What is pharmahuasca and could it be a decent substitute for the sacred Amazonian brew ayahuasca? Learn about the chemistry and debates over what makes ayahuasca, ayahuasca.

In the 1990s, gel caps going by the name of “pharmahuasca” circulated at psychedelic music festivals glistening with mysterious brown and yellow substances inside them. The distributors often claimed the caps offered the same powerful effects as the sacred Amazonian brew ayahuasca but without any of the nauseating purging qualities associated with it.

The claim was in part marketing and not fully true. The caps contained extracts of the same or similar chemicals found in ayahuasca brews, and these extracts are known to sometimes also induce stomach trouble. While ayahuasca shamans in the Amazon rainforest approach the purge as a sacred cleansing ritual, psychonauts probably don’t want to vomit all over music festival dance floors.

There are many different types of pharmahuasca and many different ways people take them. Some are more recreational and others more spiritual or therapeutic in their intention. But first things first: what exactly are these “kind of ayahuasca” things?

The terms anahuasca or pharmahuasca refer to attempts at pharmaceutical replication of the brew ayahuasca. By mimicking the chemistry found within ayahuasca, psychonauts worldwide make substances that aim to replicate the effects of the brew without having to visit the Amazon or take part in an actual ayahuasca ceremony elsewhere.

How Can Ayahuasca Be Replicated?

Ayahuasca is traditionally made by brewing the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains psychoactive β-carboline alkaloids harmaline, harmine, and tetrahydroharmine (THH), with another plant, which contains molecules of DMT. The most commonly used admixture plants are Psychotria viridis and, less often, Diplopterys cabrerana.

The β-carboline alkaloids in the B. caapi vine are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). They stop the action of the monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzymes within our stomach lining that are responsible for breaking down and metabolizing DMT molecules. This chemical process makes it possible for the orally ingested DMT to remain intact and pass through the blood-brain barrier, achieving the visionary psychedelic effects it’s well known for.

This is, essentially, how ayahuasca works. However, it’s important to know that the chemistry behind ayahuasca, although extensively researched, is not completely understood. The β-carbolines and DMT are the skeleton of the brew; there are myriad more compounds in both ayahuasca’s core constituents and its many possible admixtures that give this drink its full psychonautical and spiritual quality.

To mimic ayahuasca’s effects, a pharmahuasca preparation that includes both the MAOIs and the DMT is used. The most common B. caapi analog is either a resin extract of the vine itself or the mix of the three extracted alkaloids. The resin will contain a fuller spectrum of vine compounds when compared to the pure alkaloids.

Another quite commonly used alternative are seeds of Peganum Harmala, or Syrian rue, a perennial plant found in North Africa, Europe, and Asia with a long history of sacramental use by the likes of Zoroastrians, Egyptians, and other ancient cultures. It contains the same alkaloids as B. caapi, although in different concentrations and ratios, meaning that it is not a 1:1 substitute for the vine.

Peganum harmala ayahuasca
Peganum harmala buds. Photo credit: Yuri.

As for the DMT, a crystallized extract is typically preferred, although certain plants from the genus Mimosa or Acacia can be used as DMT-containing ingredients where available. Both elements can be dissolved in a citrus drink, if extracts, or boiled into a tea, if using actual plant matter. The solutions/teas are either ingested together, or the DMT portion is taken some 15 minutes after the MAOI.

The pharmahuasca experience itself comes on gradually, with the visuals appearing after about 30 minutes. It lasts from two to four hours, and nausea/diarrhea are possible but, according to myriad anecdotal reports, are neither as common nor intense as with actual ayahuasca. Depending on which MAOI was used, the quality of the experience is reported to vary from a DMT-esque cosmic voyage with intense visuals to a less visual, more deeply personal and emotionally meaningful journey. However, there seems to be a consensus among pharmahuasca users that psychedelic experiences with analog preparations typically don’t seem to reach the heights and depths of those experienced with actual ayahuasca in a ritualistic setting. Many factors aside from the substance itself determine how any psychedelic experience plays out, especially expectations, beliefs, and context. I will discuss them later on.

Pharmahuasca over Ayahuasca

Perhaps the primary benefit of creating and taking chemical analogs of ayahuasca is that they provide an opportunity for independent ritualization. Not everyone can put together the time and financial means to fly off to a different continent for a retreat, and some may also have anxiety of traveling, especially to such distant lands. Any ceremonies being organized outside of the Amazon may also present a logistical challenge, aside from being almost globally illegal.

Some people comment that anahuasca makes it possible to source local plants and have a similar experience in the comfort of one’s own place of choice, in one’s own free time, and with less fear of legal trouble compared to smuggling substances across borders. Of course, the DMT part of anahuasca is also illegal, and possession or import (ordering the extracts) from another country can mean jail time. However, as these risks appear to be lower than flying with illegal plants in the suitcase, certain people consider the logistics of anahuasca to be among its main advantages.

Aside from these organizational arguments, ingesting only the extracted compounds has proven to come with a lighter body load than drinking the actual brew. Ayahuasca is well-known for the nausea and purging it can induce in the drinker, and these effects can be seen as undesirable, or downright off-putting by some.

Research suggests that purging may result from the increase in serotonin levels in the gut. However, as the serotonin surge is caused the same way by both ayahuasca and pharmahuasca, it’s more likely that it can be attributed to some of the myriad compounds in the plants that make up an ayahuasca brew. In either case, pharmahuasca is less likely to cause purging.

Finally, pharmahuasca allows the user to fine-tune the ratio of the active ingredients and, in a way, customize their psychonautical experience. The three main alkaloids found in the B. caapi vine each have their mild, yet psychoactive effects. They can be individually ingested in order to get a better idea of what they do and to choose which one(s) should be present in the pharmahuasca mix and to what extent. A detailed description of the pharmacokinetic and physiological effects of these alkaloids can be found in this study.

As for the subjective effects, harmine and THH have effects of similar potency but of different qualities. Harmine creates an unemotional, dreamy, yet clear-headed state of mind, whereas THH causes an emotionally enjoyable state accompanied by pleasant bodily tingling. Harmaline is the most potent, about twice as much as harmine or THH. It induces a dreamy, hypnotic, emotionally detached state similar to that of harmine, but more foggy and disorienting. It’s also the most psychoactive of the three. A very interesting study conducted by the grandfather of psychedelic therapy research, Dr Claudio Naranjo, showed that harmaline can induce visionary motifs that resemble those of ayahuasca journeys, such as snakes, birds, and big cats in users with no experience with ayahuasca or prior knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian lore.

Manipulating the dose proportions can produce quite diverse experiences, with the main difference lying along the dimension of sedation vs clear-headedness. Some sedation is good for remaining calm and preventing panic, but too much can obscure profound, clear, and memorable insight. Additionally, certain alkaloids at certain doses can induce nausea, which can be regulated as well. Experimentation, thus, can lead to finding a perfect individual balance of alkaloids, one that will maximize benefits and minimize side effects. A tried and true ratio to start with would be a 2:1:1 (THH:harmine:harmaline) mix.

Taking MAOIs separately and then consuming the DMT shortly afterwards provides the added benefit of dosing the visionary content as well. The ingested alkaloids inhibit the MAO enzymes from breaking down DMT molecules for several hours, so more DMT can be taken gradually in order to adjust the intensity of the experience or prolong it until the alkaloids themselves are no longer active.

Ayahuasca over Pharmahuasca

The same arguments used in favor of anahuasca can be looked at through a different side of the proverbial entheogenic prism. As the late, great Timothy Leary would say, set, setting, and substance are the essential elements that make up a psychedelic experience. All three can be brought into question if choosing pharmacological manipulation over an immersive voyage in the Amazon.

The rainforest setting in which ayahuasca is ceremonially drunk presents an amalgam of conditions favorable for assuming the state of mind conducive to embracing all that the brew has to offer. Firstly, leaving one’s comfort zone is a necessary step toward opening up and making oneself vulnerable to deep spiritual work. Getting to know the indigenous culture from whence the sacred medicine comes lets one form a more tangible connection with it. Learning about the indigenous peoples’ reverence for the Master Plant can instill the humility and appreciation necessary for being granted profound insight from it. Heading to the jungle demonstrates a willingness to the spirits, perhaps increasing the chance of earning their favor; it also may bring the seeker closer to their reach.

Sitting in ceremony with a powerful shaman who can set up a protected space and catalyze the connection with the spirit realm can open up incredible worlds through which the drinker’s spirit may roam freely and safely. Being in retreat with like-minded peers provides an opportunity to engage with a supportive community, which allows better integration. These, and myriad other reasons, are what makes a full-blown ayahuasca experience in the Amazon incomparable with any attempt of independent emulation. This all sounds great except for the fact that ayahuasca retreats and trips to the Amazon are very expensive and a privilege that most people cannot afford.

Without making an effort to come to ayahuasca and partake in a soul-nurturing time in its place of origin, and instead opting for a chemical analog that can be ordered online and delivered to one’s doorstep, it’s possible to enter the experience with a mindset that is suboptimal for something that beckons full devotion and understanding of its sacredness.

Going further, the purging itself, although repulsive to some, is considered an integral aspect of the ayahuasca experience by many indigenous communities. In some parts of the Amazon, the brew is actually referred to as “La Purga.” The emetic effects of ayahuasca are important to the indigenous peoples because this is how the medicine helps its drinkers rid their bodies of toxins and parasites. Anthropological research of both classical Peruvian shamanism and neo-shamanic currents of Australia shows that purging also represents a highly relevant aspect of the therapeutic side of ayahuasca use.

Lastly, the brew itself, when prepared by a well-trained and experienced shaman, becomes a product of love, knowledge, connection, and power. Aside from the abundance of “jungle” compounds that make it a broader-spectrum potion, there are many less tangible elements coalescing to create the sacred medicine that is ayahuasca. These elements move it beyond the reach of any analog made by anyone who doesn’t have the necessary training and the Master Plant’s permission to wield its powers.

The traditional ayahuasca brew in the making. Banisteriopsis caapi and psychotria viridis on the boil. Image credit: Dominik Janus

Consider the sacramental harvest of ingredients that includes spiritual communion with the plants, the hours of slow cooking, the prayers imbued into the brew, the unique recipe and way of preparation of each shaman, the connection their family and community have with the spirits of the rainforest and their land. Although these and similar factors cannot be scientifically or objectively scrutinized, they are what shapes ayahuasca into the vessel of the full-bodied spirit that heals and teaches us about life.

Intention over All

Still, it seems that when considering the differences between ayahuasca and anahuasca or pharmahuasca, the most important aspects are whether or not you have a clear intention for spiritual recalibration and growth. With the right mindset and a nurturing setting choice (which doesn’t necessarily have to be in the middle of the Amazon), a medicine prepared with the right intention, whether brewed by a shaman or swirled around in citric juice by yourself, becomes a powerful tool for performing profound inner work.

Many people are not psychologically prepared for taking psychedelics (perhaps especially ayahuasca) without guides or professionals. We should approach taking these powerful substances with caution and dedication, not simply to reduce the risks, but also because a careful mind and heart that foster right intentions and solemn humility can open the fruitful doors of positive transformation—regardless of how the actual chemicals were grown or prepared.

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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