I’ve noticed a pattern of people asking me about ayahuasca, so I might as well write my thoughts on the topic. I’m not an expert, take with a spoon of salt.
i - What s Ayahuasca
What is Ayahuasca? That’s the first question to which no concrete answer exists, it used to be the collective name given to psychoactive beverages consumed by people in South America; But analogous beverages exist in other cultures, and its use has been spread throughout esoterically inclined circles beyond South America, your neighborhood’s shaman in Berkeley can probably cook it just as well as his traditional counterpart in the Amazon.
DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are two compounds that are kind of similar to serotonin, similar enough to bind to various serotonin receptors, thus resulting in
a mildly stimulated and euphoric state profound revelations about reality, more phenomenologically real than anything one has ever experienced.
Monoamine oxidases (MAO) oxidise (in this case can be seen roughly as the molecular analogous of “rapidly burn”) monoamines (e.g. the aforementioned mechanical-elf-communication molecules). Inhibiting them lets monoamines stroll through the body, hitching a ride into the vascular system, all the way to the brain. The odd thing about monoamines is that, in spite of their potential abundance in our diet, they can be absorbed in an intact state and can cross the blood-brain barrier; The only defense we have against sharing in large quantities of neurotransmitters from the plants and animals we eat are MAOs.
ii - How To Consume DMT
Note: from now on I’ll start talking about “DMT”, but essentially everything I’m saying applies equally to 5-MeO-DMT and other similar psychedelic monoamines.
So, from this cold and sterile view of reality where everything boils down to molecules, how would one go about consuming DMT?
You could ingest DMT salts (get freebase DMT from the park, mix with a drop of vinegar) and some MAOIs (from your local pharmacy) — this is rather unpopular
You could smoke freebase DMT, this can be optionally mixed with MAOIs, but due to the fast absorption through the lung, MAOs there won’t be that big an issue, evolution hasn’t quite caught up to all the ways we try to ingest MAOs just yet.
Still, smoking some MAOIs will potentiate the trip, and mixing DMT with weeds is a popular way to smoke it, since the alternative is a bit complicated, so people often mix MAOI containing plants with freebase DMT (aka changa)
You could IV the salt, resulting in the fastest, most potent, least dangerous trip... unless you IV freebase by mistake, or you IV an amount that’d be too large to smoke, in which case you might find the 5-HT2B effects a bit too much.
You could also inject it intramuscularly, but similar caution applies and MAOs are present in the muscles , I personally haven’t heard of anyone doing this outside PiKHAL.
You could boil plants containing DMT and plants containing MAOIs together, then drink the resulting mixture containing both (this is ayahuasca)
iii - What’s The Difference?
So the natural question is, chemically, what’s the difference between ayahuasca and the other methods of consuming DMT?
Roughly speaking, the main thing ayahuasca seems to add is a bunch of other compounds one might extract from the plants via boiling them
The plants, temperature, and reactants used to make the brew vary, and no serious scientific investigation of popular mixtures has been done by psychedelic scientists or drug-policing agencies.
Based on the reports I’ve read, and the first hand-accounts told to me, ayahuasca differs from smoking DMT in that it’s less potent and it causes significant nausea, often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea.
This would agree with a view that boiling often improperly-ground or not-ground-at-all plants extract a lot less DMT than grinding them to a fine paste and using a proper solvent for extraction. Hence the reduced intensity.
I am honestly unsure what other compounds boiling would extract, and how those compounds interact might also change as a result of the MAO inhibition.
So prima facie I’d say ayahuasca could be interpreted as taking a small but unknown dose of one or more psychedelic monoamines with an unknown dose of MAOIs with an unknown dose or various other unknown compounds found in the respective plants, most of them probably harmless (e.g. cellulose).
This sounds very shady, but keep in mind that your local drug-dealer isn’t using a chemically precise way of synthesizing DMT either, he’s just extracting it from a plant he bought online using a solvent. The level of resulting impurities and how well subsequent steps in the purification get rid o them are unclear to me, presumably, they’d depend on the plant, much like with ayahuasca.
I have to mention here that, in principle, all psychedelics cause nausea, and presumably, that could lead to vomiting and diarrhea. The potency and frequency of these side effects in ayahuasca trips are such that I’d expect it to result from ingesting poisonous compounds, and the GI reaction to them, rather than due to the effects psychedelics have on the nervous systems, but I can’t state this conclusively.
Furthermore, the intensity of a trip is hard to describe, people drinking ayahuasca, even in high doses, seem to report trips that are more “conceptual” than what I’d expect on a mid to high dose of almost any psychedelic compound, but this might just boil down to the kind of people that drink ayahuasca being more poetic, rather than to a lower dosage.
Ayahuasca in itself will be much less potent and more spread out due to the GI absorption resulting in the very slow uptake of DMT to the CNS, so I’d be unfair to compare it to the smoked, IV, or IM route, it’s most comparable to oral consumption with MAOIs.
The whole business is further complicated by the fact that “chemahausca” exists, i.e. people boiling MAOI containing plants, then adding DMT to the mixture, or even literally mixing DMT and MAOIs together in water, and people are often unaware if parts of tha “ayahuasca’ they drank were previously extracted through a more sophisticated method or not.
iv - So Why Drink Ayahuasca?
In the biochemically reductionist view of the world, at least as I currently understand it, ayahuasca seems like a bad deal when compared to smoking DMT or ingesting it with pharmacy MAOIs.
So why chose to drink it?
The skeptical answer is that it’s a bunch of hype, (famous) people are often indoctrinated in the neo-puritan “drugs are bad” mentality and in the hippie “natural/organic/local means good” mentality, often parts of both. So when given the option to buy yellowish crystals from a dealer and smoke their awful tasting evaporations from a metal pipe, they rejected it out of hand.
On the other hand, when presented with the idea of going into the amazon to consume a “brew of natural local herbs, prepared by a shaman, used since ancient times to unlock the wisdom of the elders”, this bypasses their hold-ups about drugs (after all, it’s a traditional shamanic brew, not a drug) and ticks all the correct hippie checkboxes.
This results in famous people that never touched a psychedelic going to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, they are obviously amazed because first encounters with psychedelics are awe-inducing almost by definition; Then telling their followers about it, resulting in hype being spread.
On the other hand, people aren’t nearly as excited about psychedelic monoamines marketed as “drugs”, and most upper-class Europeans and Americans never touch them, thus they are less signal boosted.
The sympathetic view is that taking a reductionist approach to a substance that dissolves the basis of reality far beyond the point where words such as objective or observation make sense, is deeply flawed.
There’s something non-fungible in an ayahuasca ceremony, and it’s not the plants being used, or the boiling method, or the shaman, or the ritual chants, or the setting, it’s the mixture that arises out of all of them. Which one can’t replicate except by dedicating one’s whole life to becoming a shaman apprentice and learning how to do the ceremony, at which point the whole scientific worldview won’t make sense anymore.
Note that through both prisms, questions like “How will my ayahuasca experience feel like?” or “How should I prepare?” or “Will I like it?” or “Is it safe?” are made invalid.
Through the first prism, it’s impossible to answer such questions because the reagents and dosages are unknown, and could vary by orders of magnitude, even if the same person is hosting the ayahuasca ceremony, let alone for ayahuasca prepared by entirely different people living hundreds of miles apart.
For the second, qualities of ayahuasca are intangible and not entirely (if at all) related to measurable quantities, the second prism might even reject the concept of objective reality entirely, so the questions lose their footing.
What I would recommend to anyone considering ayahuasca is to first take some common psychedelics in a more “usual” setting to diminish the risk of bad trips arising from the setting of an ayahuasca ceremony/party/whatever. It might also help you distinguish the “base” effects of the psychedelics from that of the ceremony itself.
I’m extra skeptical of it for people suffering from GI issues or with a history of having their serotonergic trips marked by nausea.