What ayahuasca — Silicon Valley’s latest drug of choice — does to your brain and body

ayahuasca peru
In this May 6, 2018 photo, Italian national Pamela Moronci attends an ayahuasca session in Nuevo Egipto, at a remote village in the Peruvian Amazon. Every year thousands of tourists visit jungle retreats in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador to try ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic elixir made of native plants that is thought to heal some mental illnesses, and help those on a spiritual journey. 
AP Photo/Martin Mejia

When brewed, the jungle vines and leaves that make ayahuasca have strange powers, often described as mystical.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic compound — along the lines of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, though with different effects — that’s been used for thousands of years by shamans and communities in and around the Amazon rainforest. Some use the substance in healing ceremonies, meant to help people get past ailments of the body and mind. Other ceremonies are meant to aid communication with ancestors and other spirits.

Yet around the world, people are fascinated by the experience, which is often described as life-changing.

In recent years, enthusiasm for ayahuasca and its effects has spread from the indigenous roots of the substance and experimentation by curious backpackers to communities of tech workers in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn.

“It’s mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights,” Tim Ferriss, the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” told The New Yorker in 2016 for a feature about the jungle psychedelic’s exploding popularity in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, New York.

Ferriss said that the substance was harrowing and that it made him feel as if he were “being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours.” It also wiped away anger he’d held onto for decades, he said.

At the same time, a revival of scientific interest in psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin — and ayahuasca — is leading to a growing understanding of exactly what these substances do the body and especially the brain.

Here’s what we know so far.

Ayahuasca, also known as yagé, is made by brewing certain leaves and vines together. In Quechua, the name means “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul.”

ayahuasca peru
In this May 5, 2018 photo, Shaman Pablo Flores brews ayahuasca in Pucallpa, Peru. 
AP Photo/Martin Mejia

The preparation involves the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and components of the Psychotria viridis plant.

When combined, the plant released the powerful hallucinogen DMT, and the vine releases compounds that cause the DMT effect to last for hours. Alone, DMT would just last about 20 minutes.

ayahuasca brazil
In this June 22, 2016 photo, a woman wearing a white crown warms up next to a bonfire during a break in the service of the church of the doctrine of the Holy Daime, in Ceu do Mapia, Amazonas state, Brazil. During the all night service men and women line up in two separate rows to drink the psychedelic tea after making the sign of the cross. They then sing together prayers and psalms in a large circle. 
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

The most significant effects of DMT are feelings of being separated from the body, experiencing an unearthly environment, encountering mystical or otherworldly beings, having an altered perception of time, feeling peace and joy, and having heightened senses.

The physical effects of ayahuasca are often described as miserable, including serious vomiting, though they are temporary.

ayahuasca peru

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