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"Ayahuasca" refers to a diverse complex of South American entheogenic brews, but classically comprises a source of DMT made orally active by the addition of a plant containing harmala alkaloids for monoamine oxidase inhibition.
In its classic form, Ayahuasca represents a sophisticated pharamcological technology, discovered by indigenous South American peoples many years ago. DMT is found in a huge variety of plant species (Psychotria viridis prominent among them in modern native ayahuasca brews), but is not normally active when taken orally, as it is broken down in the stomatch by the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). Ayahuasca brews circumvent this by inhibiting the enzyme by use of harmala alkaloids found in Banisteriopsis vines and other species.
It seems likely that this combination of inebriants evolved over many years, beginning with the harmala alkaloids, which are potently psychoactive in their own right.
Modern experimentation has discovered a variety of other plants that serve in place of sometimes rare or endangered tropical species. Best known and most reliable among these is syrian rue (Peganum harmala) as a source of harmala alkaloids.
The term "Ayahuasca" originally was specific to Banisteriopsis caapi, but has since evolved to cover a vast array of ayahuasca analogues. Ayahuasca prepared from pharmaceutical-grade chemicals is commonly known as "Pharmahuasca".
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