Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a blend of two plants – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

Indigenous people across South America have been using Ayahuasca for thousands of years, mostly for religious or spiritual purposes. It is considered a medicine, a way to heal yourself  and reconnect with nature. In 2008, Peru’s government recognised ayahuasca’s status, stating that it was “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples”. Peru’s government also claimed that consumption of the “teacher” or “wisdom” plant “constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets, which is why traditional Amazon medicine has been structured around the ayahuasca ritual. It wasn’t until 1908 that Western scientists acknowledged its existence, with the British botanist Richard Spruce was the first to study it and write about the “purging” the drug invokes. It is to be noted that ayahuasca – is illegal in the UK, the US and many other countries.

However, “Ayahuasca tourism” is already well established in South America, while its use by Westerners on their travels has raised the profile of the traditional medicine globally, according to the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC). “The ayahuasca trail in Peru and Colombia is well-travelled, with tens of thousands of foreigners taking ayahuasca there every year,” says Joshua Wickerham, chief adviser to the council.

Traditionally, a shaman or curandero — an experienced healer who leads Ayahuasca ceremonies — prepares the brew by boiling torn leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in water. The Banisteriopsis caapi vine is cleaned and smashed before being boiled to increase the extraction of its medicinal compounds. When the brew has reduced to the shaman’s liking, the water is removed and reserved, leaving behind the plant material. This process is repeated until a highly concentrated liquid is produced. Once cooled, the brew is strained to remove impurities.

Taking part in a ceremony requires one to follow many guidelines. It is recommended that participants abstain from cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sex, and caffeine to purify their bodies. A strict vegetarian or vegan diet is advise for 2–4 weeks prior to the experience. This helps free the body of toxins.

There are many benefits to the drug. Research has shown that taking Ayahuasca may increase the mindfulness capacity of your brain and improve your overall psychological well-being. A study in 20 people indicated that consuming Ayahuasca once weekly for 4 weeks was as effective as an 8-week mindfulness program at increasing acceptance — a component of mindfulness that plays a fundamental role in psychological health. A study in 57 people demonstrated that ratings of depression and stress were significantly decreased immediately after the participants consumed Ayahuasca. These effects were still significant 4 weeks following the Ayahuasca consumption. Additionally, a review of six studies concluded that Ayahuasca showed beneficial effects in treating depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and drug dependence. Several studies have focused on the effects of Ayahuasca on addiction disorders, including addictions to crack cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine — with promising results. In one study, 12 people with severe psychological and behavioral issues related to substance abuse participated in a 4-day treatment program that included 2 Ayahuasca ceremonies. At a 6-month follow up, they demonstrated significant improvements in mindfulness, hopefulness, empowerment, and overall quality of life. Plus, self-reported use of tobacco, cocaine, and alcohol significantly declined. Researchers hypothesize that Ayahuasca may help those with PTSD as well, though more research in this area is needed.

However, the psychedelic brew can lead to serious, even deadly, side effects. Vomiting, Diarrhea, Paramoia and Panic are quite common and for many these feelings are extremely distressing. The drug can interact dangerously with many medications, including antidepressants, psychiatric medications and weight loss medications. Those with a history of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, should avoid Ayahuasca, as taking it could worsen their psychiatric symptoms and result in mania. Aside from these dangers, a properly trained shaman should be providing thee services otherwise the effects can be quite life threatening.

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