Ayahuasca vs DMT: One is an ancient psychedelic brew that makes you vomit before subjecting you to hours of psychedelic introspection. The other is a chemical found in nature that when smoked, can catapult you into a totally different reality; but only for a few minutes. Both drugs have very different effects, but are actually very similar. So what do we know about these sister psychedelics, ayahuasca and DMT?
AYAHUASCA AND DMT
Ayahuasca has been made by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years in South America. It’s made from several different types of plant, and the ingredients vary from place to place. The brewing process is also variable, with some recipes involving many complex steps lasting several days. The brew is drunk traditionally in healing ceremonies, overseen by a shaman, allowing people to connect with a greater power – the name ‘ayahuasca’ means ‘vine of the dead’, and healing ceremonies often revolve around connecting with primeval forces and ancestors.
Drinking ayahuasca results in a ‘purge’, involving vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. Many believe that this purge is a crucial part of the ayahuasca experience, and must be endured in order to gain the most meaning from the trip. After the purge, a user will find themselves gradually moving to a different reality, with various shifts in perception. They may see figures or deities, revisit past memories, and be shown (quite dramatically) their own inner demons and vices. The experience can last several hours, before perception returns to normal.
Ayahuasca has recently become popular in the modern world. A large number of ayahuasca retreats have appeared in Brazil and Peru, aimed at attracting otherwise uninitiated Westerners to the healing power of the ayahuasca ceremony. A huge array of anecdotal (and scientific) reports suggest that the ayahuasca experience can be used to treat addiction, depression, PTSD and OCD, and can provide people with a therapeutic introspection that can provide a fresh perspective on life. See our Ultimate Guide for more details.
These days, you don’t even have to travel to the Amazon to experience ayahuasca. Two churches in the US can now legally provide ayahuasca to their followers in their ceremonies (the UDV and Santo Daime), and people have even started making their own ayahuasca brews at home.
Check out our guide for brewing ayahuasca at home.
Read about the legality of ayahuasca.
The traditional ayahuasca brew is made from two plants: B. caapi and P. viridis. The B. caapi vine contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, that cause you to feel sick when you drink ayahuasca. The main job of the MAOIs in ayahuasca is to stop your stomach from breaking down the active ingredient in the P. viridis leaf; dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. When you drink ayahuasca, the MAOIs prevent DMT being broken down in your stomach, allowing it to be absorbed into your body. It’s the DMT in ayahuasca that makes you trip.
DMT is a simple molecule that is found in hundreds of species of plant, and is also thought to be produced in tiny amounts in the brains of mammals – although this is still hotly disputed. Many believe that endogenous DMT (DMT produced naturally in the body) might be involved in spiritual or out-of-body experiences.
DMT works by mimicking the neurotransmitter serotonin. In the brain, DMT activates serotonin receptors, which are mostly found in areas of the brain that are involved in higher cognitive processes such as self-awareness, introspection and emotion.
DMT can be ingested on its own, without being part of an ayahuasca brew, but the effects are very different. When smoked, DMT instantly sends the user into an intense psychedelic trip. DMT can also be injected intravenously, although this is less common. Users often report the feeling of being violently catapulted into space, and seeing intense visions of magnificent otherworldly beings, beautiful patterns, and bizarre landscapes. The experience only lasts a few minutes, before the user rapidly returns to reality.
WHY DOES AYAHUASCA LAST SO MUCH LONGER THAN SMOKED DMT?
If ayahuasca contains DMT, why does the ayahuasca experience last so much longer than smoking DMT?
We believe the answer is due to the means of ingestion. When you drink an ayahuasca brew, all the DMT is absorbed through your stomach lining. This is a slower form of DMT ingestion, so the DMT molecules won’t reach your brain as quickly, and won’t all be absorbed through your stomach at the same time. When you smoke DMT, the molecules are absorbed straight into your bloodstream through your lungs, meaning all the DMT hits your brain at once, very quickly. This is why, despite DMT being present in ayahuasca, the experiences can be very different.
“DMT can be ingested on its own, without being part of an ayahuasca brew, but the effects are very different. When smoked, DMT instantly sends the user into an intense psychedelic trip.”
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER INGREDIENTS OF AYAHUASCA?
As mentioned above, ayahuasca also contains MAOIs, and sometimes a variety of other plants depending on the region in which it’s made.
Although the main role of the MAOIs in ayahuasca is to allow you to absorb DMT, they have also been implicated in psychedelic effects themselves. It’s also the MAOIs that are responsible for the ‘purge’ at the beginning of the ayahuasca experience.
One study suggests that one of the MAOIs in ayahuasca can stimulate the growth of new brain cells in the lab – meaning it’s possible that the substance stimulates the formation of new connections in the brain.
It’s most likely, however, that the moderate psychedelic effects of the MAOIs in ayahuasca are overwhelmed by the intense effects of the DMT.
If you take ayahuasca, it’s important to remember that MAOIs can be very toxic when combined with certain other drugs or foods. Here is a complete list of the substances and foods that should be avoided when you take ayahuasca.
CAN AYAHUASCA AND DMT BE USED THERAPEUTICALLY?
Several scientific studies have been carried out on the therapeutic effects of ayahuasca. This review highlights some of the recent scientific findings concerning ayahuasca, and its ability to treat depression, addiction and forms of anxiety. There are also numerous anecdotal reports about people using ayahuasca to treat PTSD, OCD and other mental health issues – we present some of these anecdotes at the end of this article.
There have not been any studies on DMT being used as a therapeutic drug. It seems quite likely that the reason ayahuasca is so therapeutic is because it sends users on an extended, introspective journey through their own consciousness. There is evidence to back this up; one study has directly linked the ‘mindfulness’ aspect of the ayahuasca trip with its therapeutic benefit, and another study suggests that maximum therapeutic value can be obtained from highly spiritual trips. It’s possible that, because the DMT experience is over so quickly, it doesn’t give the user a chance to address the problems in their lives. We wouldn’t be surprised, however, if even the brief (and intense) experiences with DMT can change people’s cognition in the long term.
REPORTS OF THE AYAHUASCA EXPERIENCE
There are a huge number of ayahuasca anecdotes out there, and growing online communities dedicated to the psychedelic brew. Almost all of the experiences are positive; although many discuss the unpleasant and traumatic trials required to experience the benefits of ayahuasca. Here are some of our favourites:
“We managed to find both plants and brewed them for 12 hours until we were left with a thick, almost syrupy tea. […] I threw up into the bucket, and the air seemed to be filled with golden strands of light, like a cobweb trying to entice me in. I threw up again, red fractals into the bucket. […] I was just myself, my pure self like a little core of light I gave up, I was all hers. She had destroyed me, wiped me clean and turned me into a blank page. No memories, no concept of self except that little burning light. True ego death. […] She [ayahuasca] told me what I was made for. My reason for being here, my purpose in life. She told me what my place was in the universe and the answer was so obvious I was astounded. […] Satisfied that I had finally listened she slowly left me and I came out of the dark space of the other side of the universe back into this one. Sitting on the floor, covered in spit and bile and tears and vomit. But clean.” – Full experience
“It’s true what they say about how truly nothing will prepare you for your experience and if you’re committed, prepare to enjoy the ride. Ayahuasca has turned me into a vulnerable, sensitive, raw and exposed sham. Ayahuasca is also responsible for allowing me to recognize profound beauty, truth, and happiness when I come to notice it.”
“I battled with quite a few demons inside for what seemed like hours, then when I felt like I had nothing left to give the happiness began to return. Following the ceremony I tossed and turned for a bit then went into a deep/refreshing sleep for a few hours.
My real breakthrough came the next day though, during integration therapy. When I was discussing my experience and emotions I arrived on a realization of my true source of anxiety and once I encountered this it felt like the weight of a million worlds was lifted from me, really the most incredible thing I’ve ever felt. It was sincerely like 100 hours of therapy lived in one moment.”
REPORTS OF THE DMT EXPERIENCE
Since powdered DMT is harder to come across than an ayahuasca brew these days, there aren’t quite as many user reports out there. Hopefully by reading these reports that we’ve gathered, you’ll have a better idea of how DMT compares to ayahuasca as a psychedelic experience:
“DMT literally sent me to the 8th dimension. I thought I glitched out of reality and that this exact moment had happened hundreds of times before. I was returning to a zone where I could see every version of myself smoking DMT in my past lives while seeing my surroundings corrupt into a very complex hyper-realistic reality […] Then shit got crazy and I got obliterated from the universe. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to smoke DMT because it glitches reality and destroyed my illusion of it, thus there was no purpose for reality to exist any longer now that I knew what true reality was like. I got sent back to the “source” waiting to be reborn while the 3D universe was absorbed into all fractal dimensions […] I was now officially at Point (0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0) in the 8th dimension, the center of literally everything, while I waited for the universe to rebuild itself again. Then the trip ended with me staring at my washing machine.”
“My face went numb. My hands and feet tingled and pulsed as the blood run through them. I could feel every cell in my body. I was whole and one, but separate. All of a sudden I felt a wind on my face. I was rushing past something, like a tunnel of light. Pure white light, but through it was a rainbow of impossible colors that flashed and spun. I saw every letter, number, symbol and hieroglyph created by man. I saw how language ties together our human perspective, and how reality can be shifted using thoughts and ideas created through the gift of language. I saw every pattern, mandala, mathematics, fractals, I saw the essence and geometry that holds life together. Calculations deeper and more profound than the Fibonacci sequence or the flower of life.
I remember my life and all my mistakes and shortcomings. I’m shown my entire life from start to finish in the blink of an eye. And then boom. It all goes. And I’m back in the present. Staring at my curtains, slightly waving still from the hallucinogens.”
“Right after I exhaled […] it was as if I went from sitting in my bed getting launched into a completely different universe at 1000 miles per hour. While this was happening I was looking at my friend and I saw an infinite amount of multicolored points on his face which suddenly created rainbow trails as I was launched into this new, strange universe. It felt as if I’d been to this universe countless times before and I had an overwhelming feeling that I belonged here – that all living things belonged here.
Feeling the strangest combination of peace and amazement I closed my eyes for the first time. I had thought the real world was beautiful, but it was nothing compared to this. […] After flying through this astounding universe I came upon a figure. It was definitely a woman, she was absolutely beautiful with rainbow fractals all over her body. She said nothing but stared at me almost as if she was waiting for me to say something. Nothing came to my mind. She seemed so powerful and so peaceful. I knew I could ask anything, but everything that was important to my human self suddenly ceased to matter. I didn’t want to trouble such a beautiful deity with what seemed to me now to be so trivial. So we just looked at each other until I opened my eyes again.”