Herbs for Depression

Sadness, frustration, sorrow and grief are normal human emotions that are part of the fabric of our experience.  But when these emotions settle in and become part of our day to day life without abatement, they lead to underlying depression.  Depression can feel like a dull, dark cloud settling in and masking out other more positive human emotions like joy, peacefulness and humor.  The heavy sensation of depression feels like excess gravity mixed with a feeling of isolation and depletion.   And once it settles in, it can be hard to pull out of; like getting stuck in a sand pit.

Depression tends to have underpinnings, currents that led to the present state.  There may be an underlying predisposition to melancholy but trauma from one or many painful emotional experiences often contributes to the depression.  Everything from constantly fighting with a spouse, money and work problems to something as severe as emotional and sexual abuse as a child can trigger a descent into depression.  Diet and lifestyle choices play a huge role too.  We can easily wear ourselves down by drinking, taking drugs, not getting enough sleep and eating a junk food diet.  Unknown

As the body and spirit wear down due to these factors, it is easy to become emotionally deadened.  This is a state beyond sad.  It truly feels apathetic, numbed and clouded, like feeling sunk in dark, stale jello.  In this state it can become increasingly hard to do self-care.  One can easily stop paying close attention to eating healthy,exercising regularly and it can become easier to use poor coping strategies such as over or undereating, drinking, taking drugs, engaging in excessive computer use, pornography, etc.  These poor coping strategies can contribute to even further disease and suffering, worsening the depression.

To unravel this painful knot takes time, care and attention.  First of all, it’s key to set up a network of support to encourage those who are depressed to live in the healthiest manner possible.   Good friends and healthy family members along with a supportive therapist, alternative health care practitioner and doctor can go along way to creating the space for healing.  A therapist should be able to monitor if a person is sinking into a heavier and more dangerous state of depression where they are becoming suicidal.  At this point, hospitalization is warranted.  An alternative health care practitioner versed in nutrition and herbal medicine can offer a wide degree of support for optimizing the depressed person’s physical health which in turn underpins their mental health.

UnknownA doctor or nurse practitioner can discuss medications with you if that is something you wish to do.  Before embarking on taking medications, I would suggest doing a lot of research about their effectiveness, side effect profile and challenges in withdrawal from these medications when that time comes.  taking medications is a by personal choice.  Though I advocate for choosing alternatives to taking pharmaceutical medications when possible, I understand that they can be useful and even life saving for some people.  However, we need to have more than a 10 minute conversation with a medical professional before making these

imageslife changing decisions.  I advocate that each individual suffering from depression become highly educated about whatever medication they wish to take.

Herbs have become incredibly popular to buy and now represent part of a 3 billion dollar annual industry.  People go to health food stores, grocery outlets and increasingly buy them on line.  They often do their own research and decide on an herb or set of herbs to take.  While I applaud the goal of becoming more self-reliant, I also see the negative consequences of entering into the quick fix herbal market place.  Single capsules of industrially made and standardized herbs rarely cure someone of their depression.  In fact selling herbs as a replacement for a medication (take this St. John’s Wort instead of prozac) can lull the consumer into believing they are fully helping themselves.

Really, I believe it is key to have a wider understanding of herbal medicines and what they can and cannot do for you.

My philosophy around herbal medicine is that the more you are using your five senses to engage with herbs, the more you engage your own internal vital energy to become stronger and help you to heal.  So when you go outside and take in the beauty of a lavender plant, draw its aroma into you and then touch the stalks and flowers and finally taste the flower by brewing a cup of its tea, you are engaging your senses in dancing with this herb.  You are bringing your juicy self to life.  The lavender plant will calm you while refreshing and uplifting you, ease any tension or spasms in your body and act gently to improve your mood.  How much better is that than taking a couple capsules of some herb you grabbed out of a plastic bottle you bought off a shelf, harvested by machines and processed in a factory somewhere? images-1

When we engage our five senses with the natural and herbal world, we are in essence saying yes to life and saying yes to the process of healing and becoming more whole.  Teas, infusions, decoctions, baths, tinctures, aromatherapy, walking in nature and gardening are all ways of engaging in whole sensory herbalism.  It also helps the person to slow down and remember the part of oneself that is unbroken.  No matter what trauma a person has experienced the is always a seed kernel of undamaged energy, the core, the Self.  Herbs get us back in touch with this core Self, allows us to remember who we were before we started knotting up.

Taking herbs for depression requires looking at exactly what kind of depression we are carrying.  Traditional societies look at depression through the lens of constitutions, temperamental patterns and the energetics of illness.  In other words, no two depressions are the same.  Here is an outline of some of the basic ways we can be depressed from a Chinese Medicine perspective.

Deficiency:  This person is depleted, exhausted, washed out, perhaps due to overwork, from having too many responsibilities, from excess drugs, alcohol, bad diet.

Excess:   anxious, restless, “pent up”, frustrated and wired depression.  There is often circulating pain, tension and spasms associated with this.  This is often seen in people who are always going, type A folks who are holding it all in.

Finally, from the Chinese Medicine perspective, depression can occur when one of our organ systems are out of balance.  It is key to understand that from a Chinese Medicine perspective, the organs in the body not only relate to the actual organs, but also lines, or meridians of energy that circulate the body as well as emotional states.  Here is a table outlining those relationships.
















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In Chinese medicine when one of these organs becomes unbalanced they can lease to dis-ease, illness and unbalanced emotional states including depression.  For example, if we become very frustrated and angry in our job due to a poor working relationship with our boss, we could develop organic problems with our liver as well as having “stagnant liver qi.”  This can begin with feeling internally pent up but can turn into a state of depression if unmanaged for long.Unknown-1

Another example is a person dealing with the grief of losing a parent or going through a breakup.  They may actually experience increased bronchial complaints such as recurring bronchitis.  The grief may also settle in and become a state of deep depression.  Those who overdo it by partying too hard, taking too many drugs (especially “happy” drugs like ecstasy) can burn out their heart energy and ultimately become depleted, exhausted, sad and depressed.

To help people with herbal medicine requires an understanding of the energetic preconditions of the person as well as the back story of any trauma or ongoing problems they are having.  It is essential to counsel making lifestyle and dietary changes to promote the best health before relying on herbs for their benefits.  herbs won’t work if you only eat chocolate cake for every meal.

There are five main classes of herbs to help those with depression.  They are tonics, nervines, antispasmodics, analgesics, and adaptogens.  Lets look at each for helping with depression.images-2


Tonics include herbs that are helpful for strengthening the whole body, usually by infusing the system with an abundance of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.  Herbs in this category include nettles, oatstraw and red clover.

Nervines are herbs that help relax or stimulate the nervous system to bring better well being.  Relaxant nervines include gentle herbs such as chamomile and lemon balm and more sedative herbs such. Valerian and kava kava.  Simulating nervines include aromatics such as lavender and mint as well as stronger stimulants such as ephedra and caffeine containing tea and coffee (yes coffee is an herb).

Antispasmodics include herbs that help reduce tension in organic tissue and muscles and help to relieve stress.  These include herbs like black cohosh, devil’s claw and crampbark.

Analgesics include herbs that are helpful for relieving pain.  These include herbs such as white willow bark, poplar and meadowsweet.

Adaptogens help improve and modulate the immune and nervous systems and can strengthen an individual over time to manage stress in their lives.  Herbs such as the ginsengs, astragalus and ashwaghanda are included in this category.

When working with someone who is depressed, it can be complicated and a bit of an art form to create a formula, or set of herbs to help a person improve.  Often I will suggest the use of a tonic herb to be taken daily as a simple.  Oatstraw makes a good choice for the nervous frail type who has been burned out by excessive anxiety into a state of depression.   I would further recommend cups of gentle relaxing tea such as a formula of lemon balm, chamomile, and lavender twice a day as well as a more strong nervine such as Passion flower or hops tincture to take for immediate relief of anxiety that leads to an increasing state of depression.  Unknown-3

I may also suggest getting lavender oil and add a few drops to a morning bath as well as using a particular flower essence such as mimulus that helps with stomach/earth element based worry that underpins the depression.   I would also recommend gentle nourishing exercise such as moderate yoga and outdoor nature walks.   At other times I would recommend the use of Chinese herbs taken over a period of time with an emphasis on tonic and adaptogenic herbs.

Depression can be challenging to treat.  It takes a while to untie those knots, get to the root of the problem, and then gently help people to a great state of emotional health.  Often intractable problems such as poverty, disability and life circumstances can prove hard to overcome.  However, herbal therapy along with counseling can prove to be a magical formula for helping someone with depression to become stronger, healthier and more at peace.  The plants are growing right outside our windows, ready to play and dance with us.  Inviting them in helps us to heal and reconnect with our core Self, our  unbroken and harmonious natural being.


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