During the last few days, several journalists have asked me about ayahuasca. Apparently, Harry Windsor said in an interview that it changed his life! However, the family of a young woman who took her own life after using ayahuasca has joined campaigners condemning his comments. Others – including myself – claim that Harry is sending a worrying message talking about his ‘positive’ experience with ayahuasca, saying it ‘brought me a sense of relaxation, release, comfort, a lightness that I managed to hold on to for a period of time’.
So, what is ayahuasca?
This paper explains it quite well:
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogen brew traditionally used for ritual and therapeutic purposes in Northwestern Amazon. It is rich in the tryptamine hallucinogens dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which acts as a serotonin 5-HT2A agonist. This mechanism of action is similar to other compounds such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin. The controlled use of LSD and psilocybin in experimental settings is associated with a low incidence of psychotic episodes, and population studies corroborate these findings. Both the controlled use of DMT in experimental settings and the use of ayahuasca in experimental and ritual settings are not usually associated with psychotic episodes, but little is known regarding ayahuasca or DMT use outside these controlled contexts. Thus, we performed a systematic review of the published case reports describing psychotic episodes associated with ayahuasca and DMT intake. We found three case series and two case reports describing psychotic episodes associated with ayahuasca intake, and three case reports describing psychotic episodes associated with DMT. Several reports describe subjects with a personal and possibly a family history of psychosis (including schizophrenia, schizophreniform disorders, psychotic mania, psychotic depression), nonpsychotic mania, or concomitant use of other drugs. However, some cases also described psychotic episodes in subjects without these previous characteristics. Overall, the incidence of such episodes appears to be rare in both the ritual and the recreational/noncontrolled settings. Performance of a psychiatric screening before administration of these drugs, and other hallucinogens, in controlled settings seems to significantly reduce the possibility of adverse reactions with psychotic symptomatology. Individuals with a personal or family history of any psychotic illness or nonpsychotic mania should avoid hallucinogen intake.
In other words, ayahuasca can lead to serious side effects. They include vomiting, diarrhea, paranoia, and panic. Ayahuasca can also interact with many medications, including antidepressants, psychiatric medications, drugs used to control Parkinson’s disease, cough medicines, weight loss medications, and more. Those with a history of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, should avoid ayahuasca because this could worsen their psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, taking ayahuasca can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which may result in dangerous consequences for those who have a heart condition.
Thus ayahuasca is an interesting albeit dangerous herb (in most countries it is illegal to possess or consume it). Currently, it is clearly under-researched, which means we know very little about its potential benefits and even less about the harm it can do.
Considering this, one would think that any half-intelligent person with loads of influence would not promote or encourage its use – but, sadly, it seems that one would be mistaken.