Why Ayahuasca is said to equal years’ worth of therapy

Published September 15, 2020, 3:49 PM

by Dr. Kaycee Reyes

The story behind a thousands-old tradition

A shaman or a healer begins the ceremony by mixing leaves and stalks into a dark, foul-tasting concoction for themselves to drink, and as they enter into an altered state of consciousness, they begin chanting icaros, a special prayer of healing for the patient. This is the ancient Amazonian tradition of Ayahuasca, and this is also why thousands of Westerners flock to Colombia and Peru every year. The tradition, however, has changed through the years. Nowadays, the patient receives the Ayahuasca to experience it for themselves. It can give its takers a strange out-of-body experience that evokes different emotions—bringing back memories of the past, traumatic events, experience euphoria, or paranoia. Recently, its growing popularity has made Ayahuasca ceremonies available in some parts of the United States and Europe as well. So why would they want to risk what seems like a psychedelic trip?

“It’s lifechanging,” they say. This ancient religious tradition is also a form of medicine in parts of South America, where indigenous tribes from Colombia to Bolivia have been practicing for thousands of years. Ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language that means “the vine of the soul.” It was their way to help heal various illnesses such as physical wounds, provide emotional healing, and even remove bad luck. Ayahuasca is prepared by boiling the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in water, which are plants with hallucinogenic properties. Specifically, Psychotria viridis contains N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an illegal psychedelic substance, while Banisteriopsis caapi has monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) called β-carbolines, which also produce psychoactive properties. 

The effects begin 20 minutes to an hour after the concoction is taken and lasts from two to six hours. Purging, as part of the process, is said to be an act of removing bad things from the body—the worries, the regrets, the anger, and the hatred. Studies show promise toward ayahuasca, as research says it can support brain health with its neuroprotective benefits, increase mindfulness, help with addiction and mood disorders, and improve one’s overall wellbeing and quality of life. This may be the reason why, for Westerners, Ayahuasca is an equivalent of years’ worth of therapy.

Its safety is questioned, however. Some who partake of the ceremony experience negative, and sometimes fatal, side effects. While nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting are said to be part of the process, not everyone is able to tolerate them. The concoction itself also differs in doses that usually depends on the shaman, which may explain why it may induce varying reactions. Moreover, its potency may also interact dangerously with certain medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines, and cold or flu preparations, to name a few, and may have drastic consequences for those with mental and health problems such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, diabetes, and psychiatric disorders. Because of these, modern-day Ayahuasca retreats now include a screening process as part of their health protocols before admitting guests.

Ayahuasca has shown potential to help those suffering from addiction and mood disorders. For some, the experience could be therapeutic—a way to heal and process their emotions and improve their overall wellbeing. While it is lifechanging for a lot of people, more studies are still needed to support the benefits associated with Ayahuasca. It is important to note that this should not be considered as a treatment for psychological disorders nor as a substitute for therapy, as one should always seek professional help for these conditions. It is also advised that for safety, regardless of one’s current health status, individuals should inform their physician should they wish to participate in this experience. As promising as Ayahuasca is, it is a journey that should not be taken alone.