Ayahuasca : Uses, Phytochemical and Biological Activities, Edgar Antonio Estrella‑Parra et al., 2019

Ayahuasca : Uses, Phytochemical and Biological Activities

Edgar Antonio Estrella‑Parra · Julio Cesar Almanza‑Pérez · Francisco Javier Alarcón‑Aguilar

Natural Products and Bioprospecting, 2019, 9, 251–265

doi : 10.1007/s13659-019-0210-5



Ayahuasca (caapi, yajé), is a psychoactive brew from the Amazon Basin region of South America traditionally considered a “master plant.” It is prepared as a decoction from Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, which it is thought that it stimulates creative thinking and visual creativity. Native healers of the Orinoco and Amazon basins have used traditionally ayahuasca as a healing tool for multiple purposes, particularly to treat psychological disorders in the patients, with some beneficial effects experimentally and clinically validated. Recently, several syncretic religions, as the “União de Vegetal” (UDV) group in Brazil, have been spread around the world. The use of ayahuasca has been popularized by internet and smart-shops, bringing the psychoactive substance to new highs, emerging new “ayahuasqueros.” Ayahuasca has alkaloids as β-carbolines and dimethyltryptamines, which inhibit the monoamine oxidase and active the 5-HT2A (5-hydroxytryptamine) receptor, respectively, resulting in hallucinations in the users. Ayahuasca induces a psychedelic change in the anteroposterior coupling of the electrophysiological brain oscillations in humans. Traditional ayahuasca beverage is generating pharmacological, commercial and spiritual interest among the scientific community, government people, and different populations worldwide. The goal of this article is to report about the uses, chemistry and biological activities of ayahuasca.

Keywords : Ayahuasca · Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis, dimethyltryptamine, β-carbolines, Psychotherapy


1 Introduction

In the occidental world, the hallucinogens are psychoactive substances capable of inducing shifts in perception and feeling without a concomitant lapse of memory or loss of consciousness [1, 2]. Many compounds in plants and mushrooms as mescaline, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) (1), psilocybin, and lysergic acid produce these phenomenological effects [3]. The use of these hallucinogen plants and mushrooms in many communities of South America is a common practice. However, shaman Juan Mutumbajoy Jacanamijoy from Putumayo, Colombia, suggests these resources should be recognized as visualizers better than as hallucinogens (personal communication). According to his point of view, visualizer is a term that must be used to avoid the discrimination of the indigenous communities that use it, instead of the hallucinogen term.

The psychoactive substances have puzzled and fascinated humankind since its earliest days [4, 5]. Prue [6] mentioned two components as the cause of sickness (physiological and spiritual) and suggested that the therapy should include pharmaceutical and spiritual remedies [6]. Ayahuasca is a Quechua term that refers to a psychoactive preparation from the Amazon Basin region of South America, where it is considered one “master plant. In Colombia it is also called “caapi” or “yajé,” in Ecuador “Nate,” and Brazil “hoasca.”

The etymology of the ayahuasca word in Quechua language coming of “aya” that meaning spirit (world of death, the other world) and “huasca” liana or vine (means rope), that in English may be traduced as “vine of the soul” [7].

Ayahuasca beverage is prepared basically from the bark of the lianas Banisteriopsis caapi (Malpighiaceae) (Fig. 1) or B. inebrians with additives from some other species [8], mainly Psychotria viridis (Rubiaceae), popularly called chacruna, which has been used for many purposes by natives [8]. In the majority of the syncretic churches, ayahuasca beverage traditionally is prepared as follow: fragments (bark) of B. caapi are recollected and washed in water, pounded with a wooden mallet and carefully placed in a cauldron, alternating with washed leaves of P. viridis.

Then water is added until the plant material is covered and the mixture is boiled and concentrated over at least 8 h to produce several liters. The resulting extract is basically dark. In the majority of the performed experimental and clinical studies is used a similar process of ayahuasca preparation, obtaining a decoction for oral administration (120 to 125 mL/patient) during rituals, according to the traditional practices of each region [9].

Ayahuasca reasonably used, it can be considered as a potent curative tool with beneficial effects validated. For instance, in several Latin American countries, like Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, ayahuasca has been used to treatment of addictions; however, its use also can entail risks [10]. The popularity of ayahuasca currently has impacted in a significant number of scientific publications in several areas, as sociological, psychological, psychiatric, neurologic, pharmacological, toxicological, and religious inclusive [11, 12]. The purpose of this review is to describe the uses, chemistry and pharmacological relevance of ayahuasca beverage.