Before my first ayahuasca retreat in Mexico last year, the organizer sent the participants a list of foods to avoid beforehand: no drugs for three weeks, no alcohol or pork for two weeks, and no dairy, fried food, caffeine, or sugar for two days. The reasoning behind some of these guidelines was dubious (“no salt for two days because ayahuasca’s a plant and plants like freshwater, not saltwater”), while others seemed more reasonable (“no foods with an amino acid called tyramine because it can increase your heart rate, as can ayahuasca”). Some of them seemed to be geared toward enhancing the experience, while others were geared toward avoiding health risks. Despite following them all, two of my three journeys were very weak.
After I signed up for my second ayahuasca retreat in the Netherlands, I only got a few simple instructions: Avoid foods high in tyramine a day prior, and stop taking medications two days prior. I had chicken nuggets and fries the night before the first ceremony and two lattes the morning of it, and both ceremonies were powerful and euphoric. The magic mushrooms I’d ingested a week prior (I was in the Netherlands) didn’t seem to hinder my ayahuasca experience either. I wondered if all the restrictions previously imposed on me are necessary—or, for that matter, if any of them are.
The dietary changes prescribed by shamans and retreat organizers before ayahuasca ceremonies are sometimes referred to as the “ayahuasca diet,” but this diet looks different in different cultures, says Alex Gearin, a medical anthropologist and honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland. “There are many different beliefs and behavioral prescriptions for drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon,” he says. “The most common or widespread dietary restriction for drinking ayahuasca would be on pork. The diet purifies the body and mind for shamanic work such as healing, hunting, sorcery, or divination.”
However, there’s little research to back up these practices, says Luís Fernando Tófoli, professor of medical psychology and psychiatry at the University of Campinas in Brazil. In fact, some ayahuasca-drinking cultures have customs that directly contradict them. Those in the Brazilian Santo Daime tradition, for example, sometimes smoke weed during ayahuasca ceremonies. The União do Vegetal community in Brazil doesn’t have any dietary restrictions, and its members haven’t reported any problems, Tófoli says.
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“There are anecdotal reports of individuals acknowledging that the experience with ayahuasca is 'clearer' if you follow a diet compatible with the vegetalista [plant-based] tradition,” Tófoli adds. “Unfortunately, we have no experimental studies that have examined this question.”
Still, there’s some science suggesting that tyramine, which is found in aged cheeses, cured meats, and pickled foods, may be dangerous to consume in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) like those in ayahuasca. “Both ayahuasca and the tyramine can increase blood pressure,” says Scott Keatley, a New York City-based dietician. “If blood pressure gets too high suddenly, this hypertensive crisis can lead to stroke, heart attack, loss of kidney function, headaches, and severe anxiety.”
Foods with tryptophan, like turkey and dairy products, could also cause issues, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Tryptophan makes the neurotransmitter serotonin more available to your brain. Since ayahuasca already stimulates serotonin release, adding more serotonin on top of it could lead to serotonin syndrome—an excess of serotonin that can result in tremors, rapid heart rate, anxiety, fever, and in severe cases, brain damage.
Avoiding alcohol and other drugs before taking ayahuasca is also advisable, Tófoli says, in light of anecdotal reports of people who had tough ayahuasca experiences after using alcohol or cocaine. Any stimulant drug, such as cocaine, can increase your risk for cardiac arrhythmia—or abnormal heartbeat—under ayahuasca, Giordano says. MDMA is especially problematic because it increases your serotonin levels, increasing your risk for serotonin syndrome. Giordano recommends avoiding recreational drugs at least a day before and a day after taking ayahuasca. Alcohol should probably be avoided since it can make more of the DMT in the ayahuasca available to your central nervous system, which could make effects of ayahuasca like hallucinations, nausea, and rapid heartbeat more intense or durable, Giordano adds.
Certain medications are also potentially detrimental before drinking ayahuasca because of their effect on serotonin. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft, for example, can also put you at risk for serotonin syndrome. One case study describes a man who experienced “tremors, sweating, shivering, and confusion” after taking ayahuasca while on Prozac. It’s a similar deal with medications that function as MAOIs, including some used for depression or Parkinson’s; they shouldn’t be taken before drinking ayahuasca, which also contains MAOIs, Tófoli says. Consuming multiple MAOIs at once could up your risk for hypertension and, again, serotonin syndrome. Opiates are also trouble, since they increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, Giordano says.
When it comes to dietary restrictions that people claim enhance the experience, we can only speculate. Giving up substances like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar that make you feel good may decrease your serotonin levels, leading to a more dramatic increase in serotonin when you take the ayahuasca and consequently a more intense experience, Keatley says. As far as the common prohibition on pork goes, Giordano tells me it’s possible that since pork creates aconitic acid in your body, combining it with ayahuasca (which contains endolic acid) may release acidic end-product metabolites that are rough on your kidneys—but again, this is only a speculation.
So there’s not much evidence behind the strict regulations imposed on me before taking ayahuasca in Mexico, but at the very least, my Netherlands retreat was onto something. Though the jury’s out on the effect of commonly prohibited foods like meat or sugar, it’s wise to at the very least avoid tyramine, recreational drugs, alcohol, and certain medications in the days before an ayahuasca ceremony. It may not make your trip more powerful, but it can make it safer.
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