You’ve felt the call and have decided that working with ayahuasca will be an invaluable tool for your spiritual growth and development. One of the key considerations that factors directly into the fabric of an ayahuasca experience is dietary preparation. There are essentially two major types of preparatory ayahuasca diets, the “MAOI safety” diet and the shamanic dieta, from the Spanish word meaning “diet,” which encompasses significantly more than just simple food restrictions. The aim of this article is to explore the biochemical and spiritual grounds for adhering to these food restrictions and look into what can be done from a dietary and psycho-spiritual perspective to ensure the best possible ayahuasca experience.
Ayahuasca is the Quechua name (aya = spirit, waska = vine) for the amazonian vine, Banisteriopis caapi, but is also the name for the entheogenic concoction of the vine and other plants, such as the DMT-containing leaves of Psychotria viridis, also known as chacruna. The first chemical analyses of the alkaloid constituents of the vine date back to the 1920s, leading to the isolation of a compound then called telepathine, which was later shown to be the well-known alkaloid and principal and active agent of the ayahuasca vine, harmine, the other two being tetrahydroharmaline and harmaline. As an interesting aside, harmine was recently found to have unique therapeutic promise in diabetes therapy.
In the late 1950s, biochemists revealed that harmine, harmaline and other similar compounds were potent but reversible inhibitors of the enzyme, monoamine oxidase. This is why anyone taking SSRI antidepressants is cautioned against using ayahuasca (or any psychedelic) and why certain foods are also cautioned against. The enzyme, monoamine oxidase, is widely distributed in human tissues, such as neurons, the liver, and gastrointestinal tract, and functions to break down normal neurotransmitters in brain tissues such as serotonin and dopamine. Harmine is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), thus upon ingestion of ayahuasca the normal targets of monoamine oxidase, e.g. serotonin, are not broken down and can increase in levels. Importantly, inhibition of monoamine oxidase by harmine is what allows DMT to be orally active in ayahuasca preparations.
From an MAOI-safety standpoint, certain foods like aged cheeses, smoked meats, and fermented foods like soy bean paste should be avoided because they contain significant amounts of a particular amino acid known as tyramine. (For an extended list of foods to avoid, please see the following link.) Tyramine is an amino acid that is normally broken down by monoamine oxidase. If monoamine oxidase activity is blocked by an MAOI, hyper-accumulation of tyramine could potentially occur leading to headaches, sweating, pupil dilation, neck stiffness, palpitations, hypertensive crisis, and even death. Thus, certain dietary restrictions should be strictly observed if one is receiving any kind of MAOI treatment. However, given that harmine is a reversible MAOI, unlike many pharmaceutical-grade irreversible MAOI antidepressants, there is less danger of experiencing an adverse reaction to food when taking ayahuasca. There have been no reports of fatalities due to interactions between food and ayahuasca. However, there are anecdotal reports that failure to follow the MAOI-restricted safety diet increases the chances of experiencing panic attacks during an ayahuasca ceremony.
Biochemistry aside, there is another type of diet that coincides with profound spiritual preparation to work with ayahuasca, known by the Spanish term, dieta, which means diet. This shamanic dieta is not to be confused with the above-mentioned MAOI safety diet. The dieta is a considerable undertaking that incorporates not only food restrictions, such as no salt, sugar, spicy food, oils or fats, but also imposes sexual abstinence, social isolation, living alone in the wilderness, avoidance of the sun, and not being seen by strangers. The dieta can vary accordingly by shaman and tribe, can vary in length from days to months, and is critically important in fostering a spiritual and learning relationship with master teacher plants like ayahuasca. According to Stephan Beyer (author of the book, Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon), “La dieta is vital during apprenticeship; and shamans continue to observe la dieta from time to time throughout their careers, when treating difficult patients, when preparing certain medicines, to revitalize their shamanic power, or to learn [the properties of ] new plants.” He goes on to say, “The plant spirits reveal themselves, their uses, and their icaros, sacred songs, only to one who follows la dieta.” The dieta serves to open one’s consciousness to the spiritual nature underlying the physical world and opens one to receiving guidance and power from the natural world.
But what of the seeker who will not be spending extended periods of time in the jungle, apprenticing with a master shaman under the intense observance of the dieta? What dietary recommendations can one follow in order to enhance receptivity of the medicine?
One of the major reasons for adhering to a dieta is to sharpen and enhance the senses. Crowding out foods like grilled meats, cheese, processed foods, sugar, alcohol, and coffee, and instead introducing simpler, whole foods is one way to begin clearing away obstructive forces that could impede one’s ayahuasca experience. Imagine a rusty and clogged pipe that has constricted water flow. Until the pipe is cleaned and unclogged, the water cannot flow. Following a preparatory diet is like unclogging this pipe, and will allow the medicine to flow through one more easily. While each one of us is a unique biological individual, and we all have particular sensitivities to not only foods, but also entheogenic substances, opting for a lighter, healthier way of eating can promote an enhanced ayahuasca experience, in addition to increasing overall health. While one may not be able to adhere strictly to the shamanic dieta, approaching the principles of la dieta, in a balanced way that makes sense to you, your lifestyle and your body could go a long way to enriching your ayahuasca experience.
Ultimately, the decision of what foods to cut out and which to introduce depend both on biochemical safety considerations, such as the MAOI dietary guidelines and the profound metaphysical considerations that a dieta entails. As always, please consult your medical professional for personalized dietary guidelines related to reversible MAOIs, and your shaman/spiritual advisor for advice on nutritional and spiritual preparation for an ayahuasca ceremony.
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