Herbs for Winter Blues

Lift darker, cold-weather moods and aid your digestive and nervous systems with herbal remedies and recipes for homemade bitters and rejuvenating teas.

| February/March 2017

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.

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