Is ayahuasca safe for your brain? What are the risks when you take this sacred plant-based medicine from the Amazon?
Ayahuasca is considered a plant-based psychedelic that has been used by tribes in South America for centuries during spiritual ceremonies. Many seek it for optic and auditory hallucinations which reportedly lead to enlightenment and spiritual healing.
Many also take ayahuasca for its potential therapeutic benefits especially for mental health that’s why it is very popular in the Amazon in healing ceremonies. Several reported that it helps with psychiatric symptoms, major depression, addiction, and abuse disorders.
However, many are also afraid to take the plant because the “trip” one experiences when under the spirit of ayahuasca is similar to what one experiences when they take LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin mushrooms or magic mushrooms. Also, there are potential adverse effects that might make one’s mental state worse.
In this article, we will explore the ayahuasca effects on the human brain and its therapeutic potential including the altered states one experiences when under the influence of this traditional medicine. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
How Your Brain Waves Change After Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is a combination of the leaves of Psychotria viridis plant and Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Neither of the two is potent, but when combined, they become a powerful psychedelic.
P viridis contains the primary psychoactive N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)(1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N,N-Dimethyltryptamine Meanwhile, B. caapi contains several alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) which are required for DMT to be orally active.
The two are present in ayahuasca tea causing an altered state of consciousness. It gives one the feeling of being high. Many also call the experience a “trip.”
According to a 2018 study(2)https://www.cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(18)30755-1?, psychedelic drugs increase the number of connections between the brain’s neurons and other structural changes. They may be able to repair and rewire circuits which could help mitigate mood and anxiety disorders.
Meanwhile, scientists theorize that the use of ayahuasca may increase activity in various areas of the right hemisphere of the brain which are involved in body awareness, emotions, feelings and processing emotional information.
FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans have shown that ayahuasca can decrease the activity in the brain’s default mode network or the interacting regions of the brain, which when overactive, is associated with depression, social phobia and anxiety. It can also help users enter a meditative state, according to Vice(3)https://www.vice.com/en/article/ezp57m/watch-how-ayahuasca-affects-the-brain-.
Also, DMT is associated with proteins responsible for neuroplasticity, memory and neuron regeneration. When these proteins are combined with specific receptors in mitochondria and endoplasmic reticula they can potentially kill certain cancerous cells.
Many attributed the changes in the brain to the presence of DMT because it is the main psychoactive present in the brew. The researchers even compare its powerful effects to “dreaming while awake.”
The effects of the ayahuasca brew usually occur within half an hour from the consumption and the trip can last for about five to six hours.
Compared to placebo, DMT resulted in a drop-off in alpha waves, the primary electrical wave when humans are awake and a brief increase in theta waves which is indicated when one is dreaming.
“The normal brain has different frequencies of brain waves, some slower and some faster, and these frequency ranges are given names… These rhythms change based on whether we are awake or drowsy or in the different stages of sleep,” said Dr. Derek Chong(4)https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor/neurology/dr-derek-jeffrey-chong-md-11371246, vice chair of neurology and director of epilepsy at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“During drowsiness, including when drugs are given to cause sleepiness, we will often see the slower frequencies take over. In this study they saw a bit of that, but they also saw rhythmicity (oscillatory power) that I think the authors are arguing shows changes or perhaps release of new brain activity, not just sleepiness,” Chong added.
Brain activity was described as being more chaotic overall. It’s also uniquely different compared to the brain activity with other psychedelic substances like psilocybin or LSD, Healthline(5)https://www.healthline.com/health-news/what-happens-to-your-brain-on-ayahuasca#What-the-study-found reported.
One study involved 14 participants who were given an intravenous infusion of DMT at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Clinical Research Facility. They were fitted with caps with electrodes to observe their brain’s electrical activity. The researchers noticed that the peak of the psychedelic experience lasts around 10 minutes.
The analysis showed that DMT significantly altered electrical activity in the brain which is characterized by a drop-off in alpha waves, the human brain’s dominant electrical rhythm when they are awake. There is also a short-lived increase in theta waves, the brain waves associated with dreaming.
The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from what we see with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin mushrooms or LSD, where we see mainly only reductions in brainwaves,” said lead author Christopher Timmermann, from the Centre for Psychedelic Research.
“Here we saw an emergent rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, suggesting an emerging order amidst the otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity. From the altered brainwaves and participants’ reports, it’s clear these people are completely immersed in their experience — it’s like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it’s like dreaming but with your eyes open,” he said.
Timmerman is positive that DMT has clinical potential. The group hopes to take their work further and extend by delivering a continuous infusion to extend the window of psychedelic experience and collect more data.
They are looking forward to including more sophisticated measurements of brain activity like fMRI that shows the region of the brain affected by DMT. The researchers believed that DMT affects the visual cortex, the large area towards the back of the brain is affected.
Meanwhile, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Centre for Psychedelic Research, finds DMT in ayahuasca an intriguing psychedelic because of the visual vividness and depth of immersion it delivers. He agreed that the trip when taking ayahuasca is similar to dreaming while one is awake.
“It’s hard to capture and communicate what it is like for people experiencing DMT but likening it to dreaming while awake or a near-death experience is useful,” he explained. “Our sense is that research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road.”
How Ayahuasca Works In Healing And Promoting Mental Health
Ayahuasca contains DMT which is illegal because it is classified in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug. But the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the interests in religious freedom are protected.
Thus, ayahuasca ingestion is legal when taken in a religious ceremony. In the U.S., those interested in the ayahuasca experience and its therapeutic benefits can visit churches that incorporate ayahuasca in their ceremonies.
Several studies have linked ayahuasca to healing addiction and drug abuse disorders, alcoholism, and even depression. According to them, it works like psychedelic drugs but without the side effects.
These are the reasons why many seek the power of Mother Aya for spiritual healing, better mental health and improved brain function. However, there are still risks involved for ayahuasca users because the effects of ayahuasca go beyond the human consciousness.
According to ritual ayahuasca users, this plant medicine has tons of therapeutic benefits. One NIH study(6)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773875/ said the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca can be maximized when one is in a ritual setting with proper preparation and mindset followed by integration of the experience. Ayahuasca has been proven effective in treating substance dependence.
According to another NCBI study(7)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773875/, the victims of abused and recovered addicts experienced visions that helped them recover long-forgotten memories of traumatic events and they were able to work through it. It also provides a basis for reconstructing their personal life which eventually led to recovery.
“Ayahuasca-induced insights facilitate self-reflection, producing changes in self perspectives that can trigger psychodynamics insights which provide solutions to personal problems that underlie maladaptive lifestyles,” the study added.
As a result, those who have joined an ayahuasca ceremony tend to feel more at peace, accepting and forgiving after their journey. Ayahuasca is felt through the entire body and many said they find it easier to incorporate the experience into improving their life.
Ayahuasca, DMT, MDMA, and psilocybin mushrooms can all result in a mind-blowing psychedelic experience that can heighten your senses and deepen your connection to the spiritual world. All four of them have profound effects on neural activity.
When you are under the influence of those psychedelic substances, your brain function is less constrained, so you are more in tune with your emotion. The networks are also more connected which allows for a higher state of human consciousness and introspection, Rolling Stone(8)https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/what-psychedelics-really-do-to-your-brain-112948/ reported.
By opening up the mind, people can confront their painful pasts or self-destructive behavior without fear or shame. The people going through a psychedelic experience are not emotionally numb, but they are more objective.
Current scientific research studies suggest that ayahuasca, DMT, MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms have the potential to treat mental illnesses — particularly for those who are treatment-resistant.
“Ayahuasca induces an introspective state of awareness during which people have very personally meaningful experiences,” says Dr. Jordi Riba, a leading ayahuasca researcher. “It’s common to have emotionally-laden, autobiographic memories coming to the mind’s eye in the form of visions, not unlike those we experience during sleep.”
Ayahuasca users may have different experiences and some trips can be “quite intense” depending on the dose consumed, Riba added. Physically, the worst part is nausea and vomiting. And unlike LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, people high on ayahuasca are conscious that they are hallucinating.
Riba and his research group at Hospital do Sant Pau in Barcelona, Spain have already started rigorous clinical trials using ayahuasca for treating depression. So far it is promising because the plant-based drug has shown to reduce depressive symptoms in treatment-resistant patients. Also, “ayahuasca produces a very antidepressant effect that is maintained for weeks”.
The team also noticed a post-acute stage of ayahuasca effects they called “after-glow.” When one is in the after-glow stage, the regions of the brain associated with “sense of self” have stronger connections to the other areas that control autobiographic memories and emotion. It’s during that time when one’s mind is more open to psychotherapeutic intervention. The research team is convinced that it would be helpful to incorporate ayahuasca sessions into mindfulness therapy.
“These functional changes correlate with increased ‘mindfulness’ capacities,” Riba explained. “We believe that the synergy between the ayahuasca experience and the mindfulness training will boost the success rate of the psychotherapeutic intervention”
Short And Long-Term Effects Of Ayahuasca In The Brain
Ayahuasca’s psychoactive effects usually last between 30 minutes to several hours. According to the Addiction Center(9)https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/hallucinogens/ayahuasca/, it peaks between 1 and 2 hours and lasts for a total of 4 to 6 hours.
One will immediately notice physical effects after taking ayahuasca which usually includes negative vomiting and diarrhea. Purging is a characteristic of drinking the tea that most commonly experiences and it is believed to purify the body.
Aside from the aforementioned, cardiac arrest and seizures are a possibility. Also, the interaction with serotonin in the brain can be lethal for people who are taking antidepressants.
Regardless, most experience either good or bad trips. Here are some short-term physical effects of ayahuasca use.
• Feelings of euphoria
• Increased blood pressure
• Increased heart rate
• Increased body temperature
Meanwhile, the long-term effects of ayahuasca are still being studied. Some research suggests that it is unlikely to noticeably impair a normal-functioning brain. Researchers have not found evidence that DMT in ayahuasca can cause physical dependence or addiction. Moreover, users do not develop tolerance for the drug, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse(10)https://www.drugabuse.gov/.
Risks of Taking Ayahuasca
Although ayahuasca is very promising especially in treating mental illnesses, there are also risks involved. According to Newport Academy(11)https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/substance-abuse/ayahuasca/, using ayahuasca can result in psychosis, frequent flashbacks and hallucinations. These can occur for months or even years after using the drug.
Persistent psychosis is common in individuals with a history of psychological problems. But, it can happen to anyone even after a single exposure to a hallucinogenic drug.
Symptoms of persistent psychosis include mood disorders, disorganized thinking, ongoing persistent paranoia and visual disturbances.
Aside from president psychosis, common hallucinogens have been known to cause Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) – a disorder characterized by random hallucinations or visual stimulation like seeing halos or moving objects.
Some see intricate patterns, various objects and more. Additionally, some studies have found that psychedelic drugs including ayahuasca can cause changes in the brain structure and personality.
HPPD is also common among people with existing mental health conditions. The symptoms include hallucinations and visual disturbances like seeing halos or trails attached to moving objects. Other symptoms resemble neurological disorders such as stroke or brain tumors.
Here’s a list of the reported psychological side effects of ayahuasca
• Depersonalization—feeling detached from one’s thoughts and feelings
• Altered sense of time and space, including body image and proprioception
• Visual and auditory hallucinations
• Out-of-body experiences
• Perception of bright, intensified color
• A sense of losing control
• Disorientation or confusion
• Feelings of euphoria
• Or, on the other hand—negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, grief, anger, or agitation
• Fear of going insane or dying
• Violent or unpleasant imagery or sounds
• Reliving painful memories or traumas
• Perceived insights or epiphanies, often believed to have come from divine or otherworldly beings.
Researchers have found out that ayahuasca is very promising in helping one deal with addiction, trauma, alcoholism and even depression because it can somehow rewire the human brain.
However, there is still a need for a lot of scientific research studies to be conclusive on whether DMT and ayahuasca can be a safe treatment for depression and other mental health illnesses like psychiatric disorders.
There are many positive stories about the effects of ayahuasca in terms of helping with mental health problems. But exposing oneself to it also includes risks of developing persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. It’s best to work with a professional when dealing with psychoactive substances and other psychedelics.
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