By Joe Tafur MD (Co-Founder of Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual)
Ayahuasca is now spreading across the globe, and has become many things to many people. In its origins, ayahuasca is a traditional plant medicine utilized in ceremonial healing throughout the Amazon. In the Amazonian tradition, ayahuasca is a healing spirit of nature, accessed by imbibing the ayahuasca tea in healing ritual. For others, ayahuasca is simply the tea itself, known for its hallucinogenic properties, made from potent psychotropic plants indigenous to the Amazon Rain Forest. The term ayahuasca is taken from the Quechua language, aya- which means death or spirit and huasca which means vine. This traditional medicine also has many other names among the diverse indigenous cultures of the extensive Amazonian region.
In the mid-1800’s, Spruce and von Humboldt were two of the first European explorers to encounter the ayahuasca decoction. These early explorers reported hearing tales of the beverage’s magical effects: stories of visions, “out-of-body-travel,” predictions of the future, location of lost objects, and contact with the dead. Upon experimentation, these explorers verified the tea’s mystical properties. Spruce determined that the various regional concoctions (ayahuasca, yage, hoasca, caapi) all utilized the Banisteriopsis vine in combination with the leaves of some other presumably psychoactive plant.
Ayahuasca tea is named for the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi and is generally prepared by boiling the shredded stalk of the woody ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the tryptamine-rich Psychotrochia viridis bush, known commonly in the Peruvian Upper Amazon as chacruna. There are a number of other ways to prepare ayahuasca tea, sometimes involving different tryptamine sources or the addition of other plants.
From a Western perspective, this combination of plants provides the necessary alkaloids involved in promoting the mysterious ayahuasca experience: namely, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a few beta-carbolines.
Chacruna is known to be rich in the psychedelic indoleamine DMT. The Banisteriopsis vine ayahuasca is the source of the assisting beta-carbolines. Thus, the combination provides the psychoactive alkaloids: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and the beta-carbolines: harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (THH). The effects of isolated DMT in humans have been reported to resemble those of the structurally related molecule LSD. However due to its rapid breakdown in the gut, DMT, if used alone, must be injected or inhaled to induce a response. The effects of ingested DMT can be amplified through the additional consumption of beta-carbolines. The beta-carbolines of the ayahuasca vine delay the breakdown of DMT and prolong its effects in the body and brain. This phenomena is known as the “ayahuasca effect.” Among other things, this effect also delays the breakdown and prolongs the effects of serotonin, one of the brain’s neurotransmitters.
It is for these reasons that one must avoid foods rich in tyramine (such as meats that are potentially spoiled or pickled, aged, smoked, fermented, or marinated; alcoholic beverages, and fermented foods, such as most cheeses) and medications which affect serotonin levels when taking ayahuasca. If these foods or medications are combined with ayahuasca, the body’s serotonin levels can be raised to dangerously toxic levels.
DMT has also been shown to transiently elevate blood pressure. Additionally, in some cases, the ayahuasca experience can cause significant psychological stress. For these reasons, extreme caution should be taken with those who may be at risk of heart disease.
Western science has been primarily focused on the effects of DMT in the ayahuasca experience. Many Westerners consider the ayahuasca tea to be simply a traditional DMT delivery system. As DMT is the source of the psychedelic visionary experience, “gringo” scientists believe it to be the most significant component of the ayahuasca tea. Some believe that ayahuasca-associated vomiting and diarrhea are merely unfortunate side effects of a primitive and crude DMT delivery system.
Conversely, after presumably thousands of years of trans-generational experience with ayahuasca ceremony, indigenous healers have determined that the ayahuasca vine is the vital ingredient in the ayahuasca tea. The ayahuasca vine provides the force which drives the ceremonial healing process. The ayahuasca provides “la purga,” the strength of the medicine. This purge includes the well-known vomiting and the diarrhea, but refers more completely to a deep spiritual cleansing. Traditional ayahuasca medicine is most concerned with this component, deep spiritual cleansing, which includes deep emotional, psychological and physical cleansing and healing. Ayahuasca is traditionally known as the grandmother of the healing plant spirits, and hence the tea is named for her. Chacruna, the DMT source, also a master plant spirit, is her assistant in the ayahuasca ceremony. Indigenous healers are well aware that chacruna is the source of the ayahuasca visions. Ayahuasca tea richer in chacruna often provides a more visual experience. However, as noted in traditional clinical experience, the spiritual cleansing process is not dependent on the visions, although it can be enhanced by the visions.
With this in mind, DMT does have a fascinating role in the ayahuasca experience. Some individuals have offered the possibility that like the opiates and the cannabinoids, DMT may be acting on an endogenous human system. DMT is produced endogenously and is actively transported across the blood brain barrier. In 1965 DMT was isolated in human blood and in 1972 DMT was isolated in human brain tissue. It has since reportedly been isolated from cerebrospinal fluid and urine. Its endogenous function is not clear and the site of DMT production has not been clearly identified. It is possible that DMT is produced in the pineal gland where the necessary enzymatic machinery exists to produce a methylated indoleamine. Peripheral production of DMT in other parts of the body is also possible. Some suggest that endogenous DMT in human beings may play a role in mystical experiences including those involved in deep meditation and near-death.
Although ongoing DMT research and the possibilities for endogenous DMT are fascinating, traditional ayahuasca ceremony involves much more than this mysterious molecule. Some traditional Shipibo shamans remark that the isolated chemical DMT provides only the formula of the visions, but does not carry the vital spirit of the healing plants. The practice of traditional ayahuasca medicine seeks to provide profound and lasting healing as opposed to a temporary visionary experiences, and involves several components.
First, ayahuasca medicine is prepared from whole plants. Although unpleasant to the taste, ayahuasca tea, as mentioned, produces effects beyond the psychedelic properties of DMT. Properly prepared and utilized, ayahuasca tea can facilitate deep healing and access, for those willing, to the mystical visionary world of the healing plant spirits celebrated in traditional Amazonian culture. Next, in the Shipibo tradition, in order to open yourself to the more subtle aspects of traditional plant medicine, one should maintain a traditional vegetalista diet to maximize your healing.
Lastly, traditional ayahuasca ceremony is guided by appropriately trained shamans. As the ayahuasca experience can be very intense and even psychologically destabilizing, one should be very careful when choosing a proper ceremonial guide. Shipibo shamans like many other Amazonian ayahuasqueros guide the ceremonial healing process through icaros. Icaros are the mystical healing songs sung by the shamans while under the effects of the ayahuasca. The shamans universally teach that these icaros are learned from the plants themselves and are sung to channel the healing energy of master plants. These songs are learned during extensive traditional diets and often under the guidance of an experienced master. As ayahuasca continues to spread into this modern world, we should remember its origins and continue to learn from Amazonian cultural wisdom and the extensive experience of traditional masters.
Introduction To Ayahuasca Medicine
By Joe Tafur, MD (Co-Founder of Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual)
Dr. Joe Tafur practises “western” medical techniques for 6 months of the year in USA and then practices and studies Shamanic techniques including ayahuasca at Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual Ayahuasca Healing Center, near Iquitos.