Learn about ayahuasca's risks and benefits according to science. Discover why mental preparation, ceremony context, and integration techniques are essential to the ayahuasca path.

If you boil the two plants Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis long enough, you’ll end up with the powerful brew ayahuasca (pronounced: iowaska). But, I don’t recommend you make it yourself, nor drink it alone, unless you really know what you’re doing. It’s not something to approach lightly.

When consumed, it usually creates extraordinary experiences of visions, intense emotions and possibly vomiting. The brew contains the very powerful psychedelic molecule called DMT. There are many stories online of people gaining types of healing and spiritual insight from drinking ayahuasca. And now science is beginning to understand the benefits of ayahuasca and its risks or safety.

Who is Drinking Ayahuasca?

The brew has been used in special ways by many shamans and native peoples of the Amazon Rainforest for healing, magic and social welfare for at least a few centuries, possibly much longer. “Ayahuasca” is an indigenous Quechua word that has two parts: huasca means “vine”, “liana”, “rope”, and aya meaning “soul”, “spirit”, or “ancestors”. In recent decades, the brew has become an increasingly popular choice of alternative healing for people in Western societies. They travel to the Amazon Rainforest for a healing retreat or attend ayahuasca retreats in other parts of the world. The tea is also at the centre of two large religious organizations (called Santo Daime and União do Vegetal) that began in the 20th century in Brazil and now exist in many parts of the world.

Shamanism, spirituality, religion and psychotherapy are all interested in ayahuasca. It’s profound visionary effects have also attracted video animators and painters who seek inspiration from the spectacular visions it creates. It has expanded from the Amazon rainforest into societies in which similar psychoactive plants and chemicals are illegal. But this hasn’t stopped ayahuasca becoming increasingly popular.

Ayahuasca is Not a Typical Medicine

The science of ayahuasca is still young. Preliminary studies suggest that the brew can yield astounding benefits for treating common mental health problems, when it’s consumed in proper settings and with a proper approach. There are many anecdotal reports online of ayahuasca sessions helping people alleviate depression, kick addiction, and overcome trauma.

Ayahuasca is esteemed by many people across the globe as a medicinal panacea and wise spiritual teacher. The brew can be life-changing for some people and it can ennoble the spirit in ways that promote health and a meaningful life. But, first off, it’s important to be aware of the fact that it is not a cure for psychological and physical conditions. Even though scientific evidence suggests that ayahuasca can potentially help people overcome various psychological illnesses, ayahuasca certainly doesn’t fix serious problems on its own.

The brew certainly should not be treated like ordinary mental health medicines of Western societies. Ayahuasca can point you in the right direction by showing you what’s wrong or it can give you an experience of heightened well-being, but after the experience it’s up to you to take the insight in and work with it to ensure lasting benefits.

Before discussing the many potential benefits of the brew, first lets look more deeply at the risks.

Ayahuasca vine brain
Ayahuasca has been increasingly studied by professional neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists and other health specialists.

Ayahuasca Risks and Safety

As for serious physical health problems, they probably won’t go away with the help of ayahuasca. Miracles can happen, yet such cases are rare. Ayahuasca can help the body release toxins through the act of purging, paving the way to psychological healing. However, chronic conditions typically can’t really be purged, and some, such as cardiovascular difficulties, can clash with ayahuasca in a bad way. It’s well known that the brew raises blood pressure and heart rate. Combining this with an already overclocked heart can be dangerous, which is not something anyone would want to experience, especially under its profound effects.

People with serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder should also steer clear of the brew. A recently published review of case studies of psychotic episodes that happened to people who took ayahuasca or DMT warns of the dangers that ayahuasca can pose to those personally afflicted by, or with a family history of psychosis. Latent psychosis, that is not yet detected, can be triggered under the effect of the brew.

drinking ayahuasca
Cup of ayahuasca

In general, shamans or ceremony guides are often weary of giving ayahuasca to anybody who’s on any type of medication. With drug interactions still not well documented by science, it’s wiser not to drink if there is even a possibility of a chemical conflict. This especially refers to blood pressure medicines, SSRIs (depression medication) and even aspirin, as it’s a blood thinner. It goes without saying that recreational drugs should also not be consumed before and after taking ayahuasca, especially stimulants.

If going deep into the Amazon rainforest to drink ayahuasca, be sure to check these essential travel safety tips. Whether going to the remote jungles of Peru or to the hills of California, it is very important that you do your research first to make sure you are attending a good and trustworthy retreat center or shaman. Be wise and stay safe.

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The Importance of Diet

It appears that most foods are safe to ingest before drinking, but there are some that should be avoided. The compound tyramine, which is found in some very typical foods, may have a negative interaction with ayahuasca. If consumed with tyramine, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which are the main active ingredient of the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi, can potentially cause adverse reactions such as heart palpitations, nausea and headaches. Tyramine can be found in fermented, cured, aged or overripe foods, as well as soy products, pickled products, certain beans, sourdough bread, draught beer and wine.

Usually, diet requirements listed by retreat centers include avoiding salt, red meats, sugar, alcohol, drugs and sex. These might be healthy to uphold for a few days before and after the ceremony. However, aside from alcohol, drugs and tyramine-rich foods, extra dietary guidelines serve more for your piece of mind, physical freshness and spiritual pursuits, than to keep you from physical harm.

Ayahuasca plants
The two plants commonly used to make the ayahuasca brew. Psychotria viridis (chacruna) & Banisteriopsis caapi (vine).

The Importance of Intention

It is important to set your intention before drinking ayahuasca. Having a clear understanding of your mental state, general life situation, and why you want to drink ayahuasca can be incredibly beneficial. Ayahuasca is often called ‘the master teacher plant‘ by native Amazonians. Going into the experience without having an idea of what you’d like to learn can often lead… well, nowhere. Likewise, going into it with impure intentions such as getting insanely high might lead to surprisingly dark places.

Your intention doesn’t need to be anything grand, it just has to come from your heart. It should be one or several simple and clear statements or questions that are meaningful and personal. By drinking ayahuasca, you are given an opportunity to commune with a deep wisdom. Bringing a pure and honest intention is a great way to introduce yourself to ayahuasca, and asking sincerely for insight can certainly improve your chances of actually receiving it.

Finally, it cannot be stressed enough that ayahuasca should be taken in comfortable and trust-inducing circumstances to avoid psychological risks. If heading to a retreat center, make sure to check its reputation and to talk to the people organizing the retreats (even with previous participants) beforehand. If joining a local ceremony, try meeting the guides and make sure their words resonate with you.

risks and benefits of ayahuasca

The Potential Benefits of Ayahuasca

The potential benefits of drinking ayahuasca seem to far outweigh the risks, at least in the minds of tens of thousands of seekers flocking to the Amazon to embark on an inner journey of a lifetime. Aside from the plentiful anecdotal reports about the spiritual development it offers, ayahuasca is also gaining traction in the scientific community as a potential therapeutic substance. As preliminary studies into its effect on treating mental conditions such as addiction, anxiety and depression keep rolling in, the brew’s reputation for psychological healing is becoming more recognized and empirically established.

Depression and Anxiety

Affecting about 350 million people worldwide, depression is one of the most common global mental disorders – and ayahuasca seems to be proving very effective against it. In a recent study conducted in Brazil, the researchers observed immediate “antidepressant effects the first hours after administering ayahuasca” to treatment resistant patients, and these effects of a single session lasted for several weeks. The results match the analysis of a previous academic paper, which argues that harmine, the main compound of the vine ayahuasca, could have this type of depressant effect on the central nervous system of animals and humans.

As a common associate to depression, anxiety plagues some 260 million people around the world. Yet again, ayahuasca appears to show great scientific potential in treating this condition. A study conducted on members of the Santo Daime church (a syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca legally for ritual purposes) found sustained lower scores on measures of panic-like anxiety and hopelessness an hour after ingesting the tea.


Substance abuse is a global epidemic that has for too long been fought under the misleading guise of a “war on drugs”. The reality is that substances such as alcohol, which can cause severe addiction and great harm to individuals, families and communities, are legally consumed in most parts of the world, whereas most psychedelics, which can be powerful medicines when used in the correct settings, are put into the same basket as drugs of abuse such as heroin and crack cocaine. Many societies have double standards with regards to mind altering substances. They hold onto arbitrary rules set decades ago out of fear rather than as a result of thorough research.

Ayahuasca seems to be able to help people overcome addictive behaviors. A review of the research into ayahuasca as a potential medicine for healing addiction highlights ‘promising’ results, yet notes that more conclusive studies are needed. Although it’s not an official, peer-reviewed study, this paper chronicles the success that has been achieved with abusers of various substances who have undergone several months of ayahuasca treatments in combination with psychological therapy and communal living in a retreat center in Peru. The work done by the center claims to have changed the lives of 62% of its patients for the better. Similarly, an observational study found a decrease in self-reported levels of addiction to alcohol, tobacco and cocaine in a community of ayahuasca drinkers in Canada. The study included ayahuasca ceremonies as supplements to group counseling sessions.

The profound experience of drinking the tea often leaves people feeling at peace. Kahpi professor of neuroscience Dr. Draulio de Araujo has been researching the potential benefits of using the tea for treating depression. His team gave the brew to 80 people. The group included many clinically depressed people. He noted:

If one word comes up, it is ‘tranquillity’. A lot of our individuals, whether they are depressed or not, have a sense of peace after the experience. – Dr. Araujo

General Health & Beyond

There are also many people drinking ayahuasca that are not suffering from mental health conditions. The brew can assist spiritual paths and personal growth for healthy individuals. It can provide deep insights and perspectives on difficult to answer questions, such as life-choices and creativity blocks.

Ayahuasca probably achieves some of these effects through dissolving problematic patterns of emotional behavior that we may succumb to, that can drive one into self-destructive thoughts and actions. As a recent study outlines, the brew increases our ability to think divergently and decreases convergent thinking, which means that it makes us get out of our ‘mental box’ and consider different perspectives, ones that are unavailable when stuck in habits and conditioned reactions.

Molecules in ayahuasca have been shown to grow new brain cells in laboratory experiments. Photo: Beckley Foundation

Along with the findings that this Amazonian tea stimulates new brain cell growth and reduces judgmental processing of our experiences and inner reactivity, the mechanism of its action starts making sense: ayahuasca seems to create new associations in our brain, and even new brain matter, that changes the way we perceive and react; and some of those changes seem to stay with us after the experience. Ayahuasca can boost creativity for healthy individuals in many different ways, including for painters and animators who portray the sublime visions of the brew in such spectacular ways.

The ayahuasca experience can be very very deep. People often experience emotional catharsis and perceive inner visions or lessons that are personally meaningful and profoundly enlightening. This is only the first step. After the experiences, the depths of the inner journey require a level of personal reflection, respect and ‘integration’ in order to help truly harvest the fruits of ayahuasca.

The research into ayahuasca’s benefits is still in preliminary stages. Yet, mainstream media is reporting the research loud and clear for important reasons. Humanity is getting desperate to find real cures for the rising problems in depression, addiction, and related mental health issues.

The brew long revered by indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest is more than a medicine. For many people, ayahuasca is a spirit, a relationship, and a way of life. Ayahuasca represents what appears to be a very important paradigm change in how we understand illness, disease, well-being and the heights of human flourishing.

The Path of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is not a typical “medicine”. It’s more like a path which benefits greatly from a combined contemplative practice or spiritual tradition. The psychological preparation of the individual and the context or tradition in which the brew is consumed are fundamental to the positive health outcomes that many people report, as discussed in the academic book The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca.

People sometimes say that “ayahuasca knows if you’ve not been putting an effort into your personal development”. This idea stems from the fact that without proper “inner” or psychological preparation, the effects of the tea can be overwhelming or even without effect. People new to the brew who are interested in consuming it should begin by learning about basic harm minimization and experience maximization recommendations. 

Prepare for ayahuasca
The experience can be very deep and transformative.

Drinking ayahuasca for the first time often catapults people way outside their comfort zone. This happens on several levels. Changing your diet for several days or longer can be more challenging than a lot of people may realize. Plus, the “dieta” period often includes an absence of most technology and social life for several days.

The effects of ayahuasca are certainly not always fun, easy or blissful. It can be extremely pleasurable and exhilarating, yet it can also be very challenging. Confronting the cobwebbed-closets of our past or our deep mind is not always blissful. Ayahuasca drinking is often referred to as “work” in the different traditions that have developed around it.

Not everyone drinking ayahuasca has a “tradition” or way of approaching the experience. This can be limiting to their outcomes. Wise education, contemplation, and self-inquiry are incredibly rewarding to the ayahuasca path. Put simply, the more you put in, the more you benefit.

Ayahuasca and the Importance of Integration

The period after the ceremony is called the “integration” phase. This is the time for coming to terms with the insights or changes in perception gained from the inner experiences. It’s the period for weaving the new perspectives or positive outlook into daily life. Similar to the pre-ceremony preparation phase, the more you put in to integration, the more you benefit and heal or grow spiritually.

Integration practices include 1) simply talking about your experience and process with trusted people 2) creating art or writing in a journal 3) meditating 4) walking in nature 5) psychotherapy, and 6) bodywork, such as massage. Ayahuasca can help guide you, show you incredible things about yourself and the world, but only you can take the fruits of the experiences into your daily life.

This is why we created Kahpi. It’s an education hub that offers ayahuasca video courses and articles to help you on your path of healing, learning, self-discovery and personal growth. You can learn from renowned teachers in courses about ayahuasca risks, safety, healing, shamanism, preparation, integration, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

If you want to take yourself to the next level, then I suggest you view our complimentary short course The Ayahuasca Path of Healing and Self-Discovery. It’s taught by an ayahuasca luminary with decades of experience drinking and serving the brew.

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Xavier Francuski

Born in Asia, grew up in Europe, lived in the Americas, Xavier's uprooted existence fuels his instinct for exploration. With a background in research psychology, he tries to reconcile the astounding nature of the realms beyond with what sense we can make of them in this one.
Xavier Francuski