When I began going to ayahuasca ceremonies, I noticed that in addition to the ayahuasca, the shaman was offering rapé, a tobacco snuff that she’d literally blow into participants’ noses through a pipe. She said it could help you get out of your mind, and some participants reported that it even brought on visuals for them. But when I tried it, I didn’t feel much, other than some irritation in my nose that made me sneeze.
Then, I tried it again before a San Pedro ceremony, and whether it was because I’d taken a higher dose, because something about the rapé itself was different, or because I didn’t already have something else in my system, I felt it that time. It felt like something was being released from my head. I became woozy but euphoric and had to lie down. Then, I started blowing my nose and spitting, as if energy were trying to get out of me. I felt lighter afterward, like I’d let go of something.
People’s experiences with rapé seem to vary significantly. Andrea Kauenhowen, a 26-year-old PR professional in Colombia, experiences stinging pain in her nose, then “the feeling that follows is one of complete zen,” she says. “The purpose of taking the rapé as I’ve understood it is to clear the mind. For me, this is the reason I enjoy it: because it allows me to get into a clear headspace before ayahuasca ceremonies or meditation circles.”
“The shamanic snuff is blown deep into the nasal cavity and stings quite a bit, causing my eyes to water and a sharp headache-like sensation to ensue,” echoes Gaurav Dubey, a 31-year-old scientific writer in Chicago. “However, these unpleasant sensations quickly clear into a lucid, alert and calm state of being and mind.” Gabi Levi, a 26-year-old art director in NYC, describes her own experience with rapé as “extremely uplifting, giggly, and cathartic.”
These reactions are surprising given that rapé is mainly made of tobacco, often mixed with herbs and plants. “Most folks would be completely shocked by how intoxicating it can be, even if briefly,” says Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But because it’s from a different species than common tobacco, it has a high concentration of nicotine and is very quick-acting, so it can have direct effects on the brain, he explains. Other plants in the mixture, such as mint, may also facilitate absorption of the nicotine.
Nicotine and Neurology
Nicotine acts on the brain’s nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, which produces a stimulating effect and can even make you think more clearly, says Johnson. “The feelings of clarity people report with rapé makes a lot of sense,” he says. “Acetylcholine has widespread effects, and you are just overloading the system temporarily, and that can lead to the disorientation and wooziness.”
Some of the effects just come from having something up your nose. When you’re getting watery eyes, blowing your nose, sneezing, and spitting, that’s your body’s way of trying to expel something that it detects shouldn’t be there, says Johnson.
However, there’s not much science on rapé, so most of what we know about it comes from shamanic traditions. Rapé has been used in South America for over 3,000 years and is a daily activity for some tribes, says Andrés Limón, a shaman in Mexico. In plant medicine ceremonies, it’s used to help connect people with the spirit of the plants, as well as clear the mind and release tension.
“Physically, it unblocks the respiratory system and cleanses it and can be very effective for sinusitis, some allergies, and headaches,” he says. “It can also be effective for anxiety or even depression, providing a sense of mental cleansing, connection, focus, and relaxation.”
Rapé isn’t generally very risky, although like any nicotine product, it could cause nasal cavity, mouth, or throat cancer or become addictive if used in large quantities, says Johnson. In addition, some people find the burning sensation in their noses unpleasant, and very rarely, someone might faint after a strong dose of rapé, says Limón. “It’s important to be sensitive and careful with the person that’s receiving it, having a good intention for using the medicine and, from both sides, a respect for the medicine’s power and tradition,” he says.
Gabriela Rain, a plant medicine facilitator from Jamaica who works with ayahuasca, uses rapé to help people get grounded and let go of their minds. “I’ve seen many purge their baggage and release pent up emotions,” she says. “Often crying, laughing, or both. With one blow in the nostrils, they are instantly aware. They are present to their emotions, their thoughts, their surroundings.”
Rain believes rapé can serve as an introduction to plant medicine for those apprehensive about using a psychedelic like ayahuasca. “It is accessible, affordable, legal, and safe,” she says. “Not only is it beneficial to sharpening the mind and improving clarity… it is a practical exercise and alternative solution to the challenge of being present.”