Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Many people have heard about the psychedelic brew called Ayahuasca. Its growing popularity as a treatment for depression and PTSD has made it a household name. Most times when you hear about Ayahuasca you hear that it is a mixture of two plants and that the secret to Ayahuasca is that one of the plants has an MAOI (Monoamine oxidase inhibitor) which allows the DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) in the other plant to be orally active . DMT is often seen by westerners to be the main active ingredient, and sometimes just view Ayahuasca as "orally active DMT." It is even often said that neither of these plants is active on its own....
But a lot of that is misleading.
Ayahuasca is the name of the medicinal/entheogenic tea, but is also the name of the vine used in this tea (banisteriopsis caapi). This vine contains harmine, harmaline and tetrohydroharmine - all of which are beta-carbolines and MAOI's (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors - it inhibits the Manoamine Oxidase enzyme in the stomach among other functions). The tea is named after this vine for a reason - it is the only necessary ingredient in Ayahuasca besides water.
Like I mentioned before, many westerners think of the DMT as the main active ingredient (DMT is traditionally added from either chacruna or chagroponga). But there is no DMT in the Ayahuasca vine. DMT has to be added to the tea as an admixture plant. Because of misinformation many people think that you need both plants in the tea for the tea to have any effect, but this is actually not true. The vine is medicinal and visionary on its own without any admixtures .
Many people get challenged by this idea because it is so drilled in their heads that DMT is necessary for the tea to work.... I think this idea originally comes from the McKenna brothers actually (Dennis McKenna has since aknowledged that beta-carbolines on their own have a psychoactive and medicinal effect) - this myth that the indigenous people of the Amazon had to figure out which plants were combined to make this magical effect possible, and how impossible that would be since neither plant is visionary on its own. But the situation seems less impossible when you realize that the vine is visionary and medicinal on its own, and that they could then test that vine with all kinds of other plants to figure out which ones potentiated the vine. The story I have heard from some of the tribes is that drinking tobacco juice gave them visions which taught them how to prepare Ayahuasca brews, but of course this can only be verified as a oral history.
In indigenous practice the main role of Ayahuasca is to teach you about other plants and open up the medicine of all other plants to us. Because of this some tribes have hundreds of different admixtures - while some of them are used to change the effects of Ayahuasca, many are just added when the shaman wants to learn that plants purpose or medicine. By adding a bit of a plant to Ayahuasca, Ayahuasca will teach you about that plant. Using this method it is easy to imagine how they started adding the DMT admixtures to Ayahuasca.
Even though the vine is visionary on its own, its effects are much less subtle then when you add DMT containing admixtures. The most common form the tea takes in its modern usage is certainly with DMT containing admixtures - the DMT does add a lot to the experience. Not only does it make the tea more visual, brighter and easier to see, and more powerful in effect, it also adds its own helping spirit (since all plants have their own spirit - especially master plants like chacruna or chagroponga).
Some people do prefer the vine on its own more then with admixtures though. Some tribes only drink Ayahuasca with the vine only and never add admixtures, and some tribes drink it both ways depending on their intention . Some people I know switched to drinking vine only because they preferred it to the admixture brew and the famous explorer Richard Evan Schultes even claimed to prefer vine only brews . (if you don't know who Richard Evan Schultes is, he is one of the only reasons westerners know about Ayahuasca and he drank the brew with numerous Amazonian tribes in the 1940's) One common reason seems to be that they found the visions distracting or overly intense with DMT, and vine only brews allowed them to drink more caapi without being overwhelmed. They could focus more easily on the insights they received when they weren't distracted by visions (while visions can be helpful for gaining insights, some people gain insights other ways - through thoughts or emotions ect).
When scientists first started experimenting with harmala they actually named it telepathine because of its "telepathic" abilities . Somehow this gets overlooked when people claim DMT is necessary for Ayahuasca to be active.
So if Ayahuasca can be powerful and healing and visionary on its own without any DMT in the tea, we see that Ayahuasca is not just "orally active DMT" but is its own medicine which can be made more powerful with DMT if you choose. The DMT is not what makes Ayahuasca though.
One of the most exciting parts of this realization to me is that if DMT is not necessary for Ayahuasca, then in many countries you can make legal Ayahuasca! In USA for example, only DMT and DMT containing plants are illegal - the Ayahuasca plant and its alkaloids are not scheduled substances. So anyone who wants to can make 100% legal Ayahuasca or even host ceremonies if they had enough experience using vine-only brews. I know a few people who do this, but I think it is often overlooked by many people (some websites have even started selling vine-only Ayahuasca tinctures for microdosing as a natura anti-depressant).
So hopefully this clears up some common misinformation about Ayahuasca. It is not just orally active DMT (its effects are totally different from smoked/vaped DMT actually). The admixtures like chancruna and chagroponga are great, but they are not necessary for Ayahuasca. Maybe you will even feel called to make your own vine-only brew and see how it compares - while many people like the more vivid DMT containing brews I do know a number of people who prefer the more gentle vine only brews. Vine only tea can also be great for beginners, sensitive types, people trying to heal mental illness which DMT might aggravate, those who want legal medicine, or for people microdosing. It has a few special advantages in certain situations.
For those wanting to read more about the origins of Ayahuasca and how its use might have developed I suggest checking out this article: http://www.singingtotheplants.com/2012/04/on-origins-of-ayahuasca/
1 - MacRae, Edward (March 23, 1999). "The Ritual and Religious Use of Ayahuasca in Contemporary Brazil" (PDF). Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved 2017-08-14.
2 - "Overviews Shamanism – On the Origin of Ayahuasca". Ayahuasca.com. 2008. Retrieved 2013-04-27.
3 - Callaway JC, McKenna DJ, Grob CS, Brito GS, Raymon LP, Poland RE, Andrade EN, Andrade EO (1999). "Pharmacokinetics of Hoasca alkaloids in healthy humans". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 65 (3): 243–256. doi:10.1016/S0378-8741(98)00168-8. PMID 10404423.
4 - Matteo Politi PhD, Kahpi the Ayahuasca Hub, March 31 2020, https://kahpi.net/ayahuasca-vine-only-without-dmt-banisteriopsis-caapi/
5 - Davis, Wade. One River. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
6 - Djamshidian, Atbin; Bernschneider-Reif, Sabine; Poewe, Werner; Lees, Andrew J. (January 2016). "Banisteriopsis caapi, a Forgotten Potential Therapy for Parkinson's Disease?". Movement Disorders Clinical Practice. 3 (1): 19–26. doi:10.1002/mdc3.12242. ISSN 2330-1619. PMC 6353393. PMID 30713897.