Can Psychedelic Ayahuasca Help With Depression?

Paul Melancon was desperate. It was December 2010, and the singer-songwriter from Atlanta, who was then 42, had been living with a diagnosis of severe recurrent depression for 7 years. He had taken just about every prescription antidepressant on the market — Prozac, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Zoloft. He tried individual medications alone. Then he tried them in what doctors said might be a more effective combination. While the drugs might have taken the edge off his depression, none provided real relief. And the side effects were unbearable.

“My hands would shake all the time. I was always clenching my teeth. My libido was gone. And I never felt any happiness. I just didn’t care about anything or feel anything. I would shift between feeling depressed and just feeling numb,” Melancon says. “I felt completely disconnected from the world.”

He was afraid to try the doctors’ next suggestion: electroconvulsive therapy. That’s when he came across an article in National Geographic Adventure written by a woman who said her unrelenting depression was lifted away after drinking a psychedelic plant-based brew called ayahuasca (AY-uh-WA-ska) in the Peruvian Amazon.

He found the writer’s email address and asked her a ton of questions. Then Melancon, who describes himself as “not especially adventurous,” planned a trip to a jungle in Peru with his wife. First he had to spend 3 awful months weaning himself off his medications to avoid dangerous interactions with the Amazonian medicinal plant. Intense depression and insomnia came back worse than ever. It was all he could do to get himself on the plane. He then took two flights and an hourlong bus ride into the jungle to reach the Blue Morpho Shamanic Ayahuasca Retreat Center. The jungle lodge — a cluster of bungalows with thatched roofs — draws visitors from all over the world.

“I would never have gone there and done this if I hadn’t felt like there was nothing else left,” Melancon says. “I would have tried any desperate solution that anybody gave me.”

Ayahuasca is a brew of two plants — the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub — native to the Amazon. Indigenous people of the upper Amazon basin, across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, traditionally use the dark brown concoction in religious ceremonies. It’s intended to help people make connections with supernatural forces or forest spirits. By the 1990s, ayahuasca began showing up in the U.S., Australia, and around Europe. People try the hallucinogenic tea at religious ceremonies in their home countries or travel to retreats, as Melancon did, in Brazil and Peru. They seek out the substance for all sorts of reasons. Some want the trip. Others seek spiritual enlightenment. And an increasing number want the brew for its potential to heal their depression, addiction, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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