Helle Kaasik
Ayahuasca researcher

Chemical composition of “Ayahuasca”

Ayahuasca is a complex natural remedy, its chemical composition varies a lot. Chemical analyses of 102 samples of concoctions ceremonially used in different locations and traditions showed that some psychedelic brews offered to participants at ceremonies as ayahuasca do not deserve this name as they contain no significant amounts of bioactive principles of Banisteriopsis caapi, the plant defining ayahuasca. Analyses indicated use of known “analogue plants” Mimosa tenuiflora and Peganum harmala and even non-plant substituents such as moclobemide and psilocin. Among samples of “genuine” ayahuasca (i.e. containing B. caapi alkaloids in concentrations effective at usual ceremonial dosage), interesting patterns emerged in relation to the traditions where the samples came from. Different traditional Amazonian indigenous brews showed a strong linear relationship between concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and tetrahydroharmine (THH), forming a well-ordered line in the scatterplot of ratios of concentrations of THH and DMT to the concentration of harmine.

Samples from Santo Daime religion followed this line with considerable scattering to both sides of it, but preferentially towards increased concentration of DMT. In Santo Daime tradition the sacrament is made of only two plants, B. caapi and Psychotria viridis. Different types or “degrees” of Daime are achieved by variations in the elaborate procedure of preparation of the sacrament. “Neoshamanic facilitators” (an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of practitioners of different origins and educations who have developed their own style of work combining different traditions with learning from experience) provided a scattered cloud of samples with a notable flock of “wanderers” even further towards increased concentrations of DMT.

This tendency may reflect use of M. tenuiflora as a source of DMT. Results of the work give good reasons to encourage requesting and providing true information about constituents of ceremonially used concoctions. Reasonable evidence-based legal regulation of ayahuasca use could create favorable conditions for open information sharing and ethical self-regulation among ayahuasca practitioners, leading to improved safety and ethics of ayahuasca use. Chemical analyses for this work were conducted at the Institute of Chemistry of University of Campinas (UNICAMP), SP, Brazil in collaboration with the workgroup of Prof. Alessandra Sussulini and Prof. Luis Fernando Tófoli from School of Medical Sciences of UNICAMP. Travel of HK was supported by the European Regional Development Fund Foundation (projects Dora Plus and University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA) and CWT Estonia (Kaleva Travel) via University of Tartu Foundation.

Helle Kaasik has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and a M.A. in psychology from University of Tartu, Estonia. Her main areas of interest are psychology and spirituality of ayahuasca users and chemical composition of ayahuasca. She is studying ayahuasca use at School of Theology and Religious Studies of University of Tartu, Estonia. She is a nerd overly enthusiastic about her research topic, a forest-inclined Estonian and a member of Santo Daime.