Getting results means finding your ideal medicine and an approach that works for you.
Not all psychedelic substances are the same. Choosing between substances like ayahuasca or psilocybin mushrooms is more than a matter of chemistry as each is used in different contexts.
The use of ayahuasca and magic mushrooms goes back thousands of years. Although, modern use cases for psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca are being integrated into a society hungry for solutions to dismal mental health and what some call a “crisis of meaning.”
Ayahuasca and magic mushroom retreats may use elements established by indigenous peoples to work with these unique compounds. However, the exploding interest in psychedelics from advances in scientific understanding and a modern therapeutic emphasis are changing the use of these medicines in contemporary societies.
In this article, we explore the difference between psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca. From ancient use to modern evolution, chemical compounds, physical and mental effects, and what to expect at a retreat.
Ayahuasca vs. Mushrooms: How to Choose a Psychedelic Retreat
Before booking a retreat, it is important to examine the type of environment you want to have your psychedelic experience in, as well as your needs and intentions. With the huge variety of backgrounds and approaches from providers across numerous countries offering psychedelic retreats, it is important to select a retreat that most closely resonates with you and your goals.
Different retreats will have unique frameworks for relating to the medicine experiences and providing integration. Based on this framework, the staff will support you in a way that aligns with their process and the retreat will attract people that resonate with this approach to the medicine.
Are you looking for a therapeutic retreat with elements of psychotherapy that you might be most familiar with?
Are you wanting to experience psychedelic medicine authentically through another culture with the help of a shaman?
Are you trying to explore consciousness and spirituality through more of a wellness lens? Or are you hoping to heal trauma and overcome mental illness?
It’s important to ask these questions, as they will help guide you to a retreat provider that is best able to offer the support that will fit with your goals.
A popular term in psychedelic circles, “setting an intention,” means asking “Why do I want to do this?” Some people may be seeking healing. Others, personal development. For another, it may be spiritual exploration. There are countless reasons to seek out a psychedelic experience, each highly individual.
An intention is typically a simple and personally meaningful statement to assist people in navigating and making meaning from psychedelic experiences. Intentions could be statements like “I will stay curious,” requests like “Help me find ease,” or questions like “Why am I here?”
Understanding why you will spend time, money, and a great deal of energy on what many claim to rank as one of the most significant experiences of their lives is essential. Intentions matter because they will guide you to the right retreat centers, therapists, facilitators, and groups of people you will share the experience with.
Once you know your motivations, the next step is to find the right retreat. Here are some questions to consider before signing up for a retreat:
- Why am I doing this?
- What am I hoping to accomplish?
- Where will I be the most comfortable?
- Who do I want to be around?
- What modalities will the facilitators be using?
- What kind of support do I want?
- What is the ratio of guests to facilitators?
- What substances are best for me?
- Which protocols are in place?
- How does integration with this group work?
With an understanding of why you want to join a psychedelic retreat, it is easier to choose between ayahuasca and mushrooms. Specifically, there are some differences between:
- Active components of each substance
- The context they are taken in
- What the psychedelic experience is like
What are Psilocybin Mushrooms?
Psilocybin mushrooms are naturally occurring fungi growing worldwide and have rich historical use. Mushrooms appear in the rock art found at ancient sites. References to mushroom use appear on most of the world’s continents. We know the Aztec and Mayan people of Central America used mushrooms, calling them the “flesh of the gods.”
When Spanish colonists suppressed the use of mushrooms, the practice continued in secret, until 1955 when a Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina shared mushrooms with an American banker, Gordon Wasson. These “magic mushrooms” soon became a cultural sensation leading to the discovery of new psilocybin species and their introduction into the Western world through scientific research and the 1960s counterculture movement.
After decades of prohibition starting in the early 1970s, psilocybin mushrooms have returned to the spotlight of clinical research and at psilocybin therapy retreats. Now, scientists and therapists have found newfound curiosity for the psychological impacts and psychedelic effects of the psychoactive compound “psilocybin.”
What is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin is one of many active compounds found in psychedelic mushrooms and appears to only occur in fungi. The most common is psilocybe cubensis, but we know of approximately 180 species within the category of “magic mushrooms”.
Scientists are still learning how psychedelics work. So far, we know when psilocybin is consumed, it is converted into the active compound, psilocin, which interacts with receptors in our nervous system. Different receptor sites are associated with different functions in the body. Psilocybin interacts with many receptors, but special attention focuses on the 5HT2A receptor. The 5HT2A receptor appears to be the key receptor with which all classic psychedelics interact with, creating consciousness-altering effects.
What is Ayahuasca?
No one can confidently say how long ayahuasca has been in use. The origins of ayahuasca consumption are in the Amazon rainforest of South America. Tribes practicing ayahuasca traditions with minimal interference from the outside world have kept the relationship between ayahuasca and “vegetalismo”, or learning from plants and spirits, strong. These traditions, now commonly called “shamanism,” are a big part of ayahuasca ceremonies.
The worldview and traditional medicine of the Amazonian people is a complex world of relationships a shaman navigates to facilitate healing. The culture surrounding the ayahuasca experience remains somewhat mysterious to outsiders, but its reputation has inspired researchers to study the psychedelic brew.
Ayahuasca is a mixture of several different plants. The core of this mixture is the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Combining these plants and drinking them makes the compound N-N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the main active alkaloid responsible for the ayahuasca experience, bioavailable inside the human body.
What is DMT?
DMT is a naturally occurring compound found throughout nature. It is produced in the human body and many plants. Usually, DMT inside the human body is broken down rapidly, making psychedelic effects short if smoked in its pure form or nonexistent if eaten. DMT is broken down by an enzyme in the body called monoamine oxidase.
People in the Amazon figured out that ingesting the ayahuasca vine prevents the breakdown of DMT because it contains other active compounds known as “monoamine oxidase inhibitors.” Researcher Dennis McKenna documented how the Banisteriopsis caapi vine “inhibits” the activity of MAO, allowing DMT to be consumed in an orally active form.
DMT’s molecular structure is very similar to psilocybin, and both interact with the body in comparable ways. Each compound binds to similar receptors but creates different reactions, along with interacting with different groups of receptors. Despite similarities between their physical and mental effects, there are some differences between the two substances.
Ayahuasca vs. Psychedelic Mushrooms: What’s the Difference?
While both medicines generally share positive outcomes when taken responsibly, the journey mushrooms or ayahuasca will take people on to arrive at their goal is different. As they say, it’s not the destination but the journey. The actual experience of each substance will depend on the dose, preparation, and “set and setting.”
Set and setting are linked to achieving desired results with psychedelics and are key differences in the psilocybin vs ayahuasca conversation. “Set” means the mindset one has going into a trip. Mindset includes:
- Emotional landscape
- Knowledge and research
- Framework of understanding
“Setting” refers to the environment an experience occurs within. Considerations here are:
- Other participants
Researchers, therapists, and group facilitators spend a great deal of time creating the ideal setting and mindset for psychedelic experiences, as they both feed into one another. The emphasis on these concepts is strong because data shows clear connections to optimal set and setting leading to improved outcomes.
The clearest distinction between psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca is not just their effects, but the context in which they are consumed within.
Effects of Mushrooms and Ayahuasca
Both psilocybin and ayahuasca are classical psychedelics. They are comparable because they induce altered states involving:
- Visual distortions
- Visions and memory activation
- Amplified feelings and emotions
- Cognitive insights and introspection
- Dissolution of the ego, or “Default Mode Network”
- Changes to heart rate and body temperature
- Physical reactions such as nausea, sweating, shaking, or yawning
The compounds also show groundbreaking potential in the laboratory as a much-needed mental health treatment. Psilocybin has even progressed to clinical trials and is dubbed a “breakthrough therapy” by the FDA, paving the way to widespread legal access.
On average, both experiences last for about 4-6 hours. Both substances may help people with a growing list of other tough-to-treat conditions, including:
- Body Dysmorphia
- End-of-Life Distress
- Chronic Pain
- TBI-Related Symptoms
Psilocybin and ayahuasca both require screening for mental and physical health concerns. Reputable retreats will have a detailed application process and firm knowledge of what is and isn’t safe. Asking questions of retreat organizers should be easy and the answers should be clear.
Ayahuasca – What to Expect
Ayahuasca is often held in a group ceremonial setting. A ceremony is typically led by traditional healers who have trained extensively in the jungle as part of an apprenticeship that includes learning directly from the plants and spirits. Shamans work with a unique set of tools been passed down through generations of curanderos in their lineage.
The shaman often speaks very little and instead sings icaros, which are healing songs said to be delivered by the spirits of the plants. Relationships with various plants, animals, and spirits may also be part of the healing work, and to navigate these, shamans will sing, pray and work with other healing plants, such as tobacco.
Ayahuasca traditions often focus on “cleansing”, and a powerful function of the ayahuasca brew is “la purga” or “the purge.” This comes in the form of strong physical effects like vomiting, diarrhea, crying, or shaking. From the Amazonian perspective, these responses are good and open one up to deeper work with ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca sessions can be both very challenging and beautiful. Ayahuasca can draw attention to aspects of one’s life, leading to profound life changes and spiritual growth. This experience creates insight and meaning into how someone has arrived where they are in life, often through what people describe as direct communication with the spirit of ayahuasca.
Preparation for Ayahuasca
A significant part of ayahuasca is preparation. Ayahuasqeros do extensive dietas, often in isolation in the jungle to learn their craft, involving abstinence from sex, media, and many foods. Participants in an ayahuasca retreat will be asked to undertake similar restrictions on food, sex, and perhaps other activities. A typical ayahuasca diet will restrict red meat, cheese, salt, sugar, and refined or fermented foods.
The ayahuasca diet is thought to increase one’s sensitivity to ayahuasca while removing distractions. The regime also includes mental preparation for what will likely be an intense experience. The diet also avoids potentially dangerous interactions with certain foods or medications. With ayahuasca in particular, certain medications (like antidepressants) must be avoided as they could cause harmful and potentially lethal interactions.
Psilocybin – What to Expect
Psilocybin makes people very sensitive to the environment and their inner experiences. Small moments can seem huge and meaningful, while emotions can surface in powerful ways. With trained professionals to help prepare, navigate, and integrate a psilocybin experience, it is possible to harvest a significant amount of meaning from a mushroom journey.
At this point in history, psilocybin is used in many different contexts. Indigenous practices and the history of psilocybin inform modern use, but the therapeutic use of psilocybin is generally very different from its traditional settings. Many practitioners still administer psilocybin mushrooms in ceremonial settings. However, the use of psilocybin in the modern world is increasingly evidence-based and supported by modern, therapeutic approaches.
Lessons learned from clinical trials with psychedelic-assisted therapy now inform the use of psilocybin mushrooms. Now many practitioners working with psilocybin have a mental health background. Similar to therapy, clients are guided through preparation and integration with an emphasis on the psilocybin experience. Practitioners are also trained in how to best support people during the session. While some have found personal growth through self-directed psilocybin journeying, we now know that the journey to healing from conditions like depression, anxiety, and addiction means including preparation and integration support from professionals.
Preparation for Psilocybin Mushrooms
Psilocybin mushrooms require significant mental and emotional preparation but do not require a special diet or abstaining from sex. A high dose of psilocybin often generates intense challenges but may lead to profound cognitive insights, emotional breakthroughs, and mystical experiences. Taking time to prepare one’s mindset before a psychedelic experience helps manage expectations, anticipate challenges, and puts the mind a bit more at ease.
Preparation for psilocybin involves considering set and setting, establishing trust with facilitators and therapists, and establishing personal intentions. Most medications, like antidepressants, do not pose a serious risk but can diminish the effects of psilocybin. It’s recommended to discontinue medications with professional support before a retreat.
An ayahuasca diet might last for weeks, but before mushrooms usually a few hours of fasting is recommended beforehand. Because psilocybin mushrooms can cause nausea, attention to food intake is important. Vomiting is rare, and restrictions on sex or social interactions are not typically part of mushroom preparation.
Choosing Between Ayahuasca & Magic Mushroom Retreats
The safety of both magic mushrooms and ayahuasca has stood the test of time, particularly alongside skilled and professional facilitation. Selecting a psychedelic retreat means honestly considering your personal preferences for the set and setting best suited for you.
Ayahuasca can be accessed legally in South America. Vetting shamans is essential because in parts of the world with less economic opportunity, poorly intentioned impersonators do take advantage of uninformed travelers. However, traditional curanderos with good training and integrity help many people every year. Taking ayahuasca involves being open to interacting with an old and different culture. There may be language barriers, and understanding the worldview of people from the Amazon won’t happen during a short retreat.
The best ayahuasca retreats should be trauma-informed, but the quality of facilitation varies so be sure to find centers with well-trained support staff, ideally with a mental health background. A safe ceremonial setting will be led by an experienced shaman with an adequate amount of trustworthy support staff. It is important to ask how many people will be at an ayahuasca retreat, as large groups can lead to less individual support.
Ceremonies are often led with prayers, medicine songs, icaros, tobacco, offerings, and other traditional healing technologies. Proper preparation before ayahuasca and integration afterward is essential for a safe and comfortable experience, which requires doing your homework to find trustworthy retreats, shamans, and facilitators.
Psilocybin can be accessed legally in a few countries, such as Jamaica and the Netherlands. Current retreats may draw some influence from traditional use, but practitioners utilizing psilocybin typically work through a psychological or transpersonal lens. Using relatable concepts and language assists people from Western countries in preparation, integration, and ultimately understanding of their psilocybin experiences.
Psilocybin retreats should also be trauma-informed, and many still lack the necessities for the best care. The highest quality retreats employ facilitators with strong mental health backgrounds and keep retreat sizes optimal for the number of staff to provide the proper level of support.
The MycoMeditations experience provides numerous trained therapists to best care for guests seeking psychedelic-assisted therapy with a modern approach. People can receive psilocybin-assisted therapy in an intimate setting of no more than 12 guests with a high staff-to-guest ratio of about 1:1.5. Hours of preparation and integration is provided daily to ensure that guests get the most healing from their psilocybin experiences.
If you’d like to learn more about MycoMeditations, we invite you to read through the rest of our website and apply if you wish to join us on retreat.