Feeling sad at times is a natural part of the human condition. I’m sure everyone reading this article has experienced sadness or perhaps even some form of depression. When darker days of winter draw up around us, we may spend more time indoors and isolated, which can lead to darker moods and winter blues.
Not all episodes of sadness and loss of energy can be categorized as depression, though. The difference between “the blues” and depression lies in the duration of the episode, the severity, and the contributing factors. Unlike depression, the blues come and go — but the emphasis is on go. Bad moods can be triggered by fatigue, hunger, dehydration, overwork, poor diet, poor sleep, lack of sunlight, and other physical and emotional stresses, and these moods are generally short-lived, whereas depression can linger on for weeks to years without appropriate care.
A Chemical Imbalance?
Initial hypotheses on the biology of depression centered on the monoamine neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine) that act to transmit nerve or neuron signals to a cell. These brain chemicals are widely touted as gatekeepers to better mental health and happiness. They’re important because they help regulate appetite, sleep, energy, and pleasure, all of which, of course, are relevant concerns when considering the debilitating effects of many mood disorders, including depression.
However, brain chemicals aren’t the whole story. In 1977, George L. Engel presented a more holistic, biopsychosocial model of disease, which argued for considering diseases’ biological, psychological, and social components in real-world treatment. Health practitioners widely recognize that depression is multifaceted and that balancing brain chemicals is only a part of the equation.
Other Factors for Depression
Genes. Having family members who have experienced some form of major depression may mean that we’re genetically predisposed to developing the same illness. This doesn’t mean we’re destined to become depressed, but rather that our susceptibility to depression is greater.
Brain structure changes. Depression may beget depression. Although studies have shown varying conclusions, some studies using brain imaging have suggested that brain areas involved in mood, memory, and decision-making (the hippocampus and amygdala) may change in response to repeated mood disorders (or are already smaller in depressed people). Continued stress may also slow down the production of new neurons, impeding neural communication and contributing to depression.
Life stressors. Financial struggles, loss, or other life challenges can create enormous stress. Real or perceived threats register in our psyches and our bodies, causing us to feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, frightened, or restless, and can trigger a surge of stress hormones and other physiological reactions that produce notable changes in the body.
Medical conditions. Hypothyroidism, diabetes, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other serious medical conditions may contribute to depressive symptoms or major depression. Always check in with your health care provider if you sense that what you’re feeling is more than just a temporary case of the blues.
Toxins. Exposure to toxins can affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Pesticides, environmental pollutants, certain prescription drugs, solvents, and heavy metals have all been linked to depression. Minimize your exposure to these toxins as well as you can, and try substituting natural herbal products for chemical products.
Gut health. There is a strong connection between brain health and gut health. Researchers have found that inflammation and irritation in the gut may set off changes in the central nervous system and brain (and vice versa).
Seasonal changes. Shorter days, lack of sunlight, and reduced activity can cause wintertime depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder.
Herbs for Depression and the Blues
When you’re feeling down and not quite yourself, you can do certain things to moderate your mood and enjoy life again. We as herbalists would be remiss not to address the mind and body’s many complexities. So, as we try to understand the root of any condition, we consider health history, diet, and lifestyle.
The good news: Supportive, tonifying, and nourishing herbal remedies may help with sadness and depression. Nervines help to alleviate stress and anxiety and soothe and nourish the nervous system; adaptogens help the body moderate its response to stress and reduce anxiety; and bitters help support gut health. Herbs can support brain function and help you to maintain a positive outlook, especially along with an anti-inflammatory diet and exercise. You could also include fermented foods, omega-3 fatty acids, and a vitamin B complex in your diet and limit refined wheat flour, sugar, coffee, and alcohol. Time spent exercising outdoors in sunshine can give you a needed energy boost.
Herbs can be a gentle yet steady approach to increased wellness, but keep in mind that herbal remedies may take a long time, even months, to effect a noticeable result. If you’re taking pharmaceutical antidepressants or if you’re pregnant or nursing, be sure to discuss the use of herbs for depression or any herbal remedies with your health care provider.
Getting Back on Track
During the dead of winter, feelings of depression may affect us most. However, feeling blue can allow us the opportunity to be introspective and regroup. I’m not advocating wallowing in depression, but rather that we consider, along with medical and herbal support we need, welcoming in the sadness and being receptive to the messages it may bring.
As human beings, we need soulful communication with others and a sense of belonging to the Earth. Using supportive herbs for winter blues and depression is one way for us to foster reconnection, nourish ourselves, and create wholeness.
Try These Herbal Remedies for Depression and Winter Blues:
Marlene Adelmann is an herbalist and the founder of The Herbal Academy, which is an international school of herbal arts and sciences that offers online training programs and serves as a meeting place for Boston-area herbalists.