Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant mixture that is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness, usually lasting between 4 to 8 hours after ingestion. Ranging from mildly stimulating to extremely visionary, ayahuasca is used primarily as a medicine and as a shamanic means of communication, typically in a ceremonial session under the guidance of an experienced drinker.
The main ingredient of this jungle tea is a vine,Banisteriopsis caapi, which like the tea itself is also called ayahuasca (which means vine of the soul or vine with a soul). The secondary ingredient is either chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), plants that contain a relatively high amount of the psychedelic substance DMT.
Nobody knows for sure how long this drink has been used. First recorded Western contact with ayahuasca was made in 1851 by Richard Spruce, the famous ethnobotanist from England. When taking into account archeological evidence of comparable native plant use, it seems likely that its use dates back to at least two millennia ago.
Ayahuasca induces a psychedelic, visionary state of mind and this effect is employed by various people for various reasons.
Shamans or medicine men take ayahuasca to communicate with nature or to see what is causing a patients illness on a spiritual level. In Brazil several religions can be found that pivot around gatherings where ayahuasca is taken by all participants. Drinking ayahuasca and singing together takes them into a healing and inspiring kind of trance.
In the past few decades ayahuasca is slowly gaining interest from Western society as well. Not only academic researchers in the field of psychotherapy have shown an increased interest. Psychonauts, i.e. people who practice responsible and conscious use of mind-altering substances, use ayahuasca to confront themselves with the richness of the mind, the infinity of the universe, and their deepest fears, so as to experience ecstasy resulting from facing and overcoming these fears.
One effect of ayahuasca is that it makes a lot of people vomit and many drinkers get diarrhea. One tribe calls ayahuasca kamarampi, which stems from kamarank: to vomit. It is also called la purga, as it purges the body through this physical effect, and purifies the mind through the meaningful psychological experiences or visions. You usually feel totally refreshed and reborn after a strong experience.
Although not unique to ayahuasca, there are many fascinating reports about people who have been healed from comprehensive problems, like addiction or depression, during one or more sessions. This, however, can also be achieved using LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, iboga, other psychedelics or various breathing and meditation techniques, and always involves heavy psychological work.
Ayahuasca is not a miracle cure in the sense that you drink the brew and all your troubles have vanished within a couple of hours. It is a miracle cure though, in the sense that it brings unconscious and seemingly other-worldly processes to surface, which enables you to work with it while the effects last.
What is more unique about ayahuasca, is that the effects rely on a specific combination of two plants: Banisteriopsis caapi and chacruna (or chagropanga, depending on the region). How and when exactly the discovery of combining these two plants was made by native Americans remains unclear, although many tribes and shamans have their own mythical tales explaining this event.
Second, the primary ingredient of chacruna and chagropanga is also a neurotransmitter found in all human beings and plays a key role in all kinds of extraordinary states of awareness. This neurotransmitter is called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short, and is found in the brain, blood, lungs and other parts of the human body. There is strong evidence pointing towards the pineal gland (the third eye in esoteric traditions), located in the center of the brain, as the main factory of human DMT. Apart from human beings, DMT can be found in every mammal and in a variety of plants.
How does Ayahuasca brew work?
First of all, Ayahuasca is made by combining the two main jungle plants: the actual Ayahuasca vine, or Banisteriopsis caapi, and the leaves of another plant, usually called Chacruna, or Psychotria viridis. The Chacruna contains a substance called Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is the chemical that induces hallucinations. We naturally have small amounts of this in our bodies, and it exists in most green leafy vegetables. When taken by itself, nothing really happens, because the Monoamino Oxidase (MAO) enzymes that live in our gut naturally break down the DMT before it ever gets into our blood stream.
However, the Ayahuasca plant contains beta-carboline alkaloids including harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine that block the MAO enzymes from doing their job, and essentially keep the DMT active. This allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier after its ingested, and once that happens, the countdown to an altered state of reality has begun. Once the DMT reaches the receptors in your brain, the neurons begin to fire.
When the effects of Ayahuasca start to take hold, multiple areas of the brain are triggered. It activates the amygdala, which holds early emotional memories, usually traumatic ones. It also activates the neo-cortex, associated with our perception and ability to reason and make decisions. For those who have experienced this sacred potion that many called “Grandma”, it probably comes as no surprise that it also activates the insular cortex, which plays a major role in awareness and consciousness.
Now that youve got an idea of the how, its important to remember that the indigenous cultures who created this brew believe that there is far more at play here than mere chemistry. A shaman will tell you that for the experience to produce the strongest result, it must be done with the right surroundings (usually in nature) and under the supervision and care of the right administrator (usually referred to as an Ayahuascero or Curandero).
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