How does the popular new drug Ayahuasca affect your brain?

The hallucination inducing drug ‘ayahuasca’ has been used for centuries by tribes in South America during spiritual ceremonies. But as it becomes more mainstream for those seeking optic and auditory hallucinations, what exactly is it, and how does it affect your body and brain? Ayahuasca is actually a combination of the leaves of one plant (Psychotria viridis) and the vines of another (Banisteriopsis caapi) – neither of which have any hallucinogenic power on their own. But the leaves do contain DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), which is structurally similar to your neurotransmitter serotonin and to the chemical found in magic mushrooms! The problem is, your gut enzymes normally deactivate DMT before it’s absorbed into your bloodstream; and this is where the vines come in.

They inhibit your gut enzymes from working properly, and allow DMT to travel within your blood and eventually cross the blood-brain barrier. The effects of the drink usually hit around half an hour after consumption, with hallucinations peaking after one hour, and subsiding within four to six hours. But these hallucinations are reported to be different from drugs like LSD and shrooms in that most people are fully aware that they are visually hallucinating. In addition, instead of ‘hearing voices’ the sounds heard are usually exacerbations of the noises already occurring around them.

And unlike those who consume LSD or shrooms from a ‘good trip’, many who drink ayahuasca are seeking to reconcile with their thoughts and emotions, as well as past and present traumatic events. Afterwards, most feel more at ease with their thoughts, and more accepting of their present situation. The Default Mode Network, is a distinct area of the brain that if overactive is associated with depression, anxiety and social phobia. And fMRI brain scans show that ayahuasca causes a significant decrease in activity within the default mode network. This is usually linked with a meditative state and explains why for those seeking optic and auditory hallucinations,some ayahuasca drinkers feel at peace with themselves, and find a renewed sense of purpose after a trip.

Additionally, DMT has been linked with proteins that promote the maintenance of long-term memory, neural plasticity and the regeneration of new neurons. It can bind to specific receptors found on mitochondria and endoplasmic reticula, and may even have the potential to kill certain cancerous cells. On top of this, alkaloids from the vine have been shown to induce apoptosis in mice melanoma cells and certain liver cancer cells in humans.

This is not to say that ayahuasca is a replacement for radiation or chemotherapy, but it may hold future possibilities for cancer research. Interestingly, unlike other drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, ayahuasca does not seem to create a tolerance, so regular drinkers aren’t required to drink more in order to achieve the same effect experienced the first time. After consumption, drinkers usually suffer violent retching, vomiting, and even diarrhea, as the brew is extremely acidic, making an upset stomach normal, even in experienced drinkers. And there is a dark side of Ayahuasca too – fatalities have been linked to its ingestion, particularly among tourists, though the manner of death is often undetermined. The increase in popularity has also given rise to fake shamans, unqualified to create the brew safely.

Ultimately, the data is currently too sparse to seriously consider ayahuasca recreationally and more clinical trials are required to conclude whether ayahuasca is safe. Special thanks to audible for supporting this episode to give you a free 30 day trial at audible.com/asap. This week we wanted to recommend the book ‘œHallucinations’ by Oliver Sacks which takes an in-depth look into the myriad of conditions that induce hallucinations, and shows how common they actually are! You can get a free 30 day trial at audible.com/asap and choose from a massive selection! We love them as they are great when you’re on the go.