Herbs for Brightening Dark Winter Days — School of Evolutionary Herbalism


Artist: Hiver Fond

December 21st will mark the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere, a time where we celebrate the winter solstice. The etymology of the word means sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), and is a reflection of a turning point the sun is now making in the southernmost part of the sky from the Earth’s equator. Moving forward from this day, we will see that the days start to grow a little longer and a little brighter.

For any northern dwellers, it’s common to feel a little less energetic as these darker days envelope the skies. Because the day light is so minimal and we’re not exposed to the long hours of sunlight we’re used to, our biological system can actually produce an overproduction of a hormone that promotes rest, sleepiness, and more of a calmed state – called melatonin.

This can leave us feeling heavier, dull, and for some folks even manifest as the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Melatonin is a part of our body’s inherent natural clock or circadian rhythm, which governs our sleep patterns; but it can sometimes feel a bit overbearing.

I think an important consideration here is that it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit melancholic during this time and to remember that the rhythms of Nature can have mirror effect on our inner emotional worlds as well. Maybe Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t a disorder at all, but maybe it’s just a part of the natural order of Nature.

If these longer winter days have kindled a slight darkness in your world, I’d like to share some of my favourite herbs that might lift your spirits and shine a little light of energy into your soul, so you can perhaps feel a little lighter in spirit.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) To me this plant invokes a sense of mental sharpness coupled with a sense of stillness. This is a balancing tonic that brings stimulation to the brain through cerebral circulation which helps to lift those foggy mental states and help one think more clear. It’s used to increase memory and is especially great for folks that feel agitated, as its also acts as a nervine in other areas of the body. To me, Gotu Kola is the perfect herb for meditation and self-reflection, for it induces a state of calm, and peaceful wakefulness. 

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) I quote Sajah & Whitney’s description of Melissa as they depict this plant beautifully:

Like a sunny day, Lemon Balm uplifts the spirit, bringing hope and happiness into the heart. It is a perfect remedy to have around in the depths of the winter blues, in those times when the sun hasn’t reached your soul for ages, when darkness and despair have clouded your days. Lemon Balm invokes the light within, revealing the innocence and sweetness of the inner child. Many of us don’t allow ourselves to shine in our full capacity, we hold ourselves back and simply don’t accept or love who we are in this moment…

Lemon Balm assists us in looking beyond our flaws and conditionings to seeing the pure soul inside, the one that wants to be free and exuberant, the part of us that wants to have fun! This acceptance of the self opens the floodgates of love to pour into those forgotten or malnourished places within the soul. The incredible purity and simplicity of this plant instills a sense of peace and contentment within, inviting one to enjoy the nectar of their own heart.

Linden (Tilia spp.) The doctrine of signature is so clear in this tree who wears heart shaped leaves. This delicious sweet tasting tree releases tension in the musculature and circulatory realms of the body, and the heart specifically, softening tension and uplifting worry. Linden flowers support restlessness, improves sleep and lowers anxious and depressed states. It’s specific for anxiety around the heart as it physically supports the vasculature of the circulatory system, gently widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. Linden will reinstate a sense of calm and will gladden the heart with its sweet, aromatic blossoms. 

The Happiness Tree: Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) A very uplifting remedy known as the “collective happiness tree” in China. We cannot help but feel happy in the presence of Mimosa flowers. If you ever get a chance to see an Albizia tree flowering, the blossoms shine pink and dangle like bright fireworks exploding mid air – they are simply fantastic and without a doubt, very happy forming creatures. This flower is known to bring relief when we feel burdened from continuous tears that will not stop – allowing us to break for a breath and feel peace to roll into our heart. It is known in Chinese Medicine as a “Shen tonic,” specific for uplifting the spirit and awakening a sense of happiness. It’s action is should work fairly quickly; so for those of you needing a stronger pick me up – Mimosa might do the trick.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) This culinary favourite has been used all over the world to warm and flavour food, but also to bring warmth into the home; especially around this time of year. Its aromatic and pungent taste is uplifting to the senses and has a strong action upon the circulatory system, bringing energy up into the mind to help improve mental clarity. Having Rosemary around during this time of year can help to clear out the fog, uplift the heart & spirits out of a mild depression – so be sure to cook with it at the vary least. 

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) still thriving in my garden

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea) Gives a great boost of energy to the body when its used in smaller doses as it stimulates norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, all of which are neurotransmitters involved in establishing our circadian rhythm when we’re rising from sleep. They provoke wakefulness, energy & even elevate our moods. The interesting thing about Rhodiola is that it can actually work both ways – in larger doses it becomes more of a depressant (I learned this the hard way!) so more is not better in this case. 

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) For someone who’s been stressed or depressed and fatigued for along time, this adaptogenic herb helps to increase mental alertness and physical endurance and helps to reduce the effects of long term exhaustion. Similar to Rhodiola, it can be pretty dose specific. Lower doses over the long term can support in building and rejuvenating the neuroendocrine system, yet higher doses can be incredibly stimulating and cause one to overextend themselves and actually burn out even more. I usually prefer to use them in small to moderate doses twice a day (morning and afternoon), which is in conjunction with the body’s natural cortisol cycles. 

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) known classically as “sunshine in bottle.” This plant is a nerve trophorestorative, meaning that it works to restore and tone a nervous system that has become weakened, typically from long periods of stress, nervousness, tension, anxiety, or insomnia. St. John’s Wort is used to ease anxiety, tension, and is commonly known to support seasonal affective disorder or mild to moderate depression. St. John’s doesn’t work instantly like Mimosa, you’ll need to be patient and allow a few weeks for this gem to take action. But if you know that your susceptible to seasonal shift mentally and would like to try a remedy for preventative measure – try taking this herb at the beginning of the cooler months and it might help keep the blues a bay.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) from my summer garden

Please note: It’s important to consult your doctor if you are taking pharmaceutical drugs before you consume any herbs as there are many herb drug interactions  – please consult your health care practitioner or local herbalist to see what herbs are suitable for you. 

Below is a blend that may be formulated as a tea or compounded as a tincture. This formula is designed to bring energy up into the mind, and stimulate circulation into the crown of the head, giving the body a boost. This formula should lift and calm the heart from feelings of grief or depression, pushing the heaviness out and picking up the mood.  If you decide to make a tea – I would first add the Eleuthero root and let it simmer on low for 20- 30 mins, then turn off the stove, and add the Linden flowers, Lemon balm, Holy basil, and Roses and let that steep with a lid on for another 15-20 minutes. Strain, add some honey and enjoy.

Uplifting Spirits Formula:
25% Linden flowers (Tilia spp.)
25% Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
25% Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
15% Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
10% Rose petals (Rosa spp.)

These herbs that I’ve suggested are mere guidelines to start you out if you’re feeling a little down. I haven’t given a full discloser of what each herb does (they all do a lot more!) so I suggest taking some extra time to do more research yourself – and if you can’t get your hands on some of these remedies, then feel free to substitute out and play around. 

Lastly, I always encourage a little outside time everyday too, or some form of movement, breath work or exercise. Personally, I try to get myself outside around noon and walk for about 30 – 45 mins daily in the winter, even in the torrential downpour (I’d never get outside otherwise) because when I push my butt out side that door – I always come home feeling a little better.

A Solstice Owl: Artist Hiver Fond

Life for all of us has drastically changed over the last 100 years. We’re so busy now, that it’s easy to forget that life only a century ago, which wasn’t actually so long ago, was drastically different from the one we live now.

A 100 years ago, when the seasons changed, so did our lives and our daily activities. When the sun went down, we stopped – there was simply no light to work by. We spent more time at home with family, cooked meals on the fire, played indoor games with each other and spent a lot of time hibernating with books by candlelight. The winter season was a time that forced us to really slow down, dream close to the warm fire and set intentions for the following year.

So I encourage you to rest more now. This is a time when we should be building our reserve for the next year – taking the time to slow ourselves down when it gets dark outside, maybe light a few candles instead of switching on the lights and embrace the quietness of what is surrounding us outside – so that we can tune into that hibernation mode, and receive the recuperation our bodies need for the next coming busy year ahead.

I encourage you to find yourself a cozy spot to rest – light a few candles, sip a hot drink and write about the year past – write about what has served you and was has not, what you want to bring forward into 2021 and what you want to let go. Creating and solidifying these intentions will plant seeds for the year coming, which will ultimately give you a gift towards a more fulfilled life, connected to your own innate rhythm.

Happy resting and wishing you a warm winter solstice!

Warmly,
Elisha

Elisha Storey has been apart of our EH team for over 5 years now and works as an herbalist on Vancouver Island, BC. She’s a lover of the PNW forests and her wish is to convey how nature can be utilized in an effective, and accessible way to empower people to take better care and heal themselves.





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