In the great Amazon rainforest, native people have long used a large array of psychoactive medicinal agents, from frog secretions to potent snuffs, to various items that can be smoked, applied to skin, or otherwise ingested.
Among these agents, the best-known of all is ayahuasca, a fluid potion. Also known as "La Medicina" (The Medicine), ayahuasca is a combinatory preparation, made from the pounded vines of Banisteropsis caapi, and the leaves of Psyhcotria viridis. Large quantities of both are placed into a pot with a large amount of water, and the entire potion is boiled down, until the remaining fluid is thick, bitter, a bit oily, and sadly quite nasty to the taste.
In recent years ayahuasca, which has been prepared by native people for well over 1,000 years, has become vastly popular. Today, two large Brazilian churches utilize ayahuasca as a sacrament. Both churches, Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal, boast millions of followers, and on weekends both churches hold ceremonies all over the world. Both churches have become well known for helping people to overcome potentially deadly addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, and other dangerous drugs, reputedly with very good success. Additionally, many tens of thousands of pilgrims every year are venturing to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil to sit with shamans in dark huts and drink the fabled ayahuasca brew at night, for the purposes of both healing and spiritual discovery.
Powerfully psychedelic, ayahuasca is proving surprisingly effective at helping people with what are known as “idiopathic” health disorders, those of unknown origin. Chronic fatigue, recurring headaches, post traumatic stress and various complications arising from physical and sexual abuse are among the persistent health problems that are often greatly aided – and sometimes completely resolved – by drinking ayahuasca under the supervision of a highly trained shaman. Shamans, who function as doctor/healer/advisors in native communities, may spend ten to twenty years learning to properly administer the psychoactive potion, and to lead ceremonies where healing can take place.
Until fairly recently, the use of ayahuasca has been the purview of native people living in villages in recondite spots throughout the Amazon rainforest. But over the past decade especially, non-native people have sought the ayahuasca experience, and now this accounts for a full-on tourist boom in some places, most notably Iquitos, Peru, where one can find at least fifty or more ayahuasca-based lodges.
The traditional use of ayahuasca takes place at night, usually in a ceremonial hut. A shaman, or several shamans, will officiate. Those participating in the ceremony each quaff a small amount of the plant-based brew, usually one to two ounces worth. After about forty-five minutes or so, the brew starts to kick in. People may experience lavish visions, may go on journeys of the mind, and very often find themselves re-living or recalling events or circumstances that have caused problems in their lives. Through the ayahuasca ceremony, grief and trauma may be resolved in a night or two. This rapid and seemingly unlikely resolution has modern psychiatrists worldwide looking closely at ayahuasca, and thus a field of scientific investigation has sprung up around this Amazonian preparation.
So-called “ayahuasca tourism,” people traveling to South America to attend and participate in ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans, has become a large dimension of activity among travelers to certain countries, and this phenomenon has been covered somewhat extensively by print and broadcast media over the past few years. Most of the major news organizations have done features on ayahuasca.
Scientific investigation into ayahuasca shows that the brew helps to “re-set” important neurotransmitters in the brain, most notably serotonin and dopamine, thus enhancing mood and satisfaction. This activity may explain the anti-addiction properties of the brew.
In my own observations of people who have participated in ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years, I have seen people resolve grief over the death of a loved one, become free of long-standing antidepressant drug addiction, the total clearing up of psoriasis, relief from psychological disturbances resulting from traumas and abuse, and improvement in cases of stomach disorders, sleep problems, headaches, and more. Thus there is a great deal to investigate with this Amazonian brew.
For sure, ayahuasca is not for everyone. Extremely potent and vision-promoting, the brew is a powerful psychedelic, and must be treated with great respect and administered by someone who is trained to do so. Still, the medicine holds enormous promise for helping with health problems that do not respond well to conventional drugs and therapies.
Today, a potion that was once consumed solely by tribal people in the Amazon rainforest is now more widely available, and many non-natives are making the journey to South America to experience the potential healing benefits of the brew. It already appears that ayahuasca is making a significant contribution to the field of healing and pharmacology. With researchers and medical experts worldwide now turning their attention to this rainforest prescription, we are likely to discover a great many ways that this strange potion can help to relieve suffering in many forms.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.