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The widely used Quechua name ayahuasca (pronounced [a.ja.ˈwa.ska]) has two highly interrelated yet distinct meanings and referents: 1) an Amazonian giant vine native to the rainforest containing various harmala alkaloids, generally Banisteriopsis caapi, and, by extension, 2) pharmacologically complex psychoactive infusions prepared from it for shamanic, folk-medicinal, and religious purposes. Sections of vine are macerated and boiled alone or with leaves from any of a large number of other plants, including Psychotria viridis (chakruna in Quechua) or Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chacropanga). The resulting brew contains MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids and the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic which is active orally only when combined with an MAOI. Harmala alkaloids in Banisteriopsis caapi serve as MAOIs in Ayahuasca. Western brews sometimes substitute plant sources such as Syrian Rue or other harmala containing plants in lieu of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, but the vine itself is always central to traditional usage.
Ayahuasca being prepared in the Napo region of Ecuador.
Ayahuasca being prepared in the Napo region of Ecuador.

Brews are also made with no DMT-containing plants; sometimes they are made with plants such as Justicia pectoralis, Brugmansia and sometimes made with no plants other than the ayahuasca vine itself. Tobacco is a common additive in traditional brews. The potency of this brew varies radically from one batch to the next, both in strength and psychoactive effect, based mainly on the skill of the shaman or brewer, as well as other admixtures sometimes added. Natural variations in plant alkaloid content and profiles also affect the final concentration of alkaloids in the brew, and the physical act of cooking may also serve to modify the alkaloid profile of harmala alkaloids.[1][2]

Individual polymorphisms in the cytochrome P450-2D6 enzyme affects the ability of individuals to metabolize harmine.[3] Some natural tolerance to the regular use of Ayahuasca (e.g. once weekly) may be seen as an upregulation of the serotonergic system.[4] A phase 1 pharmacokinetic study on Ayahuasca (as Hoasca) with 15 volunteers was conducted in 1993, during the Hoasca Project.[5] A review of the Hoasca Project has been published.[6]



  • "ayahuasca" or "daime" in Brazil
    "yagé" or "yajé" (both pronounced [ja.'he]) in Colombia; popularized in English by the beat generation writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in The Yage Letters.
    "ayahuasca" or "ayawaska" in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, also to a lesser extent in Brazil ("vine of the dead" or "vine of souls": in Quechua, aya means "spirit," "ancestor," or "dead person," while waska means "vine" or "rope"). The name is properly that of the plant B. caapi, one of the primary sources of beta-carbolines for the brew.
    "natem" amongst the indigenous Shuar people of Peru.
Urarina shaman, 1988
Urarina shaman, 1988

It should be noted that the spelling ayahuasca is the hispanicized version of the name; many Quechua or Aymara speakers would prefer the spelling ayawaska. In the central andeans of Perú Ayacwasca means :"Ayac" (spirit or dead) and "Wasca" (vine, cord or rope)


Ayahuasca is used in largely as a religious sacrament, no matter which culture it is associated with. Those who use ayahuasca in non-traditional contexts often align themselves with the philosophies and cosmolgies associated with ayahuasca shamanism, as practiced among indigenous peoples like the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia.

While non-native users know of the spiritual applications of ayahuasca, a less well-known traditional usage focuses on the medicinal properties of ayahuasca. Its purgative properties are highly important (many refer to it as la Purga, "the purge"). The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhea it induces can clear the body of worms and other tropical parasites, and harmala alkaloids themselves have been shown to be anthelmintic[7]. Thus, this action is two-fold; a direct action on the parasites by these harmala alkaloids (particularly harmine in ayahuasca) works to kill the parasites, and parasites are expelled through the increased intestinal motility that is caused by these alkaloids.

Ayahuasca cooking in the Napo region of Ecuador.
Ayahuasca cooking in the Napo region of Ecuador.

Dietary taboos are almost always associated with the use of Ayahuasca; in the rainforest, these tend towards the purification of one's self- abstaining from spicy and heavily seasoned foods, fat, salt, caffeine, acidic foods (such as citrus) and sex before, after, or both before and after a ceremony. A diet low in foods containing tyramine is recommended, as the interaction of tyramine and MAOIs can lead to a hypertensive crisis. This extreme dietary specificity is largely a modern one, as most tyramine is produced as food ages, and is therefore not usually a problem in traditional South American cultures. These dietary restrictions have developed as a means of making ayahuasca ingestion easier on the body, as well as having strong traditional and spiritual significance

Today, the name 'ayahuasca' can mean a variety of botanical concoctions containing one or more MAOIs and DMT or one of its chemical analogues. The synthetic pharmahuasca is sometimes called ayahuasca as well. In this usage, the DMT is generally considered the main psychoactive active ingredient, while the MAOI merely activates orally ingested DMT. However, most ayahuasqueros and others working with the brew claim the B. caapi vine to be the defining ingredient; according to them, it is not ayahuasca unless B. caapi is in the brew. The vine is considered to be the "spirit" of ayahuasca, the gatekeeper and guide to the otherworldly realms.

In some areas, it is even said that the chacruna or chaliponga admixtures are added only to make the brew taste sweeter. This is a strong indicator of the often wildly divergent intentions and cultural differences between the native ayahuasca-using cultures and psychedelics enthusiasts in other countries.

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 are often used as a substitute for the ayawaska vine, and the DMT-rich Mimosa hostilis is used in place of chakruna. Australia has several indigenous plants which are popular among modern ayahuasqueros there, such as various DMT-rich species of Acacia.

In modern Western culture, entheogen users sometimes base concoctions off of Ayahuasca. When doing so, most often Rue or B. caapi are used with an alternative form of the DMT molecule, such as psilocin, or a non-DMT based hallucinogen such as mescaline. Nicknames such as Psilohuasca, Mush-rue-asca, or 'Shroom-a-huasca, for mushroom based mixtures, or Pedrohuasca (from the San Pedro Cactus, which contains mescaline) are often given to such brews. Such nicknames are by many considered innapropriate and culturally insensitive seeing as "huasca" means "vine" and none of the above are vines, nor do the psychedelic experimentalist trappings of such concoctions bear any resemblance to the medicinal use of Ayahuasca in its original cultural context. This is usually only done by experienced entheogen users who are more familiar with the chemicals and plants being used, as the uninformed combination of various neuro-chemicals can be dangerous.

It seems unlikely that Ayahuasca could ever emerge as a "street-drug", given the difficulty of making the tea and the intense experience it provides. Most Western users employ it almost exclusively for spiritual purposes, in line with both traditional, animist usage and organized churches such as the the Uniao do Vegetal (or UDV). A diet is almost always followed before use, including a day of fasting, to rid the body of tyramines and other contraindicated chemicals; a "dieta" is often followed as well, to spiritually cleanse the body before and after the experience. Most recreational drug users have never even heard of Ayahuasca, DMT or MAOIs, or the possibility of alterations to the shamanic brew.

Introduction to the West

Ayahuasca is mentioned in the writings of some of the earliest missionaries to South America, but it wasn't for some time that it became commonly known in the West. The early missionary reports generally claim it as demonic, and great efforts were made by the Roman Catholic Church to stamp it out.

When originally researched in the 20th century, the active chemical constituent of Caapi was called telepathine, but it was found to be identical to a chemical already isolated from Peganum harmala and given the name harmaline.

William Burroughs sought yagé (still considered to be "telepathine") in the 1950s while traveling through South America, in the hopes that it could relieve or cure opiate addiction. The Yage Letters, written between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were probably the first major introduction of Ayahuasca to the West.

Ayahuasca was made more widely known by Terence and Dennis McKenna's experiences with Amazonian tribes as detailed in the book Invisible Landscape, which they co-authored. Their journey to the rainforest to search for Ayahuasca was spurred by their reading of Burroughs and Ginsberg. Dennis later extensively studied the pharmacology, botany, and chemistry of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, which were the subjects of his master's thesis.

In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, the most famous of them being Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (or UDV), usually in an animistic context that may be shamanistic or, more often, (as with Santo Daime and the UDV,) integrated with Christian. Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world.

Similarly, the US and Europe has started to see new religious groups born of experiences with ayahuasca. In the US a Wicca group, PaDeva, has become the first incorporated legal church with which ayahuasca is central to their beliefs.

Several notable celebrities have publicly discussed their use of ayahuasca, including Sting, Tori Amos, and Paul Simon (who wrote the song Spirit Voices about his experience with the brew in the Amazon).

Some "Westerners" have teamed up with "shamans" in the amazon rainforest regions and forming Ayahuasca "healing retreats" claiming that it can cure mental and physical illness and allow communication with the spirit world. This is not to say that all organizations catering to ayahuasca tourists are inherently bad, but one should be cautious. Though both anecdotal reporting and scientific studies affirm that ritualized use of ayahuasca can lead to the betterment of human mental and physical health, the monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) component of the brew is a powerful compound that interacts with many foods that some Westerners would not consider dangerous, from liver to Vegemite.

Wade Davis most notably acredited with the writting of The Serpent and The Rainbow wrote in addition to that book one entitled One River. Many examples of ayahuasca as used traditionally by the indigenous jungle tribes of the Amazon Basin are detailed through the book. "The smell and acrid taste was that of the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile." [p.194]

Plant constituents


Traditional Ayahuasca brews are always made with B. caapi as an MAOI, although DMT sources and other admixtures vary from region to region. There are several varieties of caapi, often known as different "colors", with varying effects, potencies, and uses.

DMT admixtures:

  • Psychotria viridis (Chakruna) - leaves
    Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga, Banisteriopsis rusbyana) - leaves
    Psychotria carthagensis (Amyruca) - leaves

Other common admixtures:

  • Justicia pectoralis
    Brugmansia (Toé)
    Nicotiana rustica (Mapacho)
    Ilex guayusa, a relative of yerba mate


Although traditional plant materials are often used, sources with similar chemical constituents are often substituted for the traditional ingredients.


  • Harmal (Peganum harmala, Syrian Rue) - seeds
    Passion flower

DMT admixture sources:

  • Acacia maidenii (Maiden's Wattle), Acacia phlebophylla, and other Acacias, most commonly employed in Australia - bark
    Anadenanthera peregrina, A. colubrina, A. excelsa, A. macrocarpa
    Mimosa hostilis (Jurema) - root bark - not traditionally employed with ayahuasca by any existing cultures, though likely it was in the past. Popular in Europe and North America.

Legal status

Internationally, DMT is a Schedule I drug under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances notes, however, that the plant itself is excluded from international control[1]:

The cultivation of plants from which psychotropic substances are obtained is not controlled by the Vienna Convention. . . . Neither the crown (fruit, mescal button) of the Peyote cactus nor the roots of the plant Mimosa hostilis nor Psilocybe mushrooms themselves are included in Schedule 1, but only their respective principles, mescaline, DMT and psilocin.

A fax from the Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board to the Netherlands Ministry of Public Health sent in 2001 goes on to state that "Consequently, preparations (e.g.decoctions) made of these plants, including ayahuasca are not under international control and, therefore, not subject to any of the articles of the 1971 Convention." [2]

The legal status of these plants in the United States is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. That said, some people are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A court case allowing Uniao do Vegetal to use the tea for religious purposes in the United States, Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 1, 2005; the decision, released February 21st, 2006, allows the UDV to use the tea in its ceremonies persuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Religious use in Brazil was legalized after two official inquiries into the tea in the mid-1980s, which concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual uses. (more on the legal status of ayahuasca can be found in the Erowid vault on the legality of ayahuasca).

In France, Santo Daime won a court case allowing them to use the tea in early 2005; however, they were not allowed an exception for religious purposes, but rather for the simple reason that they did not perform chemical extractions to end up with pure DMT and harmala and the plants used were not scheduled. Four months after the court victory, the common ingredients of Ayahuasca as well as harmala were declared stupéfiants, or narcotic schedule I substances, making the tea and its ingredients illegal to use or possess. See [3] and [4] (French) for more information.

External links

Ayahuasca churches




  • Burroughs, William S. & Ginsberg, Allen. The Yage Letters. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1963. ISBN 0-87286-004-3
  • De Rios, Marlene Dobkin. Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon, (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1984. ISBN 0-88133-093-0
  • Heaven, Ross. Charing, Howard G 'Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul'. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59477-118-9
  • Lamb, F. Bruce. Rio Tigre and Beyond: The Amazon Jungle Medicine of Manuel Córdova. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1985. ISBN 0-938190-59-8
  • Luna, Luis Eduardo. Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1986. ISBN 91-22-00819-5
  • Luna, Luis Eduardo & Amaringo, Pablo. Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of A Peruvian Shaman. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1999. ISBN 1-55643-311-5
  • Luna, Luis Eduardo & White, Stephen F., eds. Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic, 2000. ISBN 0-907791-32-8
  • Matteson Langdon, E. Jean & Baer, Gerhard, eds. Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8263-1345-0
  • McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods.
  • Metzner, Ralph, ed. Ayahuasca: Hallucinogens, Consciousness, and the Spirit of Nature. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1999. ISBN 1-56025-160-3
  • Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998. ISBN 0-87477-911-1
  • Ott, Jonathan. Ayahuasca Analogues: Pangæan Entheogens. Kennewick, Wash.: Natural Products, 1994. ISBN 0-9614234-5-5
  • Perkins, John. The World Is As You Dream It: Shamanic Teachings from the Amazon and Andes. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street, 1994. ISBN 0-89281-459-4[5]
  • Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York: Broadway, 2002. ISBN 0-7679-0743-4[6]
  • Polari de Alverga, Alex. Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street, 1999. ISBN 0-89281-716-X
  • Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. The Shaman and the Jaguar: A Study of Narcotic Drugs Among the Indians of Colombia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975. ISBN 0-87722-038-7
  • Schultes, Richard Evans & Raffauf, Robert F. Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia. Oracle, AZ: Synergetic, 1992. ISBN 0-907791-24-7
  • Shanon, Benny. The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-925293-9
  • Stafford, Peter G. Heavenly Highs: Ayahuasca, Kava-Kava, Dmt, and Other Plants of the Gods. Berkeley: Ronin, 2004. ISBN 1-57951-069-8
  • Strassman, Rick. DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street, 2001. ISBN 0-89281-927-8
  • Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN 0-226-79012-6
  • Wilcox, Joan Parisi (2003). Ayahuasca: The Visionary and Healing Powers of the Vine of the Soul. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street. ISBN 0-89281-131-5


  • Dean Jefferys; Shamans of the Amazon doc 52 min. Australia 200?
  • Jan Kounen, Blueberry l'expérience secrète film
  • Jan Kounen, Autres mondes doc
  • Glenn Switkes, The night of the liana doc 45 min. Brazil 2003


  • Balfour, Bruce. Prometeus Road. ISBN 0-441-01221-3


  1. ^ Callaway JC (2005). Various alkaloid profiles in decoctions of Banisteriopsis caapi. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37(2): 151-155
  2. ^ Callaway JC, Brito GS & Neves ES (2005). Phytochemical analyses of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37(2): 145-150.
  3. ^ Callaway JC (2005). Fast and slow metabolizers of hoasca. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37(2): 157-161.
  4. ^ Callaway JC, Airaksinen MM, McKenna DJ, Brito GS & Grob CS (1994). Platelet serotonin uptake sites increased in drinkers of ayahuasca. Psychopharmacology 116(3): 385-387.
  5. ^ Callaway JC, McKenna DJ, Grob CS, Brito GS, Raymon LP, Poland RE, Andrade EN, Andrade EO (1999). Pharmacology of hoasca alkaloids in healthy humans. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 65(3): 243-256.
  6. ^ McKenna DJ, Callaway JC, Grob CS (1998). The scientific investigation of ayahuasca: A review of past and current research. The Heffter Review of Psychedelic Research 1: 65-77.
  7. ^ Hassan, I. 1967. Some folk uses of Peganum harmala in India and Pakistan. Economic Botany 21: 384.

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