What is Ayahuasca?

There has been an unprecedented global expansion of the consumption of ayahuasca. The use of ayahuasca originated in the Amazon although over the past 75 years or so, has slowly left the jungle and is now having a huge impact on the global awakening on our planet. So what exactly is ayahuasca, what is it used for and how does it work? 

Ayahuasca (pronounced ah-yah-WAH-ska and commonly misspelled Iowaska) is an hallucinogenic liquid mixture of plant materials commonly referred to as a “tea” or “brew”, and used by many indigenous tribes and native people in South America dating back thousands of years, although the origins still remain unknown.

What is Ayahuasca Used for?

Ayahuasca is referred to as a master plant teacher and has been ceremonially used for various healing, cleansing, purifying and spiritual purposes, including to commune with the spirit realms and in rites of passage and induces visionary states of consciousness. 

Traditional cultures have been using ayahuasca as a medicine in the truest sense of the word: “a substance or preparation used in treating disease”. 

Ayahuasca is meant to be consumed in a ceremonial setting with the guide of a shaman. (I do not under any circumstances recommend that you drink ayahuasca alone and also proceed with caution when choosing which ayahuasca circle you might want to participate in. Check out my article: Vet Your Shaman: 20 Questions to Ask the Shaman Before Sitting in Their Ceremony.) 

The name Ayahuasca is from the Quechua language: “huasca” means vine and “aya” means soul, or spirits. Ayahuasca is typically translated into “vine of the soul” or “vine with a soul” or “vine of the spirits”. 

There are other names for ayahuasca, a common one being yagé (pronounced ya-hé), and others include daime, vegetal, caapi, natéma, and mihi, although I rarely hear those names being used. 

In the 1980s, anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna recorded over 70 different indigenous names for ayahuasca preparations, underscoring its widespread use by unconnected human groups.*

With the current explosion of interest in ayahuasca and the vast increase of people consuming it on a global scale, there are more common names for ayahuasca moving through the more new age cultures around the world. Common names being used for ayahuasca to keep conversations more discrete include: madré (for mother), jungle tea, medicine brew, tea, medicine, plant teacher, sacred plant medicines, grandmother, Abuelita (which is the name for the spirit of ayahuasca translated into “little grandmother”).

In my “Ayahuasca Diaries” article series, I commonly refer to the ayahuasca as “medicine”.

The part that gets a little confusing is that ayahuasca is what is referred to as the final brew which typically contains two main plant materials: a vine mixed with the leaves from a separate plant called the chacruna plant. 

But ayahuasca is also what we call just the vine. So just to clarify, we have the vine and the leaves that make up the ayahuasca brew, and ayahuasca is also the name we refer to when speaking about just the vine. 

Why is this? Because it’s said that the spirit of the ayahuasca brew really comes from the vine. The leaf plays a crucial role that we’ll talk about in a moment, but essentially, the vine is what carries the healing and the teachings we receive. The vine is the spirit of ayahuasca. 

I’ve heard some people describe it as the vine carrying the teachings and the DMT that the leaf provides helps to keep our mind occupied on the visual effects, like putting us in a trance state so that the vine can do the deeper work on our bodies without our minds getting in the way. This way, it can be easier for us to integrate our experiences. 

How Does Ayahuasca Work?

The most common ayahuasca brew contains two main plants:

  • The Banisteriopsis Caapi vine: which is the vine component I mentioned earlier. 
  • And the leaves from the chacruna plant known as Psychotria viridis.

On a pharmacological level, here are the primary contributing constituents  of each plant:

The vine: Without getting too technical here, the vine contains a host of harmala alkaloids which are what we call monoamine oxidase inhibitors (commonly referred to as MAOI’s). I know it sounds like a big technical word, but don’t get overwhelmed, just stay with me here! 

The leaf: The leaves from the chacruna plant contains DMT. DMT stands for N, N-dimethyltryptamine and it’s a powerful psychoactive substance that causes the full kaleidoscope effects you see when you’re “tripping” and causes visual “hallucinations” (some pretty fantastic ones too I might add!)

The DMT is an agonist to the 5-HT2A receptor in the brain, and we’ll explore this more in another article. 

So check it out: 

DMT is not orally active because we have this specific stomach enzyme that’s naturally produced in the body called monoamine oxidase (MAO) that metabolizes the DMT, which prevents it from doing anything in our bodies.

Monoamine oxidase is what prevents all the DMT and the countless other psychoactive plant chemicals that are naturally occurring in the plant world that we consume on a regular basis to not become orally active so we’re not tripping balls all day, every day, and we’re able to hunt and gather our food sources and watch out for the dangers of predators. 

Essentially: MAO’s prevent DMT from being orally active.

The vine just so happens to contain what we call monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s), which inhibit the proper function of the MAO stomach enzymes. This means it basically prevents or blocks that natural functional of our stomach enzymes to metabolize the DMT, which means that the DMT does become orally active. 

Essentially: MAOI’s allow DMT to become orally active. 

So just to recap for for the utmost clarity, the monoamine oxidase naturally prevents the DMT from being active in our bodies, and the vine contains inhibitors which prevent the monoamine oxidase from doing it’s job properly therefore allowing the DMT to become active. Make sense? 

So the leaves contain DMT, and combining it with the vine which contains a host of powerful MAOI’s prevents the DMT from breaking down and allows  it to stay active in the body and cross the blood-brain barrier which allows us to experience some quite profound visionary states into different dimensions and other-worldly realms. 

A Side Note of Caution About Plant Add-Mixtures: 

Please be aware that although most brews circulating in North America typically contain just leaf and vine, but there are some shamans working with different plant add-mixtures that are not safe, especially when combined with different medications. Different indigenous groups developed complex variations of the basic B. caapi infusion, adding up to 90 different plants as plant add mixtures.*

There is an incredibly dark side to shamanism, which I won’t talk about here, but I will say that you need to use your discretion when working with any shaman, especially for the first time. Some shamans add different plants to their brews to make the people drinking their medicine more susceptible to suggestions in an attempt to extort more money or to make sexual advances. Please keep your whits about you! 

Technical Terms for Ayahuasca

There are several technical terms for the category of plants that ayahuasca falls under. They can be used to help point to it’s effects on our consciousness. 

Ayahuasca is a:

  • Psychotropic: which means “Acting on the mind”
  • Psychedelic: which mean “Mind Manifesting”
  • Hallucinogenic: which means “Vision Inducing’
  • Entheogenic: which means “Connecting to the Sacred Within”

There are so many ways we can benefit in our lives by mindfully and intentionally choosing to partake in an ayahuasca ceremony. 

I personally have had countless transformational experiences and so grateful for these sacred medicine plants in my life. 

There’s so much more than can be said about ayahuasca, so stay tuned for my other articles coming soon about the benefits of ayahuasca as well as frequency asked questions.

If you’re looking to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, I can only make recommendations outside of the US. 

Please contact me if you have any questions regarding ayahuasca or for more information about the integration coaching I offer. 

Please be careful when discussing ayahuasca. Unfortunately, it is still considered to be an illegal substance in the US. 

Laura D

*Elisabet Dom´inguez-Clav´e, Joaquim Soler, Matilde Elices,vJuan C.Pascual, Enrique A´ lvarez, Mario de la Fuente Revenga, Pablo Friedlander, Amanda Feilding, Jordi Riba, Ayahuasca: pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential, Brain Research Bulletin http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brainresbull.2016.03.002