items?
Now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we bring you an intro, the science, history, and trends in a different drug each month. For June, that drug has been ayahuasca, so for this, our final installment, I’ll be going over some trends and current events for this drug that only broke into the American mainstream consciousness quite recently.
While DMT does have some of its own culture around it, ayahuasca is of course much more culturally charged since it comes from a tradition full of ritual and beliefs. As Rachelle explained in last week’s segment on history, this may be a relatively new tradition – in comparison to smoking DMT or chewing ayahuasca vines without brewing them – as the first written account only appeared in 1954. But it’s even newer to Western culture, where it broke into the national discussion when ayahuasca tours started becoming more popular. For these tours, Westerners who were seeking spirituality, a mental reset, or sometimes just fun would go down to Peru to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies led by locals. It broke into the news with some high-profile users, including Lindsay Lohan who used it in 2014 and said it helped her with many of the problems she was facing. A few deaths of tourists during these ceremonies brought even more attention, driving its popularity as well as stoking fears, and many complain that there is now too much attention on ayahuasca and that the ritual has become an inauthentic tourist experience. This mindset was perfectly encapsulated in an Onion headline, “Ayahuasca Shaman Dreading Another Week Of Guiding Tech CEOs To Spiritual Oneness.”
Ayahuasca has broken into the mainstream media in a few other ways, including appearing on an episode of Chelsea Handler’s part-comedy, part-documentary “Chelsea Does.” Its use is also depicted on the fictional tv show The Path, which stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. In that series, a cult called the Meyerists has rituals centered around ayahuasca, similar to real-life religious groups like the Brazilian União do Vegetal, which translates to “union of the plants” and uses ayahuasca as a sacrament. This group, also known as UDV, has even had their religious use of ayahuasca protected by the US Supreme Court in a 2005 ruling, similar to how the Native American church is allowed a religious exemption to laws criminalizing peyote. Another interesting tidbit is that in that case, ayahuasca was spelled h-o-a-s-c-a, showing how unfamiliar it was at the time, and that the now-dominant spelling of a-y-a-h-u-a-s-c-a had not yet won out.
Its cultural rise has been mirrored by an increase in research into ayahuasca’s medical uses. Individual accounts often report ayahuasca helping people overcome alcoholism or other addictions, and MAPS, the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies, is supporting research into its applications. In 2013, they published the first North American observational study of the safety and long-term effectiveness of ayahuasca treatment for addiction and dependence.
Hopefully we will see more research on peyote, and a better understanding of its in the public sphere, in the coming years, but for now, that’s our look at the recent trends and current events in peyote.