Tending the Light Within
Herbal Medicine for the Winter Blues
It can be a challenge to find joy as we trudge through the depths of winter. The days are short, the weather cold, and after many months, it can all feel exhausting. If you’re feeling increased levels of depression, anxiety or grief at this time, you’re not alone. Also referred to as seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), it is estimated that up to 20% of the US population experiences at least a mild case of SAD throughout the winter months. There are physiological explanations for why this occurs, and fortunately, easy dietary and lifestyle strategies we can employ to support our emotional wellbeing throughout winter. Herbal medicine is also a comforting ally for these times, boosting our mood, nurturing us through warm teas or elixirs, and bringing us some of the encapsulated sunlight energy that the plants themselves hold.
The lack of sunlight throughout the winter months is disruptive to our circadian rhythm, which can affect our mood on a biological level. When we are exposed to less sunlight, our bodies produce less serotonin and melatonin, both of which play important roles in our mood and energy levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, emotional behavior, sleep and digestion. Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and SAD. It is estimated that up to 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so tending to the gut health with warming easy-to-digest foods like stews, prebiotic foods like garlic and fermented veggies is extra important during wintertime. Less sunlight also means less Vitamin D, which plays a role in mood and supporting hormone production. Vitamin D is found in egg yolks, beef liver, grass-fed butter and some fish, so adding these into the diet can be beneficial throughout winter. Vitamin D supplementation with a high quality Vitamin D3/K2 supplement can also be helpful.
Other strategies that can be employed to support our mood during winter include light therapy, exercise, spending time outdoors, connection and using adaptogenic and antidepressant herbs.
Light therapy is a scientifically backed approach for treating seasonally related mood disorders like SAD. Light therapy lamps are easily found online, and can be used throughout the winter months to make up for the lack of sunlight. The general recommendation is to sit in front of the lamp for about 30 minutes each morning, which mimics the bright morning sunshine, helping to regulate our circadian rhythm and increase production of mood-boosting hormones.
Exercise and movement of any kind will release endorphins, hormones that signal feelings of happiness. Brisk cardiovascular exercise like running, hiking, HIIT, or dancing tend to release the highest levels of endorphins. If you choose to exercise outdoors, you get the added benefit of being exposed to natural light, cold exposure (which also releases endorphins!) and of course, the general benefit of being outside!
Connection with others, although always important, can be especially helpful if you’re struggling. Talking, making art or doing hobbies together are supportive for processing emotions, increasing a sense of presence and helping us to feel more optimistic. Touch-based connection like hugging, cuddling or lovemaking releases dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, so don’t hesitate to get snuggly with your loved ones throughout winter!
Lean into the rhythm of the season! This is a time of year where nature rests. It can be helpful to remember we are also part of nature, and our bodies want to rest too. It’s easy to overlook this in a capitalism based society that does not acknowledge our natural biological rhythms. Don’t sweat it if you need to sleep more, do less and move slowly.
Adaptogenic herbs can help regulate the stress response, which can help balance our circadian rhythm and hormone production, along with supporting cognitive function and energy levels.
Mood-boosting nervines, sometimes referred to as thymoleptics, are herbs with an antidepressant effect. They work through the nervous system, helping to balance nervous system response, support neurotransmitter production and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea) is an adaptogenic plant native to Siberia and northern Europe. It has a longstanding traditional usage for promoting longevity and endurance, especially in cold, harsh climates. Rhodiola has promising research around its potential use as an antidepressant. Laboratory and animal studies have shown rhodiola increases sensitivity to serotonin and dopamine, along with increasing endorphin production. A clinical trial comparing rhodiola and a pharmaceutical antidepressant medication, showed that rhodiola had similar results as the SSRI medication, with markedly less side effects. Like all adaptogens, rhodiola can boost the immune system, balance hormone production and support healthy energy levels, giving added benefit for relying on this plant during winter.
Tulsi (ocimum sanctum) is an adaptogenic herb beloved to Ayurvedic medicine. Traditionally used in India to prepare for meditation, tulsi has a clearing and centering effect on the mind. Tulsi’s affinity toward the brain also manifests in relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. Tulsi’s floral yet spicy fragrance helps to clear the mind and uplift the spirits. Along with being an adaptogen, tulsi is also considered a nervine, and because of this it has a host of nervous system benefits as well, helping to lower stress, balance nervous system function and support an overall sense of wellbeing.
Lemon Balm (melissa officinalis) is a lemony smelling mint family nervine native to Europe. Lemon balm’s bright sunny scent alone can instantly provide a sense of upliftment to the mind. Traditionally used to “gladden the heart,” lemon balm has been used for centuries to alleviate symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. It also has antiviral properties, making it an extra beneficial one to lean on during the winter season. Multiple placebo controlled clinical trials have shown lemon balm to be effective at lessening depression and anxiety symptoms. Lemon balm is gentle enough for children, and can be enjoyed by folks of all ages.
St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum) is perhaps the most well known antidepressant nervine herb, and for good reason. St John’s Wort bright yellow blooms are usually harvested around summer solstice, and can energetically remind us of the long sunny days of summer. St John’s Wort mood lifting properties are in part due to hypericin and hyperforin, two phytochemicals that have been shown in studies to improve levels of serotonin and dopamine. St John’s wort has been well studied for its antidepressant qualities, and clinical trials have shown it to be as effective as pharmaceutical antidepressant drugs.
SAFETY NOTE: St John’s wort interacts with pharmaceutical drugs, and should not be taken by folks taking any other medications like SSRIs, birth control, or any other pharmaceutical medication. Please consult your physician before taking St. John’s Wort internally.
Albizia (albizia julibrissin) is a nervine with a longstanding use in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an antidepressant. Its name in TCM roughly translates to “collective happiness tree,” illustrating just how beneficial this plant can be for uplifting the spirits. Additionally, some have casually dubbed Albizia as “nature’s Prozac.” Albizia gently unwinds the nervous system, lowering tension and anxiety, improving sleep and boosting the mood. It is considered to be a heart herb, so if you are struggling under the weight of grief or a sense of depression is weighing heavy on your heart, albizia can be a supportive plant ally in helping to lift your spirits.
If you are finding you need extra support this winter, don’t hesitate to reach out to loved ones, a therapist or a support hotline. If you’re wanting to lean on plant allies during this time and don’t know where to start, find a qualified herbalist to support you or swing by your local apothecary!
The author of this blog post is Amma Rosavalon
Amma Rosavalon is an herbalist that is based locally in Southern Oregon. Her practice is informed by the seasons & rhythms of the land around her. And her approach is a unique integration of clinical herbalism, self care practices, dietary adjustments, ritual & nature connection.
Amma trained in bioregional herbalism, Ayurveda, ethical wildcrafting and clinical herbalism through the Hawthorn Institute and has continued to devote herself to the path of herbal medicine ever since. She believes everyone deserves access to herbal medicine, holistic health support and connection to nature. Amma is honored to serve as a conduit in this way.