Energetic Herbalism for Melancholy and Depression

October 1, 2016

Two days ago as part of our annual garden fall cleanup we harvested 6 Ashwaganda, Withania somnifera, plants from the front gardens at Smile. We placed them in a confined area for the roots to dry for use over the upcoming winter.

The fragrance of these Ashwaganda roots while drying was amazing, and each of the three herbalists involved had the same uplifting experience from being in the presence of these plants. It was in that moment of joy in sharing the power of Ashwaganda that I decided to write this article about grief and melancholy. What we as professional herbalists have learned from Ashwaganda and other plants is the reality of balancing sadness through the use of plants in order to learn from our heart’s grief instead of being overwhelmed by it.

In this article, I will discuss the herbal treatment of mild to moderate sadness/depression with an emphasis on the use of herbs from the Yoga/Ayurveda tradition.

First let me clearly state my bias that OMG it is a healthy thing to have feelings. No really! Awareness and acceptance of feelings is part of what makes us unique as humans and can lead to spiritual liberation. So, when the most recent manual of psychiatric care defines grief over the loss of a loved one of more than a few week’s duration as a medical condition that should be treated with pharmaceutical drugs, it is clear that the greater part of the difference in how an herbalist approaches depression may be a philosophical one as to whether the feeling of sadness over loss is a disease symptom that needs to be treated with drugs.

My experience over 4 decades of treating people with herbs for sadness has shown me that herbs allow us to treat painful feelings while remaining conscious of the feeling. Most pharmaceutical drugs numb or distance the patient from their own emotional experience. Herbs, on the other hand, allow us to experience our feelings while helping us to remain functional in our busy and demanding daily lives.

A recent article in the Washington Post quotes Jerome C. Wakefield, a professor at NYU who has studied the distinctions between “normal” grief and mental disorders who says, “The American Psychiatric Association’s new stance on bereavement narrows the range of acceptable emotion, and once you classify these forms of grief as disorders, the symptoms become a target for drug development.” That is a very different world from that of herbalists, where we do our best to help the body (and mind and soul) find its own best route to healing. Grief is a part of healing, a natural response to pain and loss.

Herbs, and the Eastern idea of Energetics, can help us help ourselves through the process of grief while still allowing us to fulfill our worldly responsibilities. The system of Energetics I use in my own life is that of Ayurveda, and so I would like to walk you through some basics with an eye toward supporting a person through a period of grief and depression. Before we start I should remind you that we are talking about mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Severe depression and mood disorders are very serious conditions that should be dealt with under the supervision of a mental health professional.

Depression and Anxiety, while often linked, are actually different energetic or elemental manifestations. In Ayurveda there are three doshas, and each dosha is made up of two elements. Kapha (Earth/Water) and Pitta (Fire/Water) share the element of Water, and so are the most likely to develop “depression”. Anxiety, however, is most likely to be an excess of Air, making Vata (Air/Ether) the most vulnerable.

All of us, no matter what our primary constitution, contain all of the elements in our makeup and so can, under varying lifestyle and environmental conditions, develop an imbalance in any element. So Readers, without wanting to delve too deep into the intricacies of Ayurvedic typing, what conditions are most likely to encourage an imbalance of Air, leading to Anxiety, or of Water, leading to Depression?

Air: loud noise, bright lights, crowds, electronics (television, internet, video games, iPad, smartphone, movie theaters, etc.), an atmosphere of fear or anxiety (mean and/or unpredictable boss or co-workers, money trouble, relationship trouble, etc.), poor sleep, poor nutrition (including too much “fast food” or microwaved food), any chronically unsettled situation, excess of movement, thought, or stimulus.

Water: excess food (especially salty or sour foods), excess sleep (especially sleeping and then waking feeling unrested), lack of mental stimulation (TV and video games can be a problem here as well, as they masquerade as mental stimulation when they are in fact dulling to the mind), boredom, loneliness, lack of communication at work or at home, unsettled relationships, unprocessed grief or loss, low activity levels, weight gain, muscle weakness, any stagnant or boring situation.

If there is also restlessness and a tendency toward outbreaks of temper, then the Fire element is coming into play. Fire is best calmed by giving the suffering person productive work to do. More responsibility, a difficult or complex task, or challenging physical exercise can be the perfect solution to an excess of Water (Depression) aggravated by Fire (Restlessness or Impatience). In a depressed economy, many highly trained, motivated and dynamic people find themselves doing jobs for which they are over-qualified. This is a perfect environment for Pitta-type Depression. Excessive competition, over-exercise, unsettled relationships (especially if there is a power struggle) and poor communication can all aggravate the fire element.

When we understand that Vata, made up of Air and Ether, is aggravated by cold and dry conditions, windy fall weather, and the bitter and astringent tastes, we can see that Vata is balanced by warm and wet conditions, hot summer weather, and the sweet, sour, salty and pungent tastes. If you suffer from anxiety, do you notice that it’s worse when it’s cold or windy outside? Do you crave sour or spicy foods when you’re upset? If so, you may have a classic Vata aggravation. Try covering your ears when you go outside, eating lots of warming foods or drinking ginger tea, and having a humidifier in your home or office during the drier winter months. These simple lifestyle changes can help the herbs you choose work even more effectively.

And if Pitta is your concern? Pitta is made up of Fire and Water, is aggravated by hot, humid conditions, hot summer weather, and the pungent and salty tastes. If you find it very hard to be patient with people, get grouchy when it’s hot out, and have very high expectations for yourself and others, you may be struggling with Pitta. If that’s the case, reducing the amount of spicy and pickled foods in your life (including aged meats and cheeses, coffee, and chocolate) can make a big difference. Be wary, too, of over-exercising. Pitta types tend to like sports, but excessive body heat and sweating can irritate an already fiery system. If you recognize this pattern in yourself, you may find that fall and winter are your favorite times of year, that it’s easier to think clearly when the weather is cool, and you may struggle with productivity in the humid summer heat. Pitta is balanced by cool and dry conditions, fall and winter weather, and the sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes.

And finally Kapha, made up of Water and Earth, is aggravated by cold and wet conditions, winter and spring weather, and the sweet, sour and salty tastes. Kapha types are the most likely to have what we consider “typical” depression, meaning losing enthusiasm for things they normally love, having low energy, weight gain, and sleeping to excess (often without feeling refreshed). If you tend toward weight gain, seek comfort in social gatherings, and have trouble starting new projects, you may be struggling with Kapha. Exercise is often the best way to break through a Kapha-type depression, but it’s often very hard to get things started. Find a friend or a group to walk or do yoga with. Group activity is much easier than solo for this most social of the doshas. Kapha is balanced by warm and dry conditions, summer and fall weather, and the bitter, astringent and pungent tastes.

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