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What you should know about ayahuasca, a psychedelic drug

Written by Diane Archer

Casey Schwartz reports for the New York Times that many Americans, including many older adults, are taking ayahuasca, a psychedelic drug, native to the Amazon, that is illegal in the United States. Indeed, ayahuasca, pronounced aa·yuh-waa-skuh, which you take as a drink, has become popular across the globe.

Ayahuasca is not a new drug. People have taken it for many hundreds of years as part of religious traditions in Central and South America. It’s active ingredient is N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT. But, there is little data about its effects on older adults.

Today, people from around the world travel to Peru, Mexico and other faraway places to find ayahuasca. That said, it sounds like a challenging drug, which causes hallucinations and excretions of many types, including vomiting and diarrhea. 

Michael Pollan provides a history of psychedelics and his experiences using them in his bestselling new book, “How To Change Your Mind.” He believes that psychedelics may offer especial value to older adults. “[P]sychedelics seem to be particularly good for … jogging us out of our grooves of habit and allowing us to acquire a fresh perspective on familiar things. And as you get older, you get mired in habits.”

Pollan further believes that ayahuasca allows people to work through their feelings about death. “And with ayahuasca in particular, which can sponsor some pretty dark journeys, people often come back with insights about death.” Others say that ayahuasca helps older adults find their purpose and combat mental angst and depression.

But, ayahuasca also has risks. People with heart problems such as arrhythmia likely should stay clear of it. So should people on SSRI anti-depressants.

If you are considering taking ayahuasca, keep in mind that you should not expect it to bring you joy; it can be extremely painful emotionally as well as physically.

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