“May you live in interesting times,” goes a saying claimed to be an ancient Chinese curse. It’s a saying we hear a lot these days in a world gone slightly mad.
In the arena of mental health and medicine, it would have been hard to imagine a decade ago that the conversation about psychedelics —any plant or substance containing psychoactive substances that alter cognitive functioning — would go mainstream and be seen as a credible treatment for mental health disorders like PTSD, depression, anxiety or addiction.
These days, John Hopkins University, Imperial College London, Cornell and University College London have departments for Psychedelic Research. Independent organizations like The Beckley Foundation and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are hosting collaborative research projects and data sharing platforms on psychedelics.
Michael Pollan’s book, which became a TV series, “How to Change Your Mind”, penetrated a public consciousness that previously had seen any serious, intelligent person shunning psychedelics as the plaything of the hedonistic hippy crowd. But all that has changed.
Once-fringe psychedelic researchers, like Paul Stamets, Rick Doblin, Amanda Feilding, scientists and psychologists have become popular public figures.
Celebrities like Prince Harry, Sting and Miley Cyrus have detailed their healing ayahuasca experiences in the press; Lindsey Lohan praised the drug for “salvaging the wreckage of my life”. Will Smith in his 2021 autobiography went so far as to write, “In my fifty-plus years on this planet, this is the unparalleled greatest feeling I’ve ever had”, and Chelsea Handler’s Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies with a shaman were documented in the 2016 Netflix miniseries “Chelsea Does.”
The cat is out of the bag. An ancient Amazonian plant brew, ayahuasca has spread through contemporary North America and Europe like wildfire. But what exactly is it? What does it do to your brain? Is it legal? Is it safe and how do you begin to explore where to seek out the treatment? Mexico has become a popular place for ayahuasca retreats, and they’re selling out fast for 2024.
What is ayahuasca and how does it work?
Ayahuasca is a thick tea-like brew made by boiling the Amazonian yagé jungle vine, (Banisteriopsis caapi) together with leaves from the chacruna (Psychotria viridis), a flowering shrub which contain the psychoactive compound dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. This is not to be confused with 5-MeO-DMT, which is found in bufo, a toad toxin dried and smoked for psychedelic purposes. “It’s a bit like a bitter thick soup, and not very pleasant,” says Marianne, a film producer who has participated in numerous ceremonies in Mexico. Marianne’s path to curing her drug and alcohol addiction began with her first ayahuasca ceremony.
Indigenous and mestizo communities in South America have used ayahuasca for centuries to treat physical ailments, mental and spiritual problems and difficult social issues. A Peruvian tradition called vegetalismo regards ayahuasca as a plant that can convey knowledge to people.
Ayahuasca can be dosed in varying amounts depending on the potency or concentration of the brew, which is usually determined by the curandero (healer) who brewed it. Commonly, a threshold dose is 30 milligrams, an average dose is 50 and a high dose would be around 70 milligrams. The drink is usually taken in a ritual ceremony, which can include from three to 100 participants and is led by a shaman or shaman-trained guide. Sessions, which last several hours, typically involve consuming two or three doses of ayahuasca, with effects beginning after 30 to 40 minutes.
“Drinking ayahuasca induces an intensely powerful visionary and physical experience, in part ecstatic and spiritual, and often quite challenging, as ‘the mother’ (the term aficionados refer to the brew) helps a person work through traumatic experiences, repressed memories or whatever is causing depression or anxiety. It’s very mysterious, because it can change people’s negative perspective to a positive, over the course of a weekend,” says Mexican retreat host and guide Rosa.
Psychologist Katrina Michelle works with patients to integrate psychedelic experiences — a process to consciously understand the impact of the powerful insights gained, and apply them to one’s life — and stresses the importance of doing this.
A brief history of how ayahuasca came out of Amazonian indigenous cultures
The first Western accounts of ayahuasca’s curative and divinatory purposes were written by Jesuit missionaries who traveled through Brazil in around 1740, and English botanist Richard Spruce made the first scientific report of the use of ayahuasca in Brazil in 1851. By the early 20th century, Raimundo Serra, a rubber tapper who learned how to collect and prepare ayahuasca from Brazilian shamans, introduced ayahuasca as the central sacrament in the rituals of three Brazilian syncretic churches: the Santo Daime, the União do Vegetal and the Barquinha, which combine shamanic, spiritualist and Christian elements.
Importantly, the Santo Daime church has legal protection for their religious practices, including the use and importation of ayahuasca. I have met numerous people who take ayahuasca legally in both New York and Los Angeles under the umbrella of the Santo Daime church. This church now exists in other countries including Canada, Spain, Holland, Germany and even Japan.
Yet in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Mexico, DMT is classed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971. The International Narcotics Control Board, which oversees the treaty, has ruled that ayahuasca itself is not included. If countries want to outlaw it they need to pass specific legislation, which Mexico has not done. But in 2022 and 2023, various shamans entering Mexico with ayahuasca were arrested. Current court cases could be crucial for setting a precedent for where ayahuasca stands in Mexican law. It could be recognized as a legitimate, time-honored healing medicine of curanderos or relegated to the categories of synthetics, like fentanyl and other opioids that are causing so much harm.
Can ayahuasca change my brain?
Results from a DMT study conducted by Imperial College London in March 2023 provide the most advanced picture yet of the human brain on psychedelics. The recordings, made using electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), reveal a profound impact across the human brain, particularly in highly evolved areas instrumental in memory, complex decision-making, planning, language and imagination.
“The stronger the intensity of the experience, the more hyperconnected were those brain areas,” Christopher Timmermann, who heads the DMT research team at Imperial, told The Guardian in 2023. DMT’s use in combination with psychotherapy to treat depression is a growing field of research.
“We suspect that while the newer, more evolved aspects of the brain dysregulate under DMT, older systems in the brain may be disinhibited. A similar kind of thing happens in dreaming. This is just the beginning in cracking the question of how DMT works to alter consciousness so dramatically,” Robin Carhart-Harris, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Guardian.
Prestigious psychedelic research centers and foundations, like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation, are planning further research projects this year to study DMT’s therapeutic effects for PTSD, chronic depression, alcoholism and addiction, Parkinson’s and even cancer.
Finding a qualified and safe ayahuasca guide
Unlike other psychedelic substances like psilocybin and LSD, ayahuasca will commonly induce the physical side effects of intense nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.“Most people are prepared to go through the discomfort to experience the benefits, but it’s not an experience for everyone,” guide Rosa tells me.
Responsible shamans or the plethora of Western guides (who ideally should have trained for at least two years with an Indigenous shaman), should offer a thorough intake process in conjunction with your doctor. You won’t be suitable for the experience if you take SSRIs or antidepressants or have high blood pressure or a heart condition. Each participant is commonly asked to cut out caffeine, alcohol, sugar, meat and sexual relations for up to a week before an ayahuasca ceremony. You can understand a person’s incredulity around putting themselves through such an intense experience, but for those desperate to change stubborn mental health challenges, ayahuasca’s growing popularity has provided confidence to go for it.
In my personal conversations with experiencers over the years, “no pain, no gain” reoccurs as a common maxim. Marianne, who took part in an ayahuasca retreat near Cancún, tells me
“It is so worth it; it changed my work, relationships, attitude and daily life.”
All names of practitioners have been changed to protect their identity.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal or medical advice. The writer and Mexico News Daily assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content on this site. Individuals should always consult with qualified professionals regarding the use of DMT or any other substance for medical purposes, as well as consider their jurisdiction’s applicable laws and regulations.
Henrietta Weekes is a writer, editor, actor and narrator. She divides her time between San Miguel de Allende, New York and Oxford, UK.