Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic drink which has been consumed by indigenous tribes in South America for thousands of years. The drink, traditionally used as a ceremonial or shamanic medicine, is usually made by brewing the vines of the Banisteriopsis caapi plant and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant to create a tea containing DMT, a powerful psychedelic.
In recent years, the popularity of ayahuasca has soared, thanks to both people travelling to South America to take part in ceremonies and an underground network of practitioners bringing the practice to alternative healing and spirituality communities in the West.
To understand the western desire to seek out ayahuasca, a new study from the University of Melbourne in Australia used data from an online Global Ayahuasca Survey carried out between 2017 and 2019 of 10,836 people who were at least 18 years old and had used ayahuasca at least once.
The study led by Dr Daniel Perkins PhD, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, found that acute physical health adverse effects (primarily vomiting) were reported by 69.9% of respondents. 55.9% reported adverse mental health effects in the weeks or months following consumption. However, around 88% of people surveyed considered such effects as part of a positive process of growth or integration following the consumption of ayahuasca. Those who experienced such side effects said they were to be expected.
“People have been using ayahuasca for many years in a medicinal context as a spiritual ceremony. Recently we’ve seen a booming underground retreat culture in the Western hemisphere in which people pay hundreds of dollars to go to these retreats,” Perkins told Healthline.
“It is a spiritual experience, but it is not something you get up and dance to. There is no real recreational use other than for alternative healing. Overall, it is not widely consumed.”
The authors suggest that people using ayahuasca may tolerate adverse effects due to the nature of the group and ceremonial settings of consumption. Traditionally, ayahuasca is given to users by a shaman or curandero, an experienced healer who leads ceremonies and guides users through difficult emotions or experiences. The study suggested there was a relationship between using ayahuasca in non-religious settings and experiencing greater adverse effects.
Authors also noted that while patients with some psychiatric disorders experienced more adverse effects, having other psychiatric disorders reduced the likelihood of experiencing adverse effects. In a different analysis of other variables using this same data, researchers found improvements in anxiety and depression, mental health and wellbeing and the use of drugs and alcohol. Suggesting that the reported adverse effects reported may be considered normal effects of ayahuasca use, and the relationship between experiencing adverse effects and the improvement of psychiatric disorders should be further studied.
“Many are turning to ayahuasca due to disenchantment with conventional Western mental health treatments, however, the disruptive power of this traditional medicine should not be underestimated, commonly resulting in mental health or emotional challenges during assimilation.
“While these are usually transitory and seen as part of a beneficial growth process, risks are greater for vulnerable individuals or when used in unsupportive contexts.”