Today’s world is becoming more open to the possible benefits of recreational drugs (just look at the growing number of countries that have legalized marijuana as an example). It’s not surprising, then, that ayahuasca, an ancient brew of vines and leaves that produces a psychedelic experience, has climbed to the forefront of the conversation. (Apparently, even Prince Harry has turned to ayahuasca to help him cope with grief.)
Originating from the Northwest Amazon, ayahuasca has been used for both religious and therapeutic purposes. It has become a trendy drug to try in the West, even making its way into the pop culture music scene. Its legal status in the U.S. is ambiguous, in that the brew itself is legal but the hallucinogen component isn’t. While ayahuasca’s illegality is complex, its rising prominence makes it a subject worth discussion.
Let’s explore three reasons in favor of trying ayahuasca, and three reasons against it.
An antidote for the soul
It has the potential to heal
Taking ayahuasca can supposedly lead to a transformative experience. It does so by bringing unconscious thoughts to light, helping people face and overcome their fears, or loss, as was the case with Prince Harry, providing perspective, and improving overall mood. For example, a study of the members of an ayahuasca-using Brazilian church (the União de Vegetal) showed that the users were overall more confident, cheerful, relaxed, optimistic, outgoing and energetic than controls who don’t use ayahuasca. It is thought that ayahuasca may help treat depression, with preliminary studies showing reduction of depressive symptoms over the course of two weeks after taking the drug. More research needs to be done, but initial findings support ayahuasca as a healer, especially for people trying to process grief or overcome trauma.
Safety in ceremony
Unlike other recreational drugs, typical ayahuasca use involves a group ceremony in which an experienced shaman leads you through the experience. This creates a relatively safe environment; it may also greatly reduce the risk of potentially harmful behaviors that can occur while a person is under the influence. Additionally, the shaman is there to help anyone who is undergoing difficulty with their self-discovery, and can guide them back into safety. Of course, it’s important to make sure the shaman is trustworthy, but in general, his role helps facilitate a safe and pleasant ayahuasca experience.
It’s not addictive
One of the perils of many drugs is their addictive quality – which ayahuasca doesn’t have; taking it won’t induce tolerance of the drug. In fact, there is some evidence that taking ayahuasca may even help cure addiction. For example, a woman who had been severely alcoholic for over 10 years took ayahuasca in Ecuador and recovered from her addiction, feeling like the psychological causes underlying the addiction were healed. Like many hallucinogens that aren’t addictive, taking ayahuasca won’t make you dependent on it.
Hugs, not drugs
It can make you sick
Almost everyone who takes ayahuasca gets violently ill, purging throughout their psychedelic trip. This may be because of potentially harmful ingredients in ayahuasca that our bodies want to prevent from reaching our brains. In general, hallucinogens can cause unpleasant, short-term side effects, like increased heart rate, loss of appetite, sleep disruptions and blood pressure. As a result, our bodies try to refuse ayahuasca by throwing it up. Regardless of how much ayahuasca may open your mind, the body’s obvious rejection of the drug should be a sign that it’s unhealthy and should be avoided.
In some cases, it can induce psychosis
Taking ayahuasca can cause psychotic episodes, particularly in people with a history of mental illness. These episodes can include paranoia, suicidal ideation, and psychotic delusions for weeks at a time. While you may be a relatively healthy individual, it’s not always clear what genetic dispositions you may have to certain neurological disorders. Therefore, taking ayahuasca may not be worth the risk of putting your psychological welfare to the test.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about it
Studies of the effects of ayahuasca are just starting to emerge as it grows in popularity, and there is still much information left to discover. In the past, many drugs have been administered that were thought safe, yet were later found to have detrimental effects. For example, the drug DES (synthetic estrogen) was prescribed to women from the ‘40’s to the ‘70’s to help prevent miscarriage, but was later found to cause infertility, pregnancy complications, and increased risk of cancer. Another example would be cigarettes, which were originally “recommended” by doctors, yet are now clearly seen as harmful to people’s health.
The Bottom Line: Doing ayahuasca has the potential to be a transformative experience, but it can have adverse side effects – particularly for those with a history of mental health issues. What do you think about ayahuasca? Is it something you would be comfortable trying?