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Drug Alert – Protecting Consumers from Harm

Published June 2021

Ayahuasca Tea

By Lauren DeSouza- Master of Public Health, Simon Fraser Public Research University – Canada
This article is reproduced herein with permission of the copyright holder.

© CopyrightSUD RECOVERY CENTERS – A Division of Genesis Behavioral Services, Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin – June 2021 – All rights reserved.

Ayahuasca is a plant-based hallucinogenic drug that is usually consumed as a tea. It is gaining popularity for recreational use in the United States. The purpose of this research summary by Milwaukee Detox Center is to alert the public about the harmful effects of this drug.

What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a plant-based hallucinogenic drug.  It is usually consumed as a tea, made from a mixture of the bark and stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi plant. Other names for ayahuasca include: yaje, master plant, hoasca, and vine of the dead.

Hallucinogens are also known as psychedelics. They affect your senses and emotions and alter your perception of time. They can distort your reality and cause you to hear or see things that do not exist.

Ayahuasca has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Amazon for its healing properties. It is becoming more popular in the United States for its supposed spiritual properties. Ayahuasca is now sold on the internet as a tea and is used as a recreational psychedelic drug. Ayahuasca retreats are also becoming popular among Americans. Companies in countries such as Ecuador, Columbia, Costa Rica, and Peru now offer weeklong experiences where you can attend ayahuasca ceremonies led by a shaman. However, these retreats and the purchase of ayahuasca teas online are not regulated. The quality, strength, and ingredients can vary, and there are risks related to using it.

How is it used? 
Ayahuasca is prepared as a tea. When you drink it, it causes a dream-like state and hallucinations, making you feel your emotions very intensely. It promotes a conscious state of mindfulness that lets you examine your thoughts and emotions from the outside. It may also let you recall your memories very vividly. 

Recent research suggests that ayahuasca may have therapeutic benefits for treating some mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. However, ayahuasca has not been approved as a treatment for mental illness.

Ayahuasca has gained popularity for recreational use in the United States because it is short-acting compared to other hallucinogens. It starts working within 30-60 minutes after drinking the tea, and the effects peak within 1-2 hours. The overall experience usually lasts only 4 hours, compared to as long as 15 hours for LSD.

Risks of Ayahuasca
There is no safe level of drug use. It is important to be careful when using any kind of drug.

Although ayahuasca is thought to have spiritual and emotional benefits, this has not been proven. The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), is considered a Schedule I drug. This means that it has little to no medicinal benefit and has the potential to be misused (LSD, heroin, and ecstasy are also Schedule 1 drugs). It may also interact with medications and some mental illnesses.

Ayahuasca is not considered to be addictive, but it is not risk-free. Common side effects from ayahuasca include: 

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Anxiety and agitation

These side effects are often considered to be part of the healing journey, but they can be dangerous. In rare cases, ayahuasca can also cause seizures and lead to cardiac arrest. “Bad trips” from ayahuasca have been reported and include lasting hallucinations, anxiety, and disturbing flashbacks. Taking too much could cause erratic, violent, hallucinogenic behaviors. Researchers are still learning about ayahuasca, and do not know if it could cause long-term damage to the brain.

Ayahuasca can also interact with some medications and conditions. Do not use ayahuasca if you have a personal or family history of mental illness or psychotic episodes or are taking antidepressants such as trazodone or Lexapro.

Key Takeaways
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic beverage that causes hallucinations and heightens your emotions. 

It is used for spiritual healing by indigenous Amazonian peoples and is becoming more popular in the United States for recreational use.

Some people consider ayahuasca to be a possible treatment for mental illness. However, this is not proven.

Ayahuasca carries health risks that are still being explored. Milwaukee Detox Center recommends that consumers use extreme caution if they decide to use ayahuasca. 

Source: Goldin, Deana & Salani, Deborah. (Jan 2021). “Ayahuasca: What Healthcare Providers Need to Know.” Journal of Addictions Nursing 32 (2): 167–173.  DOI: 10.1097/JAN.0000000000000405