Last month, I went on an ayahuasca retreat in Mexico, hoping to improve my anxiety, insomnia, and chronic back pain. I expected to vomit my guts out, have vibrant visions, and arrive at life-altering realizations, as many who have consumed the hallucinogenic plant describe. Instead, I sat through two ceremonies drinking a quarter of a cup, feeling nothing, and proceeding to doze off on my mat. When the group talked about our nights, I discovered my experience was not unique Of the 26 people in the group, three others saw “no effect,” as they call it.
The source of ayahuasca’s most common effects—hallucinations, intense emotions, vomiting, and diarrhea—are twofold, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. The Banisteriopsis coapi plant it comes from produces the hallucinogen DMT, as well as alkaloids that block the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). With MAO blocked, the DMT can’t be digested, so gets into the bloodstream and travels up to the brain. There, it interferes with the serotonin type-2 receptor system, which is responsible for ayahuasca’s emotional and psychedelic effects.
But if you haven’t used ayahuasca before, the MAO in your GI tract may not get completely blocked at first, and some of the DMT might be broken down by your digestive system instead of going to your brain, Giordano says. Your serotonin type 2 receptors might also become more sensitive to DMT over time. This means that first-time users are less likely to have an effect, Giordano explains. It also means that rather than taking more or stronger ayahuasca the next time, which can lead to serotonin syndrome, people should give their bodies a chance to adjust.
Shaman Phillia Kim Downs has been consulting with people about their ayahuasca experiences for six years and participated in 44 ceremonies. She agrees that first-timers are less likely to see an effect, which is why she recommends trying it at least twice. “But I've also had really quiet nights where I'm about to fall asleep during ceremonies that might have been my 20th or 30th time,” she adds. “It’s completely unpredictable.”
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There are a few other factors that might have an influence, though. Using certain psychiatric medications or recreational drugs—including alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine—in the days preceding the ceremony can dull ayahuasca’s effects (and, in some cases, be dangerous), Giordano says. Some foods, like citrus and fatty foods, might also have a slight impact—which is likely what shamans picked up on when they created the “dieta,” a sugar-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free diet prescribed before ayahuasca ceremonies.
And sometimes, the plant itself is the cause. Younger plants have less DMT, and some preparations have lower concentrations of the plant, Giordano tells me. Other than that, genetic differences in how the body breaks down chemicals also contribute to differing ayahuasca experiences.
Your mental state at the start of the ceremony may play a role as well, not only in the intensity of the experience but also in how pleasant it is, Giordano says. In Downs' experience, internal chatter can block the effects, so meditation can help bring them on, though it’s not always within your control.
However, Giordano and Downs both dispute the notion that someone can truly have “no effect.” More likely is that they’re actually experiencing a slight or delayed effect. That’s how it was for me. The morning after my first ceremony, I woke up and immediately started bawling. I figured I was just upset about going all the way there and not feeling the ayahuasca, but another participant pointed out that my feelings were disproportionate to the situation. I took advantage of my emotional rawness and had a good cry, working through childhood issues that this feeling of deprivation brought up. And the morning after the second ceremony, I felt a calmness I seldom feel. I was suddenly at peace with decisions I’d been agonizing over. That rare sense of inner peace has graced me several times over the month since the retreat.
If you continue the soul-searching, you can benefit from ayahuasca even further down the line, Downs says. “Even if you aren't experiencing all the 'fun' effects that you've read or heard about, it will give you what you need. The real actual work comes after the ceremony,” she says. “I think a good timeline is to see what events have transpired in your life three, six, nine, and 12 months after your ceremonies. Some ‘previews' from the visions I see during ceremony, I'll observe that even a year later or two years later, I'll experience what it showed me or how it made me feel.”
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