Ayahuasca may be life-changing (and even miraculous) for some people, but there are psychotic episodes and long-term side effects associated with using this all-powerful medicine.
These accounts are rare but often involve users with a personal or family history of mental illness—which begs the question: should you try this psychedelic if schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issue runs in your family?
Let’s find out.
How Ayahuasca Affects Mental Health
We’ve seen several studies showing the beneficial effects of ayahuasca on the psychological well-being of users. One Netherlands-based study(1)https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.2022.2077155?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=ujpd20#Funding found that it improves the overall quality of life, with users getting more physical and even eating healthier food.
Other benefits include decreased drug use and increased energy levels. Some participants report better physical relaxation and pain management; others say the brew had a positive influence on their self-awareness and dietary habits.
Users often feel happier, more optimistic, and more self-loving, all topped by a deep feeling of calm and bliss. And again, this is one of many studies to reveal the brew’s psychological and physical health benefits.
Other studies find that people with social anxiety(2)https://journals.lww.com/psychopharmacology/Abstract/2021/09000/Ayahuasca_Improves_Self_perception_of_Speech.6.aspx or treatment-resistant depression(3)https://www.scielo.br/j/rbp/a/ghG6Q7cLTgSRF6JxJjj6LMS/?lang=en benefit the most from this ancient drink because it subdues their suffering and make them feel better.
Anguish from chronic diseases and mental disorders seems to depreciate with its usage, all thanks to the active ingredient: DMT. While it’s a Schedule I(4)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Schedule_I_drugs_%28US%29 substance in the States (and therefore, unacceptable for medical or recreational use), many folks travel to South American countries to enjoy its effects in an ayahuasca brew.
Ayahuasca And Serotonin
To better understand how the drink affects the brain, let’s talk about serotonin. This neurotransmitter communicates with receptors in the brain to control mood, sexual desire, impulsivity, thoughts, and many more.
Any imbalance in the workings of this neural communicator can lead to mental health issues. Some people get terribly depressed, while some can be hypervigilant and always on guard. Ayahuasca comes to the rescue here because DMT closely matches the structure of serotonin(5)https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/306889 and can bind to multiple receptors the neurotransmitter would normally bind to.
This process is shared across psychedelics but ayahuasca offers some of the most intense serotonergic connections. When the brew is used properly, this can result in all the aforementioned benefits – especially improved mood. Stress, depression, and anxiety reduce because of drinking ayahuasca.
Not to say other neurotransmitters are not involved, but that’s all we know for now. Ayahuasca drinking not only affects your mood but can also help you process emotions better and sense the inner state of your body.
If you know what’s called the Default Mode Network(6)https://www.beckleyfoundation.org/ayahuascadmt/, well, good news! This brew also has some positive impacts on this system of defaults; ayahuasca helps people living with PTSD heal from their traumatic experiences. Non-PTSD users can also cleanse the system of painful memories and negative emotions that are associated with them—anger, fear, and resentment, among others.
The Dark Side of Ayahuasca
Another research adds that the drink can increase mindfulness, cognitive flexibility, and overall mental soundness(7)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31927605/. This is how it affects the workings of the brain, but it’s not all good and rosy.
Other studies(8)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5848100/ and accounts(9)https://www.reddit.com/r/Ayahuasca/comments/7tmv8e/negative_side_effects_after_doing_ayahuasca_and/ have reported some rather unpleasant side effects associated with ayahuasca use.
Now, the dark side of this therapeutic drug seems to attack certain individuals more than others. And before we examine them, keep in mind that ayahuasca is still in the research stage. Many experts are trying to understand what it does and how.
Aside from these experts, many people have shared their personal experiences on Ayahuasca. We have different accounts of people recovering from mental illness by using ayahuasca… or the exact opposite!
Ayahuasca and Mental Disorders
Well, a general rule of thumb is to avoid it if certain mental disorders run in your family. For others, however, there are ways to go about it so you can enjoy the benefits with little or no risk of harming yourself.
You can first get professional therapy; once you identify and understand any underlying mental problem, you can then try ayahuasca under the supervision of a skilled shaman.
Another tip is to get off any psych meds weeks before a trip. This will prepare your system for a new, foreign substance like ayahuasca and reduce the risk of complications. You want to stay off cough medicines, antidepressants, and other heavy-duty drugs(10)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007657/ as well.
The Psychological Side Effects of Ayahuasca
If used improperly or you have active psychotic symptoms, the long-term effects of an ayahuasca trip can be profoundly disturbing; from psychological and physical disturbances to persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.
Ayahuasca and Psychosis
Whenever you’re subjecting your body to a hallucinogen, you run the risk of developing hallucinogen persisting perception disorder(11)https://www.healthline.com/health/hppd —or HPPD, for short.
This usually occurs in users with pre-existing mental health issues. HPPD sufferers continually have visual hallucinations and disturbances, with some seeing imprints linked to moving objects.
Others see halos, nimbuses, and geometric patterns while some have neurological troubles with episodes similar to that of brain tumors or stroke. And that’s not all.
Ayahuasca may also lead to persistent psychosis(12)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6464987/, which includes hallucinations, frequent flashbacks, visual disturbances, mood disorders, persistent paranoia, and disorganized thinking.
Persistent psychosis and HPPD are rare in the ayahuasca community, but some users develop them over time and they often last for months or years after the incidental trip. Evidently, it’s more common among individuals with psychological problems, after prolonged hallucinogenic drug use.
In addition to the psychotic impacts of ayahuasca, let’s look at other psychological and physical consequences.
Other Psychological Side Effects
These effects are more extensive, with common symptoms like visual and auditory hallucinations. You may experience rather intense, violent, or unpleasant imagery or sounds.
Users with PSTD(13)https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/202008/ayahuasca-and-its-potential-treat-ptsd and similar mental health issues often relive their traumatic experiences. Even if you’re completely disorder-free, you can end up reliving truly painful and disturbing memories.
Depersonalization is another symptom, with users feeling detached from their feelings and thoughts. A sense of losing control often ensues afterward, along with profound confusion and disorientation.
Other symptoms include an altered sense of time and space, as well as a sense of movement, action, and position by self. You can likewise have out-of-body experiences or perceptions of brightly amplified color.
People with existing conditions surrounding negative emotions can also have them intensified, resulting in abject despair, anguish, grief, anger, anxiety, fear, agitation, or delirium.
The last and one of the most terrifying psychological effects of ayahuasca is a convincing dread of dying or losing control of one’s mind (i.e., going berserk or completely insane).
Physical Side Effects
Some users have physical effects like dizziness, dilated pupils, high blood pressure, and increased heart rate. Others have symptoms such as seizures and tremors.
Less common physical impacts include respiratory arrest, nystagmus (involuntary eye movement), ataxia (impaired coordination), and even coma.
These are not seen as negative in shamanic cultures and spiritual thinking. Symptoms like purging and vomiting are believed to be the potent potion cleansing your body of spiritual, emotional, and mental toxins.
What Do All These Mean?
Many advocates of the substance see all these psychological and physical effects as restorative, as long as they’re not ongoing.
They’re part of a process of cleansing and healing, particularly if they lead to enlightenment or some kind of epiphany. We believe these insights spring from extraterrestrials or divine spirits.
Again, for more severe or family-related mental disorders with active symptoms, it’s best to just stay away and try prescribed drugs instead. Ayahuasca is great but the limited research means it’s not worth a try for some people.
Ayahuasca, and similar medicinal plants, are not one-size-fits-all therapy. Lots of people have benefited from retreats and ceremonies using this psychoactive brew, but it can be highly dangerous for some individuals.
All in all, research has found that ayahuasca is neither psychologically nor physically addictive. It’s impossible to build a tolerance for the substance; that’s why every single drink takes you on a different journey.
That’s not to say immediate or long-term side effects of the substance are non-existent. These consequences can be deeply disturbing, especially if a mental illness runs in your family or you personally have active symptoms. In fact, you may have to get professional help to fix the damage this substance might cause.
Better to stay off ayahuasca if you fall under this category, and opt for a well-studied alternative for your specific mental health issue. Good luck on your journey to perfect health!