Introduction to Ayahuasca and San Pedro – Healing Plants of the Amazon and the Andes


Ayahuasca vine and San Pedro cactus. (Image credits: Xewer Madar, & Forest and Kim Starr).

Ayahuasca vine and San Pedro cactus. (Image credits: Xewer Madar, & Forest and Kim Starr).

In recent years there has been ever growing media attention for what was once a little known traditional medicinal plant of the Amazonic jungle, scientific designation Banisteriopsis Caapi, but best known as Ayahuasca. We see the mass media channels announcing that numerous celebrities from film and popular music are seeking out this plant, alongside an ever growing numbers of regular more anonymous people. The reasons for this searching are varied but tend to fall into two main categories, a desire to be healed or a desire to gain spiritual visions.

For those that have somehow missed this major coverage it is worth just quickly explaining that Ayahuasca is a vine considered by many indigenous tribes as being the vessel for the great mother spirit of all plants. Some would go further and say it is the physical vessel of Mother Nature herself. It is given the somewhat intimidating pet name ‘Vine of Souls’ and holds more than a passing resemblance to the twisted strands of DNA.

There is a debate in shamanic and psychonautic (psychonaughts are people experimenting with psychedelic plants) circles as to what is the core active component of this plant. Those with a more traditional view firmly hold to the claim the spirit of the plant is communicating with the one that imbibes the brew made from its boiled material. Others with a more modern perspective believe it is the chemistry which is important.

Most notable for those interested in the chemistry are the high levels of the alkaloids Harmaline and Harmine. These compounds are posited to have some psychedelic effects but perhaps most important is their activity as MAOi’s (Monoamine Oxidase inhibitors), which we will get to shortly. Imbibing these two compounds stimulates the functioning of the central nervous system and slows the breakdown of neurotransmitters, which potentially has benefits for anxiety and depression.

Though the vine is considered to be the true ‘Ayahuasca’ most brews also contain a second plant, usually Chakruna, a leafy shrub rich in the strongly psychedelic compound Dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT. This compound is a monoamine, just as many neurotransmitters are, and it is only absorbed into our system through oral use if combined with a MAOi. This is where the importance of the Harmaline and Harmine in the vine component come into effect. There is actually now strong evidence from experiments in rats that actually DMT is itself a neurotransmitter produced inside the brains of many animals and indeed potentially also humans.

The final brew produced by boiling these plants together is renowned for two properties, incredible mystical visionary experiences and the near miraculous healing of multiple ailments. Interestingly a great many of those that have taken the brew claim to have encountered a feminine entity, sometimes she appears as a humanoid women whilst other times she appears as a serpent or a jaguar, the common theme is the sense of a powerful female spiritual presence. Some of the Ayahuasca ‘journeys’ are very testing, but the greater number of those that brave the experience claim immense benefits of one type or another. Drug addiction is especially well treated by this remedy with a reported 70% success rate in curing self-destructive drug habits.

Ayahuasca is the queen of the jungle, the grandmother spirit of nature. Her home is the vast emerald green of the Amazon rain forests. But, if there is a powerful female entity emerging from the natural world, seen as a grandmother of nature, surely then there should be a male entity, some kind of grandfather spirit?

Meet Mescalito, alias Huachuma and increasingly becoming known to the world as San Pedro. To encounter San Pedro in his home terrain you need to travel up out of the hot, humid, densely vegetated jungles, up into the towering landscapes of the Andes mountain range. San Pedro is no vine or leafy shrub, but a very imposing dark green cactus, sometimes growing up to 12 metres in height.

The scientific name for this cactus is Echinopsis pachanoi, but the Spanish name for it, San Pedro, says much more about it than the Latin. San Pedro is the Spanish name for the biblical Saint Peter, he who holds the keys to heaven. It is believed by those that use the plant for healing purposes that it can allow one a glimpse of the heavenly realms and the knowledge contained there, of course Saint Peter also had the role of throwing people down to hell when required of him!

Exactly when the first San Pedro cactus was cut down and consumed by a human being we really do not know, there is strong physical evidence that suggests ritual use of the plant was developing as early as 4000 years ago. At two ancient ceremonial centres in Peru, Las Aldas and Chavin de Huantur, it was seemingly a key component of ceremonies for the Chavin culture, at least their carvings of the plant and remains of San Pedro cigars certainly suggest this to be the case.

Being holding a San Pedro cactus engraved on wall at Chavin ceremonial site. (Image credit: Wiki Commons).

Being holding a San Pedro cactus engraved on wall at Chavin ceremonial site. (Image credit: Wiki Commons).

Right up until the present day this cactus has been used for a number of ceremonial and healing purposes. As with the Ayahuasca vine the cactus is not only eaten for its healing benefits but can be used as an ingredient in cleansing herbal baths or even be used in ceremonial or magical rituals that do not involve processing it at all.

The spirit of the San Pedro is stated to be very much a masculine energy, a healing grandfather, powerful and at times stern. As a cactus there are strong solar associations, after all cactus are without doubt plants of the baking hot sun, this also resonates with the common theme in mystical traditions that the sun is the male consort of a feminine moon. Whilst Ayahuasca is almost always traditionally taken at night, giving it a lunar association, the San Pedro traditions are somewhat more divided with many healers suggesting it should be used in daytime settings, others point to the fact that the cactus blooms at night (huge white flowers) as evidence it should be considered a plant of the nocturnal realms.

When it comes to chemistry the compound mixture within the green flesh is complex and interesting. The key alkaloid is without doubt Mescaline, a relatively well studied compound known to have potential benefits for alcoholics and those suffering from depression, a psychedelic and entheogenic substance of great potency. Though this is seen as the key chemical involved there are at least the alkaloids identified thus far, with 3,4-Dimethoxyphenethylamine being noted as an analogue of the key neurotransmitter dopamine and also Tyramine a compound that some suspect may also function as a neurotransmitter.

Research has shown that preparations of the cactus may have numerous beneficial effects including for ailments of the circulatory system, high blood pressure or reducing the risk of cardiac disease. The plant has also been found to treat nervous conditions and alleviate joint problems and can assist in treating wounds. This plant possesses powerful antimicrobial properties, preventing the growth of more than a dozen strains of penicillin-resistant bacteria especially multiple strains of Staphylococcus.

Due to the legality of the alkaloids contained in these plants, modern medical research has been severely hampered, what we do know for sure is that both have comprehensible medical benefits. That all said the healings happening thanks to these plants go well beyond what would be expected based on the current scientific understanding of their chemistry. As more research is carried out in the future, which looks set to become possible as the war on drugs grinds to a gradual halt, no doubt the understanding of western medicine will begin to approach the understanding already held by the many healers, best known as curanderos, of South America. For some of us though, there is an understanding that more than just chemistry is involved in the powerful healings which result from drinking Ayahuasca or San Pedro.


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