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Ayahuasca: A Deep Dive

An Introduction to an Extraordinary Sacred Healing Plant & Her Companions
By Don Howard

*** Friendly Warning ***

This is a deep dive, advanced, graduate-level course at the Don Howard University of Higher Consciousness into, among other things, the ethnobotany, biochemistry, and pharmacology of Ayahuasca. If you are looking for a more streamlined explanation of Ayahuasca and how we conduct our retreats at SpiritQuest, please consider reading our Ayahuasca Introduction explanation, or explore some of the written reflections from SpiritQuest alumni, podcasts, and videos about Ayahuasca in our Resources section.

What Is Ayahuasca?

The word "Ayahuasca" refers to a medicinal and magical drink incorporating two or more distinctive plant species capable of producing profound mental, physical, and spiritual effects when brewed together and consumed in a ceremonial setting. One of these plants is always the giant woody liana vine called Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi or other species). The other plant or plants combined with Ayahuasca generally contain tryptamine alkaloids, most often dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The plants most often used are the leaves of Chacruna (Psychotria viridis and other species) and Oco Yagé; also known as Chalipanga, Chagraponga, and Huambisa (Diplopterys cabrerana).

 

This drink is widely employed throughout Amazonian Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, western Brazil, and in portions of the Orinoco River basin. It has probably been used in the western Amazon for millennia and is rapidly expanding in South America and elsewhere through the growth of organized syncretic religious movements such as Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (UDV), and Barquinia, among others.

In traditional rainforest practice, other medicinal or visionary plants are often added to the brew for various purposes, from purely positive healing (blancura) and divination to malevolent black magic (brujeria, magia negra, or rojo).

 

The oldest known object related to the use of Ayahuasca is a ceremonial cup, hewn out of stone, with engraved ornamentation, which was found in the Pastaza culture of the Ecuadorean Amazon from 500 B.C. to 50 A.D. It is deposited in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of the Central University (Quito, Ecuador). This indicates that Ayahuasca potions were known and used at least 2,500 years ago. Ayahuasca's antiquity in the lower Amazon is likely much greater.

The Ayahuasca medicine usually contains both beta-carboline and tryptamine alkaloids. However, some indigenous Amazonian cultures, i.e. Yahua and others, prepare a ceremonial drink from the Ayahuasca vine alone. The effects differ in visionary qualities from the more typical composite preparation but with the same profound cleansing and spiritual effects.

The beta-carbolines (harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine) are obtained from the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Harmine and harmaline are visionary at near toxic levels, but at modest dosage typically produce mainly tranquility and purgation.

Tetrahydroharmine is present in significant levels in Ayahuasca. It may be responsible for some of its more profound effects compared to analog plants such as Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala).

The ratio of the harmala alkaloids in Ayahuasca appears to vary greatly from one geographical area to another in the Amazon basin. The proportions in which they are present likely account for the varied effects reported by shamans from different kinds of Ayahuasca even though all are botanically classified as Banisteriopsis caapi.

Harmala alkaloids are short term monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors (MAOI) which render tryptamines orally active by temporarily reducing levels of monoamine oxidase in the body which otherwise rapidly destroys them. The combination of specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as Prozac) and most other antidepressants with Ayahuasca or other MAOIs can cause life support emergencies or death.

The principal Ayahuasca compounds have a common indole structure which, through several mechanisms, influences certain functions of the central nervous system. The relevant factor is the biochemical similarity of these compounds to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). The harmala alkaloids in Ayahuasca, primarily harmine and tetrahydroharmine, reversibly inhibit the neuronal enzyme MAO.

This allows DMT to be active when ingested orally. It also facilitates the accumulation of biogenic amines, such as 5-HT, which are normally metabolized by monoamine oxidase enzymes. DMT is a naturally-occurring biochemical substance secreted by the human body in the pineal gland. It occurs in hundreds of plant species worldwide. It can produce very powerful visionary effects when smoked in its pure form or taken orally in Ayahuasca.

It is incorrect, however, to characterize the Ayahuasca experience as merely an oral DMT experience activated by a beta-carboline MAO inhibitor. The holistic processes at work are far more complex and it is unquestionably the Ayahuasca vine which fuels the transformative power and profound teaching of the Ayahuasca experience.

 

Tryptamines (specifically N,N-dimethyltryptamine, called DMT) are derived most commonly from the leaves of Chacruna (Psychotria viridis and P. carthaginensis).

Research is needed to better understand the biochemical, psychotropic, and medicinal properties of various species of Psychotria.

In some geographic areas and shamanic lineages, Oco Yagé (Diplopterys cabrerana is Banisteriopsis rusbyana), also known as Chaliponga, Chagraponga, and Huambisa, is used in addition to or instead of Chacruna.

 

Both N,N-dimethyltryptamine and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine are present in the leaves of Diplopterys. 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine is not present in Psychotria.

Oco Yagé is favored by Shamans in Ecuador and Colombia, but Chacruna is far more commonly used in Peru where many species and varieties of Psychotria are used by curanderos for varied purposes.

 

Diplopterys leaves are 5-10 times more alkaloid-rich than an equivalent amount of Psychotria so fewer leaves are used. The leaves of neither plant are psychoactive if eaten or smoked due to the relatively low alkaloid content and rapid breakdown of alkaloids by MAO, a natural human enzyme.

Chacruna and Oco Yagé are similar in their contribution to the Ayahuasca brew, but there are differences in their experiential and spiritual qualities. These differences are evident only to those who know the scope of effects of which each plant is capable. Both bring light and vision to the experience. Chacruna harmonizes with the power of Ayahuasca while Oco Yagé adds power with light (the 5-MeO-DMT effect). The “mareación” (Ayahuasca state of consciousness) produced with Chacruna normally lasts four to five hours, while that with Oco Yagé often lasts over 6 hours with an extended “afterglow effect” which may last 12-24 hours.

The relatively low concentration of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in Oco Yagé contributes a strong effect. Though it does not particularly enrich the visionary experience per se, it is a powerful propellant for shamanic soul flight. This probably accounts for the longer-lasting effect of Ayahuasca containing Oco Yagé.

In northeastern Brazil, a sacramental drink called Jurema is prepared from the root bark of Mimosa hostilis, a common flowering leguminous tree. The bark from the roots of Mimosa hostilis contains the highest concentration of dimethyltryptamine known from any natural source.

Additional Names for Ayahuasca in the Amazon

At least 42 indigenous names for the preparation of Ayahuasca are known. It is remarkable and significant that at least 72 different indigenous tribes of Amazonia, however widely separated by distance, language, and cultural differences, all manifested a detailed common knowledge of Ayahuasca and its use.

 

Both the plant and the medicine prepared from it are called "Ayahuasca" in most of the Peruvian Amazon. Other common names include:

  • Yagé 

  • Bejuco Bravo

  • Bejuco de Oro

  • Caapi (Tupi, Brazil)

  • Mado, Mado Bidada and Rami-Wetsem (Culina)

  • Nucnu Huasca and Shimbaya Huasca (Quechua)

  • Kamalampi (Piro)

  • Punga Huasca

  • Rambi and Shuri (Sharanahua)

  • Nishi and Oni (Shipibo)

  • Ayawasca

  • Ayahuasca Amarillo

  • Ayahuasca Negro

  • Ayahuasca Blanco

  • Ayahuasca Trueno

  • Cielo Ayahuasca

  • Népe

  • Xono

  • Datém

  • Kamarampi

  • Pindé (Cayapa)

  • Natema (Jivaro)

  • Iona

  • Mii

  • Nixi

  • Pae

  • Ka-hee’ (Makuna)

  • Mi-hi (Kubeo)

  • Kuma-basere

  • Wai-bu-ku-kihoa-ma

  • Wenan-duri-guda-hubea-ma

  • Yaiya-suava-kahi-ma

  • Wai-buhua-guda-hebea-ma

  • Myoki-buku-guda-hubea-ma (Barasana)

  • Ka-hee-riama

  • Mene’-kají-ma

  • Yaiya-suána-kahi-ma

  • Kahí-vaibucuru-rijoma

  • Kaju’uri-kahi-ma

  • Mene’-kají-ma

  • Kahí-somoma’ (Tukano)

  • Tsiputsueni

  • Tsipu-wetseni

  • Tsipu-makuni

  • Rami-wetsem (Kulina)

  • Amarrón Huasca

  • Inde Huasca (Ingano)

  • Oó-fa

  • Yajé (Kofan)

  • Bi’-ã-yahé

  • Sia-sewi-yahe

  • Sese-yahé

  • Weki-yajé

  • Yai-yajé

  • Nea-yajé

  • Horo-yajé

  • Sise-yajé (Shushufindi Siona)

  • Shimbaya Huasca (Ketchwa)

  • Shillinto (Peru)

  • Nepi (Colorado)

  • Wai-yajé

  • Yajé-oco

  • Beji-yajé

  • So’-om-wa-wai-yajé

  • Kwi-ku-yajé

  • Aso-yajé

  • Wati-yajé

  • Kido-yajé

  • Weko-yajé

  • Weki-yajé

  • Usebo-yajé

  • Yai-yajé

  • Ga-tokama-yai-yajé

  • Zi-simi-yajé

  • Hamo-weko-yajé (Siona of the Putomayo)

  • Shuri-fisopa

  • Shuri-oshinipa

  • Shuri-oshpa (Sharananahua); and

  • Anua (Muruy Huitoto).

The Biochemistry of Ayahuasca

Principal active biochemicals: the ß-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, tetrahydroharmine, harmol, harmic acid, methylester harmic amide, acetyl norharmine, harmine N-oxide, harmalinic acid and ketotetra-hydronorharmine are present in the bark, stems, and trunk of B. caapi, B. inebrians, and other species of Banisteriopsis.

Tetrahydroharmine occurs in greater concentration in B. caapi than in other plants bearing harmala alkaloids such as Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) and certain species of Passiflora sp. (passionflower). This may account for the more profound and enduring therapeutic effects produced by genuine Ayahuasca compared to “analog” preparations.

"Little brother - Ayahuasca is going to take out all of the bad in you and leave all of the good."
- Doña Mari (Don Howard's Maestra and Teacher)