Monday, January 4, 2010

Stirring the sluggish body and spirit

This post is part of the January Blog Party: Warming Herbs hosted by Yael Grauer at

I love the beauty of New England winters, and the rich dreamtime the darkness brings, so I have always been reluctant to think of myself as suffering from seasonal depression.

But the reality is that cold, damp weather tends to slow the body down -- and for us kapha types that can mean both physical and emotional stagnation that very easily lead to depression.

In recent years I've found that several gentle warming herbs have helped me tremendously during the winter months:

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) -- Warm and aromatic. David Winston suggests Holy Basil for the treatment of "Stagnant Depression." I find that Holy Basil can prevent stagnant depression as well -- for me it quite quickly dispells mental and emotional fogs before they can set in too deeply. It is also a great upper respiratory decongestant which is important to me because I tend to store emotion in my lungs, and dispelling mucous and maintaining clear airways helps to prevent that. Holy Basil honey is particularly nice on a cold day.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) -- St. John's Wort's usefulness for relieving seasonal depression is well known, but tends to be attributed to the fact that the plant is such a wonderful nervous system tonic. Supporting healthy brain function is certainly one way St. John's Wort helps. But to me it is not the most important.

Kaphic seasonal depression often has a strong hepatic component -- exacerbated by the tendency to eat so many sweet, heavy foods in the winter, especially around the holidays. St. John's Wort is wonderful for gently stimulating bile production in the liver.

Two cautions here: First, if you are taking a prescription medicine that is metabolized by the liver, St. John's Wort may dramatically alter the level of the medicine in your bloodstream.

Secondly, when doing anything that might speed up the body's natural detoxification process it is very important to make sure you have clear channels of elimination to allow freed toxins to exit the body efficiently -- otherwise they can build up in the bloodstream. Constipation and slow bowel transit times can be significant issues for people with a kapha imbalance. I usually take Triphala and/or Chaga when I am taking St. John's Wort to keep things moving in my lower digestive tract.

Elecampane (Inula hellenium) -- Because I tend to hold emotion in my lungs, this warm, stimulating expectorant has helped me tremendously when deep depression and deep lung infections have hit me in winter. In Chinese medicine, the flowers are used for liver stagnation, and I find that the root has some benefit in this manner as well. Next year I hope to experiment with a whole plant tincture.

Eleuthero (
Eleutherococcus senticosus) -- Eleuthero gives me the boost in energy and stamina that I need to get and keep my body moving in winter. "True" (Panax) Ginsengs tend to be too hot and too stimulating, and can be jarring to my system and make my heart race -- but Eleuthero gives my body just the nudge it needs to exercise when the cold and dark make me think I want to stay still.