The Ayahuasca Afterglow Phenomenon: Exploring Its Significance and Limitations

The afterglow effect is commonly referenced in psychedelic literature. However, limited attention is being paid to several uncontrolled variables.

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Those familiar with the expanding field of psychedelics research have likely encountered a phenomenon known as the afterglow. The afterglow can essentially be understood as a persisting feeling of elevated and invigorated mood, accompanied by liberation from past concerns such as guilt and anxiety.1 An individual’s willingness to enter into close relationships with others may increase during the afterglow, and the efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions are often enhanced. According to the scientist and clinician Walter Pahnke, the afterglow phenomenon lasts for a period of two weeks to a month before gradually subsiding1. Evidence points to the afterglow period as ushering in far-ranging benefits.2 

However, current understandings of what constitutes the afterglow are still far from concise. Psychedelic Science Review contacted Mario de la Fuente Revenga, PharmD, PhD, who has authored papers exploring the afterglow effect. He commented on the current state of understanding of the afterglow phenomenon. “It might be tempting to link it to the potential antidepressant effects of psilocybin, but there is no consensus as to what the after-glow exactly means, its duration, or if it really exists.” He added,

The fact that its existence has not been proven, however, does not preclude formulating interesting questions as to what the aftermath of psychedelics is like at the mental state and physiological levels.

One psychedelic which is often connected with a marked afterglow effect is ayahuasca. A 2020 study found associations between the afterglow from ayahuasca and improved cognitive flexibility and more mindful behavior.3 However, little is outlined in this study about the impact of factors that may contribute to the afterglow such as dosage, ayahuasca preparation, or DMT concentration.

Benefits of the Afterglow

In a study authored by Murphy-Beiner and Soar, survey results demonstrated that the 24-hour period following ayahuasca administration resulted in increased mindfulness, specifically observation, description, acting with awareness, and non-reactivity.3 Tests measuring cognitive flexibility also showed significantly improved results. 

Other research into the benefits of the afterglow has correlated it with improvements in conditions as varied as OCD, substance addiction, and anxiety in terminally ill patients.2,4

Factors That Affect the Ayahuasca Afterglow

The last few years have seen a number of studies and reviews exploring how the afterglow delivers benefits, without always unpacking the critical factors that likely influence the duration or nature of the afterglow experience. 

For example, in their 2020 study, Murphy-Beiner and Soar acknowledge that the ayahuasca use data incorporated in the study was self-reported with no controls. This precludes critical factors such as DMT levels, dosage, preparation, and the presence of other active compounds that may contribute to the afterglow effect. 

A 2020 brain ayahuasca brain imaging study by Sampedro et al. found that “…ayahuasca and potentially other psychedelics induce neural modifications beyond the time frame of the acute inebriation.”4 The study provides the alkaloid concentrations in the ayahuasca preparation ingested by study participants. However, other relevant details concerning the preparation of the brew, the plants used, or the presence of other active compounds were not provided.

Dosage – How Much DMT is in Ayahuasca?

The plant-based brew that comprises ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a fast-acting and potent hallucinogen.5 Similar to the way THC potency affects the experience of cannabis users, DMT potency affects the experience of ayahuasca users and their experience in the days after their trip. DMT represents a key consideration in research exploring the occurrence and effects of the afterglow.

Another critical element of the afterglow experience is dosage. In the Murphy-Beiner and Soar study, the dose of ayahuasca taken by participants was unknown to the researchers and therefore not recorded. While there are obvious legal choices guiding this style of qualitative research,  a lack of information regarding the dose administration renders it impossible to determine if a minimum dosage is required to kick the afterglow effect into action. 

Dr. de la Fuente Revenga emphasized to Psychedelic Science Review that limitations related to dosage are inherent in naturalistic settings, where such details are simply not available. “While it is not an ideal situation, inferring that a sufficient dose of such preparation with known concentrations of alkaloids causes a psychedelic effect and subsequent after-glow –if there’s such a thing– is not a long stretch, though,” he reflects.

Recording the dosage may also help to determine whether biphasic effects occur at certain levels and the optimum dosage based on body weight to experience the range of benefits of afterglow so frequently described. Research into dosage will help to further illuminate understandings of the afterglow effect and perhaps help unveil the mechanisms at work.

Preparation of the Brew

Finally, variations exist in the preparation of the ayahuasca brew itself that may significantly influence the length and strength of the afterglow that persists. There are numerous preparation factors that may have an impact on the brew. For starters, the ratio of Banisteriopsis caapi vine to that of Psychotria viridis could result in extracts with different concentrations of each compound. Psychotria viridis can also sometimes be swapped out for alternative plants containing DMT.6

Another factor influencing the concentration of compounds is the number of “washes” or reductions the plant material undergoes during the brewing process. Washes ultimately increase the strength of the final brew by creating repeated reductions. In ritualistic shamanic ceremonies, the curandero determines the strength of the brew he or she requires, and the brewing process can take days. These elements of subjective decision-making may indirectly influence the afterglow phenomenon.

The Presence of Other Active Compounds

Some researchers assert that there are likely synergistic mechanisms at play in ayahuasca compounds that are not currently understood by present models.7 Much of this theory is based on the fact that ayahuasca contains a number of psychoactive compounds in varying concentrations, including DMT, harmine, harmaline, harmol, harmalol, and tetrahydroharmine. In a 2004 paper, psychedelic researcher Dennis McKenna stated,8

The synergistic interaction of these alkaloids is the basis of the psychotropic action of ayahuasca.

Also, ayahuasca brews containing the datura plant as an alternative to Psychotria viridis also contain the compounds atropine and scopolamine that may cause unexpected side effects.9 The research suggests it is presently unclear whether the pharmacological interactions between these different compounds in ayahuasca act synergistically or additively to cause psychoactive drug effects. It follows that perhaps the synergy, or entourage effect of these compounds, may contribute to the afterglow experienced by users.

Some Final Thoughts

While it is apparent that the afterglow is associated with diverse benefits, current understanding of the mechanisms that influence this phenomenon, and indeed comprehension of the phenomenon itself, remain limited and lacking at present. Studies are required that go beyond self-reported data to create research designs that account for dosage, DMT potency, the presence of other active compounds, and brew preparation. 

Dr. de la Fuente Revenga also pointed out that many limitations can be addressed by testing the different chemicals that comprise ayahuasca independently.

Except for DMT, the rest of the components of ayahuasca are pharmacologically active but conventionally non-psychedelic. It would be interesting to look into preparations of ayahuasca featuring only B. caapi, to discount the effect of DMT and better understand how the effects of both plants come together.

More rigorous research will offer greater nuance about the afterglow experience, its benefits, and the duration of its action. Clearly, current legal and financial limitations inhibit the viability of such research in many locales–something that will hopefully change as the legal landscape guiding psychedelic use transforms.

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