Written by Simon Mills
As we move through the dark days of the year, and in this 2020/21 season the extra pressures imposed by pandemic restrictions, it is not surprising that doctors report more demand for antidepressant prescriptions. Of course there are many people who suffer the awful bleakness of severe long-term or recurrent depression, for whom a very wide range of treatments must be considered. However antidepressants are increasingly prescribed to comfort unhappy patients or to alleviate symptoms of stress.
The natural way to lift your spirit
Where our melancholia has not reached the status of depressive illness we can usefully be reminded that there are natural approaches to lift our spirits. Indeed nature can provide the best reassurance when we are down: if one can step outside, of both one’s home and one’s self, and can get fully immersed in the cycles of life, one sees that all things are rhythmic. At the very darkest, coldest, lifeless part of the year when some animals hibernate (and show blood markers similar to clinical depression), the seeds and rootstocks are also at their most potent, bursting to get going again for the spring. Even hibernating (depressed) animals know that they will emerge with the next turn of the seasons. For many centuries humans have collectively laughed at this darkness: northern hemisphere midwinter festivals, Christmas, the Roman Saturnalia, Jewish Hannukah, Slavic Koliada, pagan Yule, Persian Yalda, or Asian Dongzhi, all are time to party! Earlier in the season the Hindu festival Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Often the best way to beat the winter blues is in experiencing that this is the way of the world, that darkness has its role in the cycle as the precursor of light and life.
Being able to get out for a walk in nature, taking a moment to look and be there with the plants, can be enormously enriching and mood enhancing, a true healing presence. You can even bring nature home with you. The smallest space at home can become a place to nurture it. In Japan you can find little gardens on doorsteps, in any nook and cranny, in even the most blighted urban landscapes. Tending a garden, even in pots, is a great source of serenity. The act of walking is also important: exercise is probably the most efficient and speedy way to stir the happy neurotransmitters and hormones.
Winter is kapha time in Ayurveda
In respecting the cycle of the seasons one also values the natural instinct to sleep and eat more! In Ayurveda winter is kapha time, time to build resources for the ‘hungry gap’ in spring, when people would have worked hard to get the crops in, with few food supplies left. As long as you are normally able to manage your weight you do not have to be concerned about a temporary weight gain in winter. Similarly having extra sleep may be a biological necessity.
The following plants bring the comforting qualities of nature inside us. Each is a powerful tool for lifting the spirits. The best approach is to get to know each herb as an individual first. Ideally make a single preparation, perhaps a cup of strong tea or decoction, and build up towards a good dose, the maximum from the range provided below. Taken in this form, at robust levels, benefits can be quite quick and it is soon possible to work out which is most helpful. You can then combine the best ones yourself.
These herbs are not anti-depressants in the conventional sense. Instead in different ways they build the core, calm and help to cope better, perhaps also reducing constant inflammatory pressures on the brain. Even St John’s Wort, widely thought of as a herbal antidepressant is traditionally used as a tonic, helping to heal and recover.
Each of these five have their own monographs in Herbal Reality where you can learn more.
Five mood-enhancing herbs
The classic Ayurvedic brain tonic, and saponin-rich adaptogen, that appears to work in a number of ways to protect brain cells and improve cognitive functions, especially when these are challenged by long-term stresses, illnesses and ageing. It has been used to help recover from chronic fatigue and associated low energies. Brahmi is also calming and helps directly in anxiety and tension conditions, and in helping cope with stress.
The dose is 2 to 6 grams of the dried leaf per day, either as (a slightly soapy tasting) tea or, as popularly taken in India, several teaspoons of the fresh leaf juice.
Here the lift start with the organoleptic hit – good cinnamon tea fires all the taste buds! Take a teaspoonful of freshly powdered cinnamon (look for the tightly wrapped flaky quills of Ceylon cinnamon for the most complex flavours), add 50ml of boiling water, stir and steep for 5-10 minutes and sip. Feel the mix of spicy and sweet reverberating at the back of your mouth, with a slightly woody quality, and the warmth coming up from your chest. You may pick up a trace of bitterness in the aftertaste too. You will quickly feel the warmth moving through your body too.
Cinnamon is particularly useful if you are recovering from an illness or chronic fatigue condition, and again especially when you are feeling the cold. It will help restore a healthy appetite and reduce the many digestive and abdominal problems that are associated with being run down. If you want even more heating add in some fresh ginger to the tea. You easily mix cinnamon with the other herbs on this list to bring more warmth.
The suggested dose of cinnamon powder is up to 8 grams per day.
This very popular traditional Asia restorative tonic is revered in Asia for ‘opening the mind’, sometimes accompanying meditative practices as a tea. Taken in this way you will be struck by the initial bitter taste, that gives way to a satisfying aromatic sweetness. It has a particular effect in restoring mental functions, including cognitive performance such as memory and concentration, when these are compromised by excess stresses.
The dose starts at 3 gram of dried leaf per day, going up to 30 gram (1 ounce) if you are comfortable in escalating to this intake. Taking Gotu Kola in tea form is its traditional route.
There is something inherently stimulating about the smell and taste of this common garden herb – it seems to go straight to the brain. This impression is probably correct! Rosemary is an excellent tonic to raise spirits and boost recovery after illness or periods of low energy. Even inhaling the fresh leaf from a garden or window box will stimulate mental energy and the tea taken internally will much extend this effect.
There is promising evidence that rosemary may reduce inflammatory pressures on the brain now implicated in many conditions associated with low mood and depression, including chronic fatigue syndrome, dementia as well as mental illness itself. Further research indicating that it could improve cognitive performance in the elderly adds to the view that rosemary is a brain tonic.
Taking rosemary as a tea is an unusual experience but is well worth trying when you need a quick lift. The dose is up to 4 grams a day of the dried leaf.
St Johns Wort
This is often described as the herbal antidepressant. It has much wider a range of actions than that. The herb and flowers have been used in European traditions to relieve nervous tension and anxiety. Importantly, this calming effect is combined with underlying restorative benefits: the plant was also used as a convalescent treatment for melancholic conditions, depression and recovering from illness or trauma.
This makes St John’s wort ideal in situations where tension and exhaustion combine. Its most useful modern application is towards a programme of recovery from chronic fatigue conditions. It also has a long reputation as a support to women having a hard time through the menopause.
Note that St John’s wort has been shown as an active inducer of drug metabolism, so that it may reduce the activity and active life of many medicines. It is wise to avoid it if there are any powerful treatments underway, where reducing the effect of a medicine may be critical.
There are many commercial preparations of St John’s wort available, as well as practitioner tinctures and extracts. These may be easier to take than making a tea. The traditional calming and tonic dose was the equivalent of 2 to 5 grams of the dried leaf and flowers per day.