Renowned ethnopharmacologist, Dr. Dennis McKenna, discusses the origins and the pharmacology behind the powerful South American hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca.
He says that the pharmacology of the brew, and how it works, are well understood, but that Western scientists are baffled by the question of how the indigenous shamans, or curanderos, discovered the precise method for creating the decoction–where are the roots in history of ayahuasca origins?
Western science has been able to break down the ayahuasca brew into its primary ingredients, and to learn the exact pharmacological action of those components.
Ayahuasca tea is made by a strong water-extraction process which brews together at least two plants, Psychotria viridis (chacruna) and the huge Amazonian Liaana vine, Banisteriopsis caapi. The hallucinogenic effect of ayahuasca is caused by the hallucinogen dimethyltriptomine (DMT), concentrated in the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant. Simply brewing a tea from the leaves of Psychotria viridis, though, would not provide an hallucinogenic decoction, as explained by Dr. McKenna:
“Dimethyltriptomine is a powerful hallucinogen, but it’s not orally active…because there is an enzyme (monoamine oxidase) in the gut that deactivates it. So the other component of the brew… the bark of Banisteropsis caapi, contains a class of alkaloids; a class of compounds called beta-carbolines, that happen to be very strong monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). So by combining these two, you protect the DMT from degradation in the gut; you allow it to be absorbed and cross the blood-brain barrier in an active form.”
With the chemical laboratories and high-tech tools available to Western medicine and science, it was simple to discover the hallucinogenic compound in Psychotria viridis, the action of the body’s monoamine oxidase that prevents the DMT from crossing the blood-brain barrier, and the monoamine oxidase inhibiting effect of the beta-carboline compounds in the Liana vine.
But indigenous shamans, of course, do not have access to such scientific tools or materials.
Dr. McKenna points this out and poses the question of how the curanderos figured out the precise mixture of different parts of different plants that would allow users to experience the hallucinogenic effect of the drug.
“How they made this discovery – take plant A and plant B and combine them – that’s where the mystery lies… Because, of the 80,000 or so plant species in the Amazon, how would the shamans figure out that if you combine just this one with just that one you would come up with this powerful hallucinogen out of all the ones they might have selected? Neither one…is something that one would be motivated to consume. They don’t look good to eat, and they’re NOT good to eat, and yet they figured this out.”
Ethnobotanists the world over have speculated endlessly on this question, but none have been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for the shamans’ knowledge of the different effects of the plants they use in their medicines.
Dr. McKenna recounts the answer received from the curanderos themselves when asked how they knew how to create the ayahuasca brew.
They simply say, “well, the plants told us how to do this.”
McKenna says he is inclined to take the shamans at their word.
In the video below you can see the whole interview with Dr. Dennis McKenna as he discusses the mystery behind the origins of ayahuasca:
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