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    Ayahuasca is a plant-based brew or drink that can result in a mind-altering experience. It has been used in spiritual and medicinal rituals for thousands of years by native peoples in South America. As more people around the world have discovered it, retreats and ceremonies involving ayahuasca have become more and more common.

    What is ayahuasca?

    Ayahuasca is a boiled mixture of various plants that create a red or brown liquid. Drinking the brew can alter all of one’s senses.[1] It can change a person’s reality, causing dramatic changes in mood, thought and emotions. It is traditionally used in native rituals for healing and spiritual exploration. 

    The active ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT, a naturally occurring compound found in certain plants and animals. Some healers believe that the DMT in this substance “activates” the DMT that may naturally occur in human bodies and causes its effects.[2] 

    Ayahuasca is traditionally taken in a special ceremony run by a shaman, who guides participants through their journey. This ceremony usually takes place on a retreat. This can take many different forms; many adapt traditional native practices while others abandon them altogether

    A retreat may consist of different rituals and prayers prior to the ayahuasca ceremony, where participants will consume a few servings of the brew. These ceremonies may happen multiple times in a single retreat. [3] 

    Its effects can cause hallucinations, strong emotional reactions and, sometimes, epiphanies or a breakthrough in the way a person thinks about their situation. 

    Effects often last 4 to 6 hours and can include:[4] 

    • Stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea 
    • A sense of peace, joy and connection 
    • Memories of past trauma, sometimes with new insights 
    • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t real 
    • Connecting with the spirits of plants and animals or others 
    • Anxiety, panic and fear 
    • Higher blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature 

     Those using ayahuasca often experience a great deal of vomiting, which is celebrated in ceremonies for its “cleansing” benefits.

    What are the potential benefits?

    Individuals who participate in ayahuasca retreats may do so for several reasons.

    •  Spiritual healing: Many people who attend these retreats are looking for spiritual and intellectual insights or new understandings. These are reported to be dramatic, sometimes even “life-changing” experiences.
    • [5]

    • Mindfulness: Many who have used this substance report improved mindfulness, or awareness of themselves and the present moment. Some research has found that even someone using ayahuasca for the first time in a controlled setting can experience enhanced mindfulness and other mental health benefits. 
    • [6]

    • Mental health support: There is evidence that it can assist in treating mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.It may also be helpful for people with PTSD.
    • [7][8]

    • Addiction treatment: As discussed in the next section, early research indicates that ayahuasca may have promise in treating individuals with substance use disorder.
    • [9]

    Can it be used to treat substance use disorders?

    In 1992, Dr. Jacques Mabit opened the Takiwasi Center in northern Peru to treat substance use disorders with ayahuasca-assisted therapy.[10] The clinic’s staff included doctors, psychologists, a healer and a reporter. In its first year of operation, about 57 people enrolled in the clinic, and roughly half completed treatment with positive results. Treatment includes therapy, group activities and healing ceremonies.

    Patients reported a greater ability to handle life’s frustrations, more self-esteem and better decision-making abilities, and experienced more self-acceptance. The center continues to operate and is viewed as a model program for substance use treatment.[11]

    Those who complete the program generally have better outcomes than those who drop out. However, the dropout rate tends to be high, even under the best of circumstances.

    There are other substance use treatment programs offering ayahuasca-assisted therapy in many other countries, largely in South America. The results can vary widely and can include complete abstinence, a reduction in substance use or a return to substance use.

    Research studies between 2016 and 2020 observing people with substance use disorders who used ayahuasca noted less substance use, anxiety and depression. Additionally, measures of quality of life and well-being increased. However, while these kinds of observational studies are promising, they don’t prove that it use caused these improvements.

    Is it safe?

    While ayahuasca has been used for a long time, it is not entirely safe. The immediate health effects of use, such as vomiting and hallucinating, may be temporary, but can be very unpleasant and upsetting. Many individuals also have “bad trips,” or negative experiences with use. 

    Certain medications can cause problems when mixed with ayahuasca. These include antidepressants that are SSRIs, stimulants including Adderall, and decongestants. People seeking treatment using this substance will need to discontinue these medications to avoid the risk of serotonin syndrome which can lead to health problems including death. It is best to talk to one’s prescriber as to how to safely temporarily stop or discontinue these medications. 

    People with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia should not use ayahuasca or other hallucinogens, as these can make these conditions worse.[12] It may also interact poorly with certain medications, which can cause serious health issues like seizures or heart conditions.[13

    While it may have potential to treat mental and physical health conditions, studies have been small, rare and in controlled settings. In many of the studies referenced, there was no standard dosing, which makes it more challenging to know what might be helpful, especially considering individual differences in the way people process this substance. 

    Reducing risk and being as safe as possible when using these substances is very important. If your loved one is considering an ayahuasca retreat, they should do as much research as possible to avoid less trustworthy companies.

    If your loved one is using psychedelics and you’re not sure what to do, contact our support services for help.