Depression: an herbalist's approach

Part one

Feeling a little down? A little sad or uneasy? It used to be as a culture, we would just pop a pill, or take something illegal. Like the counter culture drug song of the sixties ''Just ask Alice.'' If you couldn't get something on your own, or from Alice, you could ask your physician. One and two decades ago it was not unusual for physicians to use anti-depressant medications more liberally. But many of these drugs such as Valium®, Xanax® and Ativan®, in spite of first reports of safe long-term use have left their users feeling hooked and physicians unwilling to prescribe.

It's normal for people to experience depression when life isn't going right. We feel down when we are unhappy in our work or when our relationships are difficult. Many times a season change will bring on the blues, although these days most of us are worried whether there will be an orb left to have a change of seasons! We all experience feelings of sadness, unhappiness or anxiety at times and no, a superficial happy state will not cure your depression.

What will work is a thorough examination of the facts. Am I physically ill? Is it situational? Is there a family history of depression? Also take stock of what medications you are taking and whether they may be part of the picture. Antibiotics and birth control pills many times have side effects of depression.

Others are affected by their work or home environment. Various chemicals--including household cleaners, a leaky gas stove, or the newly painted office space or the toner from the copy machine--may be adding to your symptoms. Be your own sleuth. Put things under the microscope. Notice how you feel when you're away from work or home. Do I feel better one place than the other? Be particularly suspicious of chemicals if you suffer feelings of free floating anxiety. Most individuals will find they could take enough Valium® to fill a pick-up truck and won't experience relief from this kind of anxiety until the offending item is removed.

Oriental medicine traces depression to a liver that has become stagnant either by emotions that have been kept inside, or because of foods such as hydrogenated fats, alcohol and sugars that have ''gummed up'' the liver and kept it from working efficiently. Therefore it will be necessary to take stock of your diet. Eat limited amounts of the foods listed above, and partake of more nutrient-rich whole foods such as apples, artichokes, carrots and lots of green leafies.

A journal is also in order for several weeks, recording what you eat and how the feel each day.

Your journal may reveal unhealthy patterns of eating as well that could be contributing to your depression. Some of the common problems are skipping meals, eating late at night and bingeing, especially of sweets including fruit juices. Empty sweets destabilize blood sugar levels and lead to feelings of lethargy and vulnerability. On the other hand, eating small, frequent meals that contain protein and complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, barley, brown rice and other whole grains, as well as vegetables helps the body function more efficiently and stay on a even keel.

Next week I'll talk about safe useful alternatives in the herbal kingdom to help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. Stay tuned.

Till next time, Rebecca.

part two

Last week I looked at depression and some of its more common causes -- such as poor diet, stress or allergies leading to an imbalance in the body, especially the liver. Of course, there are more serious kinds of depression caused by brain dysfunction or biochemical imbalance. These kinds of depression should not be treated lightly, nor should an individual embark upon self diagnosis or treatment.

The herbal kingdom has several wonderful plants to choose from for the treatment of mild depression, the most popular being St. John's Wort, which has been likened to mother nature's Prozac®. I personally would not go that far but it does even out the mood. It also has beneficial effects on the large intestine, the liver and the immune system.

Through the years, this herb has been used as a mild tranquilizer and as treatment for depression and insomnia. If you rub the petals of this flower between your fingers, a red resin (the active ingredient) will ooze out, leaving a red stain. Ancient legend believes the red was the blood of John the Baptist when he was beheaded -- thus the name St. Johns Wort. Recent studies indicate that it is effective for anxiety and emotional problems. Unlike many other psychotropic drugs, patients do not report any side effects.

There are some precautions you should be aware of if you are planning on using St. John's Wort. It should be used short-term and intermittently. Also, it does mimic MOA antidepressant medications, such as Elavil®, therefore this herb should not be taken with these kinds of medication. It has has been reported to cause sensitivity to light so you should avoid exposure to the sun.

Other herbs that may be helpful for depression are valerian, used at night to help induce sleep. Kava Kava, well known by the Polynesians to reduce anxiety and create a feeling of well being. Chamomile and mint are known to reduce feelings of stress and agitation and relieve anxiety.

I have found aromatherapy oils can work to uplift the spirit as well, including basil, cinnamon, coriander, lavender, jasmine, rose and sandalwood. Use them in a bath or shower, or try applying a single drop to the skin, or inhale the aroma directly from the bottle. These oils are very powerful so be careful how much you inhale!

Many of us at some point in our lives will find we need some type of medication, whether chemical or herbal, to help us cope with mild depression. If this includes you, welcome to the human race! However, herbs and drugs should not be used to mask depression and its symptoms. Seek professional help when necessary.

Till next time, Rebecca.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online October 9, 2001

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