Herbal Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The cold, dark, 5 p.m. sunsets of mid-November have a way of making you feel like contracting in on yourself, like  curling into a ball of lethargic melancholy and staying there, restless and angsty. When you add in the gloomy, rainy, overcast gray skies that dominate the late autumn daylight hours here in Portland, Oregon, it becomes unbearable for those of us prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder. The melancholy can easily become despair, and we begin feeling absolutely miserable, especially when we think of how very rare the sunny days will be between now and mid-spring. It’s the most major downside to living in one of the best cities in the country, and it was getting to me big time last week.

And then I thought: “Hey, I’m an herbalist. I can approach this like any other imbalance.”

I surveyed my medicine shelf to look for mood-boosting herbs, and saw that I have a whole lot of lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, left over from my summer urban wildcrafting excursions. Lemon balm is considered a nervine, an herb that acts on the nervous system, and in my experience has a noticeable uplifting effect when I drink it in tea or smoke it in a pipe. Another effective herb I’ve enjoyed as a noticeable mood booster is damiana, Turnera diffusa, which makes me feel lighthearted and sometimes even giggly. That one grows in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, so I can’t wildcraft it here, but it’s easy to find at the local herb shops in town such as Clary Sage Herbarium and The Herb Shoppe, or through Mountain Rose online.

From a holistic health point of view, of course, finding herbs to lift your mood when you’re feeling down is only a band-aid — to really help yourself, you need to do two things:
1) Discover what external influences you have around you that are knocking you off-balance, and counter them using herbs, lifestyle, or diet.
2) Examine the internal influences, the mind-body connection, see what’s originating in the mind, and explore what spiritual tools you may have at your disposal.

For me, #1 is the cold, dark, wet weather. The wonderful distance herb course I’ve been enrolled in for the past few months, Michael Tierra’s East West School, is heavily informed by concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda (Indian herbalism), and these systems of herbal medicine emphasize the importance of balance. How do you balance cold, dark, wet weather? By taking warming herbs such as ginger and eating hot, cooked foods in the colder months. In addition to ginger, other warming herbs that are great in teas include cinnamon, licorice, and orange peel.

Herbs that help the body cope with stress, called “adaptogens,” can also be helpful. Some adaptogenic herbs are astragalus, devil’s club, American ginseng. And if you are prone to anxiety, you may also consider including some nervines, such as the anti-anxieties skullcap and kava kava, or gently soothing, supportive oat straw.

From that TCM perspective, it’s also important to adjust your diet to avoid cold, dampening foods such as dairy, raw vegetables, or cold ice cream, which can worsen the effects of the climate on the body. Other lifestyle changes that help are regular exercise and earlier bedtimes/wake times.

As for #2, the spiritual/mind-body element, whether you’re into yoga, meditation, affirmations, Qi Gong, or whatever else, if it works for you, do that! Personally, meditation and Reiki are my favorite tools. My meditation practice, like my herbalism, is DIY free-form. What I find useful is putting my awareness in my heart space and being a compassionate presence for it and then going from there. Here is one technique I came up with recently that I’m sharing here for the curious: You put your awareness in your heart, ask yourself what you want and need emotionally at this moment, and then think of a time when you had it, and then feel in your heart what that sensation was like physically. Once you connect with the sensation, meditate on it in your heart space and expand it, giving yourself the exact sensation of happiness, relaxation, or anything else you want to experience, regardless of external circumstances.

That, plus some extra exercise and warming/mood-boosting teas, seems to be doing the trick!

How do you combat S.A.D.? What works for you?

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15 thoughts on “Herbal Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

  1. Thank you Becky for great information given. Herbal products are very useful to maximize health, weight management and personal care benefits. Lemon balm is a new thing for me, would like to smoke it.

  2. I live in the deep south I have heard of SAD but never have I experienced it . It’s very sunny here most of the time. Winters r mild , very little snow and ice . I also work outside year round and get a lot of Sun . It does get cold , we rarely see temps below the 20’s , if it gets that cold most people stay inside . If anyone needs herbs from the south and I can get them just ask I don’t deal in selling herbs but I will help anyone in need . I hope that was ok to do miss Becky I should have asked u first . If that’s ok to do that on Ur blog .

  3. as a novice to foraging and a newbie ayurvedic, I found this post extremely beneficial!!! Keep up the great work, Becky! Its so important for us to find the mind/body connection in all seasons. My family lives in Canada and we struggle with the SADness every winter (sorry for the pun). This year, I am experimenting with what we put in the pot on the fireplace. (The pot on the fireplace was simply for humidity…as the wood burning fireplace makes the house & sinus so dry!) So far I have put dried lavender and orange peels (separately on different occasions) and not only do they help the sinus issue…but the lavender makes me so happy! double WIN!!!

  4. Thanks, this is very helpful, especially for someone who lives in Humboldt County! I’m curious about smoking lemon balm–does it burn your throat? I think it would help if you gave us a specific example of #2 from your own life. I get the general idea, but describing a situation would help paint a clearer picture for how to affect change in that aspect of our lives. Thanks again for the great info :)

  5. Great post!
    Here in Pittsburgh, we say goodbye to all sunlight by 5 PM throughout the winter. I try to consume as much vitamin D rich foods as possible, and supplement D3 as well. Getting enough sunlight (if it’s out) throughout the day is essential for me, even if the sun is just peeking through the clouds. Herbal-wise, I find the caffeinated plants to elevate my mood, and adaptogens like reishi and chaga mushroom to be supportive as well.

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