Published: May 8th, 2018
Categories: Plants and Seeds
Ayahuasca is a traditional Amazonian brew. It is also called “Grandmother” or the “truth vine". Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years by shamans, and drinking it is thought to expand consciousness. In Peru, ayahuasca is used to treat drug addicts and as a substitute for antidepressant pills. Today, the concoction has made its way into the wider natural remedy community of the West.
In lay terms, ayahuasca is a potent chemical soup that launches users into a prolonged psychedelic trip. From a scientific perspective, it is a mix of chacruna (containing DMT) and “caapi” (an MAOI). These two main analogues - Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi, respectivel - combine to induce a powerful effect that lasts much longer than if one were to smoke DMT without the presence of an MAOI.
Ayahuasca has sustained a huge, lasting impact on many people. The effects produced upon drinking this brew involve a purging of the body and an opening of the mind. But how does ayahuasca affect your brain over time? Research has actually shown that long-term use has no negative psychological or neurological effects. In fact, studies delineate that long-term use of the drug has no prolonged ill-effects whatsoever.
One study, from the Hospital Sant Pau in Barcelona, looked at 127 people who used the drug twice a month for 15 years. They were then compared with people who had never used the substance. Researchers concluded there was no evidence of harm. In fact, ayahuasca users even scored higher on cognitive tests than non-users. Furthermore, users showed lower rates of depression, anxiety, hostility, and worry.
This 2012 study was one of the largest ever performed on the issue. It was funded by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS). That said, ICEERS did recommend basic precautions for users. People with heart conditions and those who are currently taking serotonin-related drugs like antidepressants should avoid ayahuasca.
A follow-up study was conducted in Barcelona in 2015. The Sant Pau Institute evaluated the effects of long-term use. While they found no long-term harm, they did find something else that was very interesting.
The academics studied the brains of 22 regular users and compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to non-users. They also measured cortical thickness, a valuable metric for assessing normal or damaged neuroanatomy. Researchers found that users scored significantly lower on a personality trait characterised by persistent pessimism. It was also concluded that higher frequency and prolonged use of ayahuasca correlates to a thinner posterior cingulate cortex - a brain region associated with constructs of the ego. “Thus”, study authors state, “differences may have a neural basis and the result of repeated intake”.
A small study by Canadian scientists has also shown that the Amazonian brew might even help with eating disorders.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Adele LaFrance, an associate professor at Laurentian University, had been studying bulimia and anorexia. She noted a high drop-out and relapse rate of patients. After giving ayahuasca to study participants, the vast majority (11 out of 16) noted that it reduced symptoms. One participant described it this way: “I had more distance between my behaviours and, you know the thought patterns and triggers…It was like my brain was reprogrammed”.
The brew begins to take effect within half an hour after consumption. The impact can last up to five hours. The experience is also not really like the “trip” experienced when using LSD or magic mushrooms.
This interesting impact comes from the chemical makeup of the natural ingredients. Normally, the digestive enzymes in your gut would deactivate the active ingredient DMT before it is absorbed. However, the addition of caapi inhibits normal digestive system functioning, so that the chemicals can be absorbed by the body and travel through the blood-brain barrier. This means that your body is then “bathed” in high doses of serotonin.
Banisteriopsis caapi, which is a vine, contains harmaline, tetrahydroharmine, harmol, and 6-methoxytryptamine. Both harmine and harmaline are reversible MAO inhibitors. Tetrahydroharmine is a weak serotonin uptake inhibitor. MAO inhibitors like harmine prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters by inhibiting the action of MAO enzymes.
Psychotria viridis and Psychotria carthagenensis are also interesting chemically. One of the most important chemicals in both is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is theorised to be an endogenous chemical excreted by the pineal gland during REM sleep. It is structurally similar to not only serotonin, but also psilocin and psilocybin, the powerful hallucinogenic chemicals found in magic mushrooms.