A snapshot of ayahuasca research is provided below or see this larger list of ayahuasca research articles spanning biomedical, anthropological and psychological fields.
Ayahuasca is a traditional psychoactive Amazonian tea made from the Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) vine and the leaves of Psychotria viridis, which has the capacity to produce altered-states of consciousness (Grob, McKenna et al. 1996). The main contexts of ayahuasca drinking are Indigenous cultures in South America, Christian oriented syncretic religions, and neo-shamanic ceremonies now taking place in the USA, Canada, Spain, Australia and many other Western countries.
Originating among indigenous cultures in the Amazon Basin, ayahuasca drinking has had a central place in traditional healing for centuries, with the last decade seeing a dramatic increase in the number of Westerners traveling to South America to participate in ayahuasca rituals (Prayag, Mura et al. 2015). From the 1930s the tea was adopted as a religious sacrament by a number of Brazilian syncretic religions – the Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (UDV) and Barquinha. Both the Santo Daime and the UDV have experienced rapid growth since the 1980s and are now present in in all major cities in Brazil as well as Europe, the United States, and Australia (Tupper 2009). The last decade has also seen a dramatic increase in Indigenous styled neo-shamanic ayahuasca ceremonies taking place in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe (Tupper 2009).
Ayahuasca ceremonies and the psychoactive beverage consumed have also gained broad recognition in mainstream Western culture with celebrities such as Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Sting, Ben Lee, Steve Jobs and Devendra Banhart speaking publicly about their experiences. Media coverage includes positive stories about powerful healing effects relating to depression, anxiety, PTSD and addictions as well as reports of deaths, serious mental health impacts, sexual assault, and dangerous plant additives (Hearn 2013, BBC News 2014, Morris 2014).
There is also a growing recognition of the cultural value of the knowledge and practices associated with ayahuasca drinking and with the human rights (i.e., religious freedom) protections for members of ayahuasca churches. In Peru, the Directorate of the National Institute of Culture has declared the “knowledge and traditional uses of Ayahuasca practiced by the native Amazon communities” as Cultural Patrimony of the Nation (Resolution Number 836/INC), based on the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. They state that the use of Banisteriopsis caapi and Chacruna-Psychotria plants structured around the ayahuasca ritual have “an extraordinary cultural history” with “religious, therapeutic and culturally affirmative” properties. In a number of countries, including Brazil, the United States, the Netherlands and Spain, members of ayahuasca churches such as the Santo Daime and UDV have been accorded religious freedom protections to use ayahuasca as a religious sacrament (Tupper 2008, Labate and Jungaberle 2011, Labate and Feeney 2012). In Australia the Therapeutic Goods Administration is currently considering submissions relating to a requested amendment to the Poisons Standards (2012) in regards to DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca (currently in Schedule 9). If approved this would permit human consumption of naturally occurring DMT in low concentrations for religious purposes.
Motivations and risks
Unlike other psychoactive substances the motivations of those participating in ayahuasca ceremonies are typically related to physical or emotional healing, personal development or self-awareness, spirituality, religious commitment, and treatment for addictions, (Winkelman 2005, Schmid, Jungaberle et al. 2010). The weight of evidence indicates that short and long-term ayahuasca does not produce dependence and is not detrimental to health, with a safety margin comparable to codeine or mescaline (Gable 2007, Fábregas, González et al. 2010, Lanaro, Calemi et al. 2015). Side-effects noted are generally short term and related to the specific use, rarely persisting longer than a day or two (Halpern, Sherwood et al. 2008). Court decision relating to the ayahuasca churches in the United States and the Netherlands, and a review by the National Council on Drugs (CONAD) in Brazil, all concluded that the available evidence indicated that ayahuasca was not detrimental to health when used ceremonially, with the latter recommending further research into potential therapeutic effects (Labate and Feeney 2012).
However, some authors have raised questions about the safety of ayahuasca for certain individuals who may not possess the psychological resilience required to withstand the powerful psychoactive effects. Ayahuasca drinking can bring up past traumas and lead to new traumatic experiences that may be difficult for some people to assimilate (Trichter 2010). Psychological distress following ayahuasca ceremonies has been reported, with a small number of case reports of severe depression and psychotic states associated with consumption (Lewis 2008, Warren, Dham-Nayyar et al. 2013). Other concerns relate to the potential inadequacy of psychosocial supports outside the context of consumption (Trichter 2010), with people in modern settings sometimes having little cultural support and guidance to help contextualise their experiences (Lewis 2008). A potential area of risk is the interaction of pharmaceutical drugs (particularly SSRI anti-depressants), stimulants, or certain foods with the Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) contained in the ayahuasca tea (Callaway and Grob 1998). It is not clear to what extent processes to minimise such risks are used by groups running ceremonies. Some plant additives can be dangerous at high doses, and in the Australian context there are additional unknown risks due to drinkers being known to substitute the Amazonian DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) containing plant Psychotria viridis with a range of Acacias and other Australian plant species that contain DMT, in addition to other alkaloids with unknown safety profiles (Warren, Dham-Nayyar et al. 2013). Concerns about contextual safety have been raised due to the powerful psychoactive influence of the tea, with anecdotal reports of sexual assaults occurring. However, no prior research has explored this.
Potential therapeutic effects
There is an increasing body of evidence supporting the therapeutic use of ayahuasca for the treatment of alcohol and drug dependence (Liester and Prickett 2012, Bouso and Riba 2014, Loizaga-Velder and Verres 2014). Studies of lifetime alcohol and drug use, including severe dependence, among Brazilian members of the Santo Daime or UDV churches who are frequent ayahuasca drinkers have consistently shown either complete remission or significant reductions (Grob, McKenna et al. 1996, Halpern, Sherwood et al. 2008). Data from the Takiwasi centre in Peru, which has been using ayahuasca in combination with conventional psychotherapeutic methods for over 20 years, provides evidence of a positive treatment outcome in around two-thirds of patients (Mabit 2001), and a recent study examining ayahuasca-assisted treatment for problematic substance use in a rural First Nations community in British Columbia, Canada reported improvements in several addiction-related measures (Thomas, Lucas et al. 2013). Animal studies have confirmed the ability of ayahuasca to both inhibit and reverse alcohol addiction behaviours (Oliveira-Lima, Santos et al. 2015). It is suggested that in the appropriate settings ayahuasca assisted treatment can catalyse neurobiological and psychological processes that support substance dependence treatment and prevent the likelihood of relapse (Loizaga-Velder and Verres 2014). However, what constitutes an “appropriate” setting has not previously been investigated.
Positive effects associated with the use of the tea have also been documented relating to mood and anxiety disorders, including PTSD (Grob, McKenna et al. 1996, Barbosa, Cazorla et al. 2009, Fortunato, Reus et al. 2010, Anderson 2012). A recent review published in CNS Drugs outlines the preclinical evidence supporting the medicinal use of ayahuasca for anxiety disorders (Sarris, McIntyre et al. 2013). A recent small study of the administration of a single dose of ayahuasca to people with a current depressive disorder in an inpatient psychiatric clinic found significant reductions of up to 82 per cent in depressive scores after 21 days. The authors conclude that ayahuasca has fast acting anxiolytic and antidepressant effects in people with a depressive disorders (de L. Osório, Sanches et al. 2015). The use of ayahuasca as a self-therapy for a wide range of physical health issues has also been reported, and theoretical models of action advanced for cancer and Parkinson’s disease (Schmid, Jungaberle et al. 2010, Schenberg 2013, Djamshidian, Bernschneider-Reif et al. 2015). In Brazil and some other South American countries ayahuasca is used in combination with conventional medical treatment protocols (Mercante 2013), but the extent of integration with conventional or traditional medicine in Western countries is unknown.
Other potentially beneficial effects that have been associated with ayahuasca drinking include:
However, research is still evolving with many studies undertaken to date being small scale or restricted to religious contexts, where both the plant ingredients and context are carefully controlled. It is unclear the extent to what outcomes reported vary by context of use.