April 25, 2014 at 12:30 PM ET
When Lindsay Lohan this week announced that she'd had a miscarriage, and that she coped partly with the help of a psychoactive “tea” often called ayahuasca, she underscored how popular the concoction has become in lands far away from its source in the jungles of South America.
She's among several celebrities who say they have turned to ayahuasca in the belief that drinking it can help resolve the confusions of modern life, ease addictions or boost a person’s spiritual and mental well-being. Tourist operations attract customers to South American locations for shamanistic ayahuasca ceremonies, suggesting that Western medicine can't “fix a growing negativity in people’s lives.”
Yet, so far there’s little in the way of gold-standard science supporting the claims for its benefits or any real oversight of “shamans” who claim to be experts in its use. Vomiting and diarrhea are usually part of the experience.
Using it at all in the United States is of questionable legality. A prime active ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a controlled substance in the U.S. That means it’s illegal for most people to import it or possess it.
Ayahuasca, also known as yagé and other names, is made by steeping the pounded stems of a vine and other ingredients in boiling water. Translated roughly as “vine of the soul,” ayahuasca is often called a hallucinogen but it’s really a psychedelic, said Brian T. Anderson, a medical candidate at Stanford University School of Medicine and an expert in medical anthropology. When used according to traditional practices, it causes illusions, he said, but the user is aware of the illusory quality of the experience.
Some users report an opening of the mind that leads to insights. In addition to traditional native ceremonies in the Amazon region, at least two religions, O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, and the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, both with branches in the U.S., use it for this purpose, something akin to the way some Native Americans use peyote. Both groups are allowed to use ayahuasca on religious freedom grounds, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Rusty Payne.
In his book, "One River," ethno-botanist and author Wade Davis recounted his experience:
“The vomiting came suddenly, a short spasm like a child’s stomach in rebellion, followed almost immediately by a violent retching convulsion. A great stream turned into a serpentine river rushing over black plants and flowing beneath stars and cold winds and colors that turned one into another.”
Ultimately, Davis felt “exhaustion mingle with a deeper sensation, an intuition that what I had experienced, a confusion of random visual and auditory hallucinations without form or substance, was only a crude approximation of something indescribably rich and mysterious.”
For her part, Lohan called the experience "really intense" and said she saw herself die and being born, and that it encouraged her to let go of "the wreckage of my past."
Though vomiting and diarrhea are usually integral parts of an ayahuasca ceremony, consumption of amounts typically used appears to be safe, Anderson said. Although one U.S. teen named Kyle Joseph Nolan died during a ceremony in Peru, Anderson said the risks and possible benefits are "very context dependent.”
“This is not a public health problem like Spice,” the synthetic marijuana that has caused violent outbursts in users, he said.
Anderson, who has taken ayahuasca, describes concentrated introspection “that makes you feel your own feelings and get in touch with your own thoughts in ways people might find surprising.” Users he’s interviewed describe “reverence for whatever religious context it’s taken in.”
While ayahuasca is being explored for use in people fighting a variety of addictions, studies so far have been mostly inconclusive.
And if the vomiting and diarrhea weren't enough to stop you, here are some other warnings: Because of the way ayahuasca appears to work in the brain, people using anti-depressants, especially SSRIs, or serotonin reuptake inhibitors, should avoid it. The brew may also interact with other drugs, and should not be used by anyone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Anderson was the lead author and signatory of a 2012 statement in the International Journal of Drug Policy favoring more flexible regulation by the government, but he said he does not favor unrestricted use of ayahuasca as a party drug.
Besides, vomiting and diarrhea aren't exactly what most people look for in a party drug.
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”