Aya deaths happen, but they're rare.

January 14, 2017

A lit review of 28 peer-reviewed studies found aya is generally good for you. Overall, it "increased introspection and positive mood," "improved planning and inhibitory control" and, it said, "long-term aya use was … associated with enhanced mood and cognition." On the downside, aya messes with vision and memory for the four hours after you drink it. 


This new study, which created big headlines, says ayahuasca "presents antidepressant effects in patients with depressive disorder," and that ayahuasca's ingredients make brain cells grow. Speaking with Science Daily and the Daily Mail, an author on this study says that ayahuasca could fight Alzheimer's, because it regrows brain cells.




The Daily Mail had a big story titled "ayahuasca gains foothold in U.S.," which featured a woman who cured her cocaine and cigarette addiction with it. Outside Magazine had a long article titled "Are Psychedelics the New Prozac?" in which the psychedelic is ayahuasca, and the writer delivers this line, "My plan was, like most magazine writers covering ayahuasca, to rubberneck at the barfing and smirk at the cultish spectacle. Until it turned out that the drugs actually worked."


The cool new website Chacruna.net has the top eight ayahuasca animations on the internet. MTV followed up with the people they took to the amazon for ayahuasca for an episode of True Life; they said aya helped their anxiety and depression; one said "Ayahuasca gives you the tools to make the necessary changes in your life," Vice says feminists are drinking ayahuasca and puking out their traumas. Kahpi.net presents itself as the "learning hub for all things ayahuasca." You can now watch the Oscar-nominated ayahuasca movie Embrace of the Serpent free with Amazon Prime.


My colleague at Rooster Magazine went to an underground ayahuasca ceremony at a campground in the Colorado foothills, and found people drinking the tea and then handing out blankets to the homeless afterward.


A writer at the website Highsnobiety who has done ayahuasca 14 times says that "everything you’ve likely heard (about ayahuasca) is a load of rubbish that shouldn’t be believed," that's it's overhyped, and that ayahuasca-lovers are fanatics "trying to sell easy answers to complex problems, with  too few people scrutinizing their hyperbolic claims." He did not mention me personally, thank god. Meanwhile a lifestyle guru made a documentary about it.



In the Journal of Medical Toxicology, researcher Will Hesse, M.D., of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, wrote a paper tallying all the calls to US Poison Control Centers from 2005 to 2015 that mentioned ayahuasca. There were 538.


"While most use is reported to be safe and well tolerated, with possible beneficial effects, serious and life threatening adverse manifestations are possible," Hesse wrote.


The number of calls per year appears to be growing. Thirty-five percent of the callers reported that ayahuasca was giving them hallucinations, which is an interesting thing to report to the poison control center, since hallucinations are kind of the point. Also mentioned: tachycardia (34 percent), agitation (34 percent), hypertension (16 percent), pupil dilation (13 percent) and vomiting (6 percent). (Again, vomiting just means you're doing it right.)


Four cases were reported to have had a cardiac arrest and seven a respiratory arrest. Twelve cases had a seizure. Three fatalities were reported.


I wanted clarification about the three deaths, so I reached out to Dr. Hesse, to find out what, exactly, these people died from. Hesse wrote me back the following:


  1. All of the deaths appeared, to Hesse, to have been caused not by the traditional ayahuasca tea, which is made from plants, but from synthetic hallucinogenic tryptamines, which give you similar effects. "Synthetic dimethyltryptamine is quite dangerous, causing life threatening cardiac arrhythmias and hyperthermia. I have no doubt this is different than that found in botanical use," Hesse wrote me.

  2. "In each case, a history of "substance abuse" was noted without further details." It's highly possible, he wrote, that the deaths occurred through the concomitant use of other drugs. Like, if you were doped up on an opioid or alcohol or some other hard drug while you drank ayahuasca, you could pass out, and if you threw up while passed out — a common ayahuasca effect — you could aspirate.

  3. The deaths seemed to happen alone.


"No one was found dead after using ayahuasca in circumstances that would suggest use with a group during a ceremony," Hesse wrote me, or in the company of another person who even "had a clue."


None of these three deaths made the news or exist in the public record, as far as I know. The only recent death in America from ayahuasca that made the news, as far as I know, happened in late August of this year in Berea, Kentucky, at the AyaQuest church, when a 33-year-old woman named Lindsey Poole died after a ceremony.


The coroner who oversees Berea, Jimmy Cornelison, told me that they don't know why Poole died. Cornelison did an autopsy and didn't find any evidence of heart attack. She didn't fall or suffer any trauma. According to her family, she didn't have any serious medical problems. Cornelison will make the official determination of the cause of death, but it may always remain a mystery.



My buddy Joeri runs ayamundo.com, a website that rates above-ground ayahuasca centers, the way Yelp rates restaurants. It's astonishing how rapidly new ayahuasca centers are being added to the site. Joeri lives in the Netherlands, and he says there are upwards of 30 centers there. (His site lists the 18 most visible.) In America, the site lists two centers, one in Kentucky and one in Florida. The center in Bend, Oregon, has "suspended" its ceremonies. The one in Elbe, Washington, has gone offline, as I reported.




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Ayahuasca is a  jungle vine that allows your brain's natural psychedelic, DMT, to persist and affect you. I first encountered it when Karla took me to visit her family in the Amazon nine years ago. Her tribe, the Shipibo, has used it for hundreds, thousand of years, and her mom drank it for stomachaches as a little girl. So it's either children's Tylenol or uber-LSD, or both. But for unknown reasons, it helps depression, drug addiction and acedia — at least it did for me.

Reilly Capps // reporter
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