Herbal Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Are you frequently feeling down in the dumps now that the weather’s getting cooler and the days are getting shorter? You may be one of the growing number of people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) as a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, most often during the winter months. Winter’s decrease in daylight hours can cause a disruption in the body’s internal rhythm, which can lead to feelings of depression. Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression. Five percent of adults have been diagnosed with a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder but up to 20 percent of people experience symptoms at some point.

SAD is usually only a temporary condition so anti-depressant medications aren’t often recommended to treat the symptoms, especially since prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) often come with numerous side effects. According to non-profit helpguide.org, common side effects of SSRI’s include sexual problems, drowsiness, sleep difficulties and nausea. While some side effects go away after the first few weeks of drug treatment, others persist and may even get worse. Patients taking SSRI’s can also experience antidepressant discontinuation syndrome if the drugs are stopped abruptly instead of the dosage being gradually tapered down. Common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, extreme restlessness, insomnia, muscle pain/spasms, nausea and vomiting.

Several years ago, a neurologist prescribed me the generic antidepressant Duloxetine for treatment of migraines and after taking it for several months, I didn’t notice a significant change and attempted to stop taking the drug cold turkey. My doctor didn’t warn me of the dangers of quitting abruptly and I had a terrible time trying to feel normal again. The withdrawals made me feel severely depressed, constantly nauseous and I had extremely vivid nightmares for nearly a month. As a result of my experience, I would strongly recommend searching for alternative options before taking prescription anti-depressants.

If you want to avoid these risks or simply don’t like taking prescription drugs, there are several herbal remedies that can be used to naturally treat SAD, as well as other forms of depression. Some of the most commonly used herbs for depression include: St. John’s wort, ylang ylang, lavender, chamomile and passionflower. 

St. John’s Wort Extract

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the most commonly recommended herbs for relief from feelings of depression, anxiety or nervousness. In The Herb Companion article 15 Herbs to Save Money on Medical Bills, contributor Kim Erickson advised that recent studies have shown that St. John’s wort is just as effective for treatment of mild to moderate depression as prescription SSRI’s, the only exception being that the herb has far fewer side effects. While doctors warn that the herb can make some prescription medications less effective when taken in combination with birth control pills, for example, the possible side effects are much less serious and extensive than those of prescription antidepressants, as read above.

St. John’s Wort is a hardy herb that can outlast extreme heat and minimal watering.
Photo by Louisa Billeter/Courtesy Flickr

When taking St. John’s Wort, your skin becomes more susceptible to UV rays so you should always wear sunscreen when heading outside. The standard daily dosage for mild to moderate depression is 500 to 1,000 mg of St. John’s Wort extract, which you can find at your local drugstore. The effects of this herb are not immediate, so you should continue taking it for at least 3 to 4 weeks before deciding if it’s right for you.

Essential Oils for Depression

As an alternative to consuming herbal extracts, you can also reap their benefits through aromatherapy with a variety of essential oils. In aromatherapy, essential oils are generally absorbed into the circulatory system through the skin or mucous membranes. The primary aromatherapy methods include inhalation, vaporization, bathing, massage and spray. Aromatherapy can be as simple as adding a few drops of your chosen essential oil to a hot bath. Or you can also mix one teaspoon of oil with seven ounces of distilled water and one ounce of 90 percent isopropyl alcohol to create a spray, which can be applied to linens or bedding for a soothing effect.

Essential oils can be purchased at an aromatherapy store or made at home.
Photo by iampeas/Courtesy Flickr

The Herb Companion Special Reference Issue Guide to Healing Herbs includes a number of essential oils that are beneficial for treatment of depression.

• Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oil is often used to treat feelings of sadness and anxiety. According to ylang ylang essential oil is used to lower high blood pressure and dispel depression as it creates a sense of euphoria with its sweet, calming scent.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) oil contains chemicals, which exert a sedative, calming effect. This essential oil is especially effective when used in a hot aromatherapy bath to soothe the soul and calm nerves.

• Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is an expensive essential oil, but it is effective for relieving increased levels of anxiety and tension.

Passionflower for Anxiety

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is effective for treating nervous agitation, anxiety and mild insomnia. Passionflower is thought to work by increasing levels of gamma-Aminobutyric acid in the brain, resulting in a calming feeling. Passionflower is often combined with sedative herbs like valerian (Valeriana officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to create a sense of total relaxation.

Passionflower is also used as a natural sleep-aid.
Photo by Mandy Jansen/Courtesy Flickr

The alkaloids and flavonoids in this herb create a feeling of overall well-being by sedating the nervous system. Most commonly consumed as a tea, passionflower tinctures and extracts can be purchased at your local health-food store. Passionflower leaves should not be taken in combination with antidepressant drugs known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s)because the herb contains alkaloids, which reduce the effects of this class of medication.

You should always consult your health-care provider before using any of these herbs, in case of possible drug interactions.

The Mayo Clinic: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
MedicineNet: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
HelpGuide.org: What You Need to Know About Depression Medication
15 Herbs to Save Money on Medical Bills by Kim Erickson
Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar
Ylang Ylang Oil: Benefits of Ylang-Ylang Essential Oil
The Herb Companion: Guide to Healing Herbs
Every Herb Has a Story: Passionflower Benefits by Randy Buresh

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