Sitting in a circle around a crackling fire, the rainforest comes alive with bugs, bats, and critters the eye cannot see. The shaman, a trusted medicine man and healer, hands you a cup of dark brown liquid while chanting a few words. The foul taste of the brew is barely noticeable when compared to the excitement of what is to come. Welcome to mother ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a traditional south American brew prepared by indigenous peoples for spiritual and religious experiences. Archaeological evidence suggests people were using ayahuasca as plant medicine long before 2000 BC (over 4000 years ago) .
While traditional use has focused on folklore, mysticism and spiritual practices, modern scientific evidence is validating many of the claims made by indigenous people. Benefits of ayahuasca include reduced depression and anxiety , improved neurological growth , addiction treatment , and a host of others.
Traditional Ayahuasca and Modern Science
Many traditional medicinal plants have been tested using modern scientific methods. This is true for plant medicines that are not psychoactive, but also psychedelics like psilocybin, mescaline, and others.
Due to the specific interactions with the brain, ayahuasca is one of the most powerful entheogenic compounds that humans use. The traditional brew combines the ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) with another plant containing DMT (dimethyltryptamine), such as chacruna leaves.
The DMT is specifically involved (along with the MAO inhibitor) in the hallucinations, spiritual journey, and connection to something outside oneself.
For the scientific crowd, the evidence in favor of drinking ayahuasca is growing. In one 2017 study, 35 patients with treatment-resistant depression were given a single dose of ayahuasca. Scientists found that 64% showed reduced rates of depression with only a single dose .
Numerous other studies show anti-depressive benefits of ayahuasca and anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) effects as well. In one small-scale study, researchers found an 82% reduction in depressive scores .
Ayahuasca addiction treatment is also proliferating. Many centers in central and south America are using the traditional brew to treat addiction to opiates, alcohol, and other substances .
Beyond treating ailments and illness, ayahuasca is a powerful tool for improving performance. One study in PLOS One showed that ritual ayahuasca users had higher executive function (a measure of intelligence) than average . This could be a correlation that people with higher executive function seek out ayahuasca, but it could also be connected to the usage itself.
The latter would make sense given that numerous other studies indicate ayahuasca increases creative divergent thinking and decreases the commonplace convergent thinking . In essence, the ability to become more creative is possible on ayahuasca (and something many people experience in anecdotal accounts as well).
Microdosing: Ayahuasca Plant Without the DMT
Ayahuasca is not only useful in the ceremonial context. While traditional shamans provide the medicine in small gatherings, it is also possible to use ayahuasca without the active DMT component. This is often referred to as microdosing ayahuasca and it can be powerful by itself.
The evidence suggests that certain alkaloids in the ayahuasca vine are helpful for improving cognition. In one study, the compound harmine was found to increase neuron cell growth by up to 71.5% .
While the study focused on a cell culture, it is indicative of what can happen within the brain. Harmine was given to rats and they experienced enhanced short-term memory . Another showed that harmine alone could provide antioxidant benefits for the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain .
Finally, for those who are elderly or have a genetic predisposition towards age-related mental decline, ayahuasca microdosing may have positive effects combating Alzheimer’s disease .
Doing a microdosing regimen of ayahuasca (without the DMT) is a powerful tool for enhancing cognitive performance.
Processing Emotions with Ayahuasca
Traditional terminology with ayahuasca is shrouded in mystery especially for those who are scientifically inclined. The idea that a medicine would help you “process emotions” or “purge” bad emotions might seem odd to someone who has never tried ayahuasca before.
The evidence is just as strong for these claims as well. According to a comprehensive study in Frontiers of Neuroscience, brain fMRI scans show that ayahuasca users engage regions of their brain associated with emotional processing far differently than when they are sober .
Certain regions of the brain that store and process emotions (i.e: coming to terms with the death of a loved one, losing a partner etc) are essentially kicked into overdrive during ceremonies, which allow for more thorough processing. Rather than situations where some people repress emotions, ayahuasca allows them to work through them instead.
Here is a video of my recent 6 day experience processing emotions with ayahuasca:
Ayahuasca and Connection to Source
There may be scientific evidence to explain why so many ayahuasca drinkers find connection to God, the universe, or some divine energy, but this is a topic that comes up consistently in anecdotal and personal experiences.
Numerous people experience feeling connected to a higher power and not always in the context of organized religion that one has exposure to. Many people who use ayahuasca report having some type of spiritual revelation or deep insight into the universe or themselves (or both).
Usually, this spiritual experience is relatively universal. In fact, the term “ayahuasca” is literally translated as “vine of the soul / spirit”. It is a consistent feature in ayahuasca experiences and one, which usually provides positive and uplifting life changes.
Possible Religious Connection
While highly speculative, it is possible that many organized religions were influenced by ayahuasca or similar types of compounds. The ancient Greeks used a brew called kykeon, which was spread throughout the middle east during the time of most Abrahamic religions .
Beyond that, many of the experiences from holy texts (such as stories of Jesus or the wise kings in the bible) can conceivably include these mystical experiences. For those who have religious beliefs and consider ayahuasca to be against them, hopefully this speculation suggests otherwise.
Ayahuasca Ceremonies: A Safe Container
If the medicine and actual neurochemical changes from ayahuasca are important for a positive and uplifting experience, the environment in which you do it is as important if not more so. Ayahuasca tourism has led to many people experiencing the medicine in non-traditional and downright unsafe ways with shamans or charlatans who do not set the context well enough.
The best environment to do ayahuasca is within a comfortable setting where you feel physically safe. It is also useful to have a shaman and his helpers who can protect and comfort you.
Having access to a shaman who plays gentle music and is aware of the challenges that go into a ceremony will not only make the experience far more uplifting and safe, but will allow for better integration into your daily life afterwards.
To learn more about plant medicine and where to find safe shamans for ceremony, please email directly: mansal *at* nootropedia *dot* com.
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