Do you know what ingredients are in ayahuasca? If you understand the basics of this brew, then you probably answered, “An MAOI-containing plant and DMT-containing plant.” But while these are the two ingredients common to all ayahuasca brews, most ayahuasca also contains several less well-known ingredients. These ingredients vary based on who is making it, who is consuming it, and its intended purpose. Most shamans consider the Banisteriopsis caapi vine to contain the spirit of the ayahuasca brew, but the main DMT-containing plant—Psychotria viridis—is sometimes swapped out for another DMT-containing plant if the shaman believes it will create a better spiritual connection.
Understanding what usually goes into an ayahuasca brew will allow you to anticipate the possible sensations you will experience during the ceremony and help you communicate better with the shaman who is preparing your brew. Keep in mind that many of the ingredients have several alternative names depending on where the shaman is from and what practices they follow. This means it is important to educate yourself on the commonly used plants before your ceremony so you will understand exactly what is going into your brew.
Banisteriopsis caapi is a woody vine often referred to as caapi, yage, and ayahuasca. It is the only plant that is in every ayahuasca brew. Caapi on its own does not produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness; instead, it contains elements that allow other plants with hallucinogenic properties to become orally active.
Caapi contains harmala alkaloids (which are actually named after the plant they were originally discovered in, Syrian Rue), which act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs have a variety of medicinal uses and effects, mostly as antidepressant medication. MAOIs neutralize the monoamine oxidase in your stomach, which allows DMT—the main psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca—to pass through your stomach into your bloodstream and, ultimately, to your brain. MAOIs also allow the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine to stay in the brain for longer periods, causing a sensation of peace, acceptance, and euphoria.
MAOIs have a long list of medicine, food, and supplements that they can interact poorly with. Because of this, you should not take ayahuasca while on other medications (especially antidepressants) and you need to follow a strict diet before and after your ceremony.
Psychotria viridis is referred to as chacruna in Peru and Brazil and samiruka or amiruca in Ecuador. In Ecuador, “chacruna” refers to a different plant, Diplopterys cabrerana, which is also used in ayahuasca. The word “chacruna” means “the mix” and refers to what is mixed in with caapi to create a non-ordinary state of consciousness. It may also be called the mix because it “mixes” your consciousness to make you aware of different aspects of life.
All forms of chacruna contain a high amount of dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is found in most plants and mammals, but the presence of MAO in humans prevents DMT from having a psychological effect on us normally. But when mixed with caapi, DMT crosses into the brain and bonds with serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This causes a classic non-ordinary state of consciousness with visual and aural hallucinations as well as a reduced fear and shame response and increased empathy and interconnectivity. Unlike other classic psychedelics, DMT also binds with sigma-1 receptors, which is currently being researched due to the sigma-1’s relation to schizophrenia, depression, addiction, and cancer. But at the moment, the full significance of this binding is unknown.
Justicia pectoralis is commonly known as tilo, masha-hari, and piri piri. Although there has not been thorough research on it, some shamans believe tilo can reduce anxiety, breathing problems, coughing, pain, PMS symptoms, vomiting, and nausea. It is added to ayahuasca for its general curative effects and to control the amount of vomiting.
One of the main compounds in tilo is coumarin, which has been proven to be an anticoagulant and to flush uric acid out of the body, making it an effective treatment for some circulatory disorders and gout. However, if tilo is in your brew, it is important that you drink plenty of water before, during, and after the ceremony to prevent a buildup of uric acid in your kidneys, which could result in kidney stones.
Brugmansia or Datura
Brugmansia or datura are often referred to as toé or maikoa. They are powerful deliriants that consist of atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. When taken in small doses, these compounds can reduce motion sickness, nausea, and stomach cramping—making the ceremony easier for some people to handle.
At higher doses, toé can cause delusions. These are different from the visuals you may experience while taking classic psychedelics in that they are more elaborate and indistinguishable from reality. Many people do not remember the delusions they experience, and after they subside, you are left in a highly suggestible mental state. For some, this can be an ideal state to break addictions and reset thought patterns or associations. However, it is important that you are with people you trust if toé is used in your brew, as it makes you mentally and emotionally vulnerable.
Although toé is somewhat commonly used at low doses in ayahuasca, there has been a trend for some shamans to use higher doses of it to achieve a more spectacular experience. This is in part due to the over-popularization of ayahuasca and the Western thought that it is an immediate cure-all.
Nicotiana rustica is known as mapacho or rapé and is a ceremonial tobacco with a significantly higher nicotine content than common cigarette tobacco. The nicotine stimulates blood flow and can increase your attention and awareness, which makes you more sensitive to ayahuasca’s psychological effects. Additionally, it contains the same harmala alkaloids as caapi, which increases the effectiveness of the brew.
Some shamans use mapacho to cleanse your energy and help you set intentions before the ceremony. In this case, the mapacho will generally be blown up your nose for the most efficient delivery. Other shamans will add the mapacho directly to the ayahuasca brew so the effects occur at the same time.
Ayahuasca is a complex mixture, and it takes an experienced shaman to create a brew that will be both safe and effective. Working long-term with a shaman will allow them to create a brew that will meet your specific needs as opposed to a weaker, more general brew. But if you are unable to establish a long-term relationship with a shaman, a detailed conversation about the ingredients and your intentions for the ceremony can also help you know what to expect. Before taking ayahuasca, you may want to work with a psychedelic therapist to discuss the possible effects the ingredients may have on you as well as to determine if you should avoid any ingredients due to medications or contraindications. This will help you fine-tune your ayahuasca ceremony and ensure you have the most healing experience possible.