Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic beverage made from a tropical vine that forms an important component of Amazonian Indian shamanism.
It is legal for use by these natives in Brazil, but the active ingredient in the tea is classified as a Schedule I substance in the United States, making the hallucinogenic component of ayahuasca illegal to possess.
Other distortions of reality are also experienced with these drugs.
Individuals often have dissociative experiences where they feel that they are detached from their bodies or that things are not real, perceive that time is either sped up or slowed down, or that they can better sense another person’s feelings.
- Classic hallucinogens that typically produce hallucinations, altered senses of time, and heightened or more intense sensory experiences (e.g., colors seem much brighter)
- Dissociative hallucinogens that produce all the above experiences but also feelings of detachment from reality
This designation is not without error because some classic hallucinogens may produce dissociative effects in individuals, and dissociative hallucinogens often mimic the effects of classic hallucinogens. The major active ingredient in ayahuasca falls under the classic hallucinogen category.
Hallucinogens are not major drugs of abuse in the same way that prescription medications, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, etc., are considered to be major drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that in 2014 approximately 1.2 million individuals over the age of 12 years old reported some type of hallucinogen use. Since these substances are generally classified as Schedule I controlled substances, the figure suggests that hallucinogens represent substances that are of concern.
What Is Ayahuasca?The major psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Certain groups in South America typically use the leaves and shoots of several local plants to make a tea, whereas users in the United States generally take the drug in pill form, though they may snort, inject, or smoke it. DMT appears to have gained popularity with older individuals in contrast to other hallucinogens, such as ketamine, which is popular with younger users. This is reflected in some of the street names for DMT that include businessman’s special or businessman’s trip. The effects of DMT are reported as follows:
- Euphoria, elevated mood, the perception that time is moving much more slowly, increased energy levels, improved focus, and hallucinations
- Increased body temperature, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Intensified perceptual experiences that include colors being more salient, sounds being more complex, touch being more intricate, etc.
- Feelings of anxiety and panic
- Psychosis in some individuals
Individuals often use ayahuasca for its perceptual-enhancing effects. However, there are some potentially dangerous effects of using hallucinogens that include potential cardiovascular issues due to the cardiovascular stimulant effects these drugs produce and negative emotional experiences as a result of the hallucinations and other perceptual alterations that the drugs induce. Because the perception of reality is altered, individuals under the influence of these drugs are more likely to make poor decisions and engage in self-destructive behavior, and in rare cases, some hallucinogens are associated with the development of hallucinogen-induced persistent perception disorder. This disorder occurs when the individual experiences the effects of taking the drug (e.g. sudden changes in perceptual experiences, hallucinations, etc.) without having taken the drug (sometimes these experiences are referred to as drug “flashbacks”).
There is no cure for this disorder, and individuals who have these experiences find them very discomforting.
- For quite some time, ayahuasca has been associated with significant antidepressant properties. Some studies suggest that use of the drug may increase the number of serotonin receptors in the central nervous system, and this may contribute to these antidepressant effects. The most common plants used in ayahuasca are Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. Both of these substances have ingredients that mimic the actions of two different classes of antidepressant medications. Banisteriopsis caapi contains substances that act like monoamine oxidase inhibitors, whereas Psychotria viridis has substances that enhance serotonin availability.
- There is ongoing research investigating the potential of using ayahuasca as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder victims.
- A number of studies have suggested that ayahuasca may be useful in the treatment of substance abuse and addiction (substance use disorders).
- Ayahuasca may have relevance in the perception of the severity of symptoms that occur in a number of illnesses and conditions, such as cancer and chronic pain. This treatment effect is most likely psychological in nature.
- Reviews of literature regarding the medicinal effects of ayahuasca indicate that there are a number of methodological concerns with these studies and that more controlled research studies are needed to ascertain the substance’s medicinal potential.
Despite many of these claims, it is important to understand that whenever any substance is labeled as being some form of panacea or cure-all, targeted clinical investigations typically uncover the presence of and the contribution of significant placebo effects. Thus, at this time, many of the claims being made for the substance warrant further investigation.
Is Ayahuasca (DMT) Addictive?The use of ayahuasca does not appear to be associated with the development of significant tolerance. Tolerance occurs when an individual requires a significant increase in the amount of the drug to get the same effects that were once achieved at lower amounts. Because it appears that there is no significant development of tolerance for ayahuasca, the potential for anyone to develop physical dependence on the drug is extremely rare.
Nonetheless, an individual does not need to develop physical dependence to a substance in order to develop a substance use disorder. Substance use disorders (substance abuse and addiction) occur in individuals who use drugs for nonmedical reasons, experience issues with controlling their use of the drug, and continue to use the drug in spite of experiencing a number of negative ramifications associated with use. The American Psychiatric Association specifies formal diagnostic criteria that are used in the diagnosis of a hallucinogen use disorder that would be appropriate for individuals who use ayahuasca and satisfy these criteria. As a group, hallucinogens are not considered to be significant drugs of abuse; however, some individuals may develop substance use disorders as a result of using them.