What ayahuasca - Silicon Valley's latest drug of choice - does to your brain and body
AP Photo/Martin Mejia
When brewed, the jungle vines and leaves that make ayahuasca have strange powers, often described as mystical.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic compound - along the lines of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, though with different effects - that's been used for thousands of years by shamans and communities in and around the Amazon rainforest. Some use the substance in healing ceremonies, meant to help people get past ailments of the body and mind. Other ceremonies are meant to aid communication with ancestors and other spirits.
Yet around the world, people are fascinated by the experience, which is often described as life-changing.
In recent years, enthusiasm for ayahuasca and its effects has spread from the indigenous roots of the substance and experimentation by curious backpackers to communities of tech workers in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn.
"It's mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights," Tim Ferriss, the author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," told The New Yorker in 2016 for a feature about the jungle psychedelic's exploding popularity in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, New York.
Ferriss said that the substance was harrowing and that it made him feel as if he were "being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours." It also wiped away anger he'd held onto for decades, he said.
At the same time, a revival of scientific interest in psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin - and ayahuasca - is leading to a growing understanding of exactly what these substances do the body and especially the brain.
Here's what we know so far.
Ayahuasca, also known as yagé, is made by brewing certain leaves and vines together. In Quechua, the name means "vine of the dead" or "vine of the soul."
When combined, the plant released the powerful hallucinogen DMT, and the vine releases compounds that cause the DMT effect to last for hours. Alone, DMT would just last about 20 minutes.
The physical effects of ayahuasca are often described as miserable, including serious vomiting, though they are temporary.
But it's the effects on the mind that are most fascinating.
Many people report that their experiences with the drug are transformative, offering clarity and healing.
Certain people experience something like a near-death experience.
Researchers and religious communities think ayahuasca may help treat depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.
From a neuroscientific and psychological perspective, ayahuasca seems to induce effects on the brain that are similar to meditation.
Though the substance is generally considered safe, there are still some risks.
Ayahuasca seems to enhance creative thinking.
It's a fascinating substance, though one that researchers would like to learn more about.
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