Mar 082012

Today is a deep-gray-wet day. Tomorrow could be a dark-stormy-gray day or a light-misty-gray day or a low-brown-gray day; in Rochester, you never know.

Before moving to Rochester gray days were simple, they were gray. Winters in Rochester are filled with predominantly gray days, for days on end, seemingly unchanging. Or so it would seem, until you’ve been here for a while. But as days of gray continue for weeks on end little patterns begin to make themselves known and you learn that there are not just gray days but many shades of gray days. Some are easier to handle, others are worse and some just plain suck, but regardless all contribute towards the high prevalence of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) that occurs here in Rochester.

SAD or winter blues is a common syndrome experienced by many people, particularly those in countries or areas with less than optimal winter light. It is characterized by feelings of fatigue, low energy, lack of concentration and tendencies to oversleep and over eat. While the medical community is worrying about differentiating between subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (what they term as mild SAD) and more serious or debilitative SAD, I think it’s safe to say that most everyone has felt, at one time or another, the winter blues. Living in Rochester has given me the opportunity to work with a few cases of SAD including my own feelings of winter blues that I am sometimes prone to. One of the least invasive and successful conventional treatments is light therapy. Light therapy is a great non-pharmaceutical approach that is often met with success. It involves exposure to artificial sunlight, or specific waves of light, that are designed to mimic sunlight exposure. As always, diet can play a crucial role in SAD and feelings of winter blues. Specifically associated are omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Lack of these two nutrients has been shown to increase symptoms of SAD and depression. Most Americans are particularly low in these nutrients and fail to obtain adequate amounts through their diet. Vitamin D can be manufactured by the body with adequate sun exposure, unfortunately that requires that the sun be shining and that naked skin be exposed to its rays, difficult to do when the sun doesn’t shine very often. Some statistics suggest that in winter, even when the sun is seemingly shining bright, if you live above Atlanta the sun is not able to get high enough for its UV rays to penetrate the atmosphere, thus making it impossible for you to manufacture vitamin D. Omega-3’s provide many building blocks that our body needs to manufacture hormones that can affect our moods and other bodily processes. Adequate omega-3 intake can go a long way in keeping our mood and energy up and our concentration strong during long winter months. While I don’t often recommend supplementation, preferring to obtain nutrients from the diet, this can sometimes be difficult due to lack of availability of these nutrients. For this reason I often recommend people take 5,000IU of vitamin D daily and a good dose of fish oil, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500mg daily.

There are as many herbs for treating symptoms of SAD and feelings of the blues as there are herbalists, not to mention all the combinations one can make. Here are a few of my favorite remedies, with some differentiation between them. These are formulas that I have had personal experience with and seen help both myself and others. Enjoy!

Goldenrod Joy

2 pt. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

1 pt. Rose (Rosa sp.)

½ pt. Citrus

Combine herbs, infuse 1-1.5 tsp per cup of water for 15 minutes. Add honey.

This delightful and bitter-sweet combination makes a wonderful tea as a general pick-me up when feeling sad, overwhelmed and emotional. It is best when sweetened with a bit of honey. When feelings of cold and lethargy are present I am fond of very heating and stimulating hemlock needle honey. When my anxiety is getting the best of me I reach for cherry bark, or better yet, cherry flower honey. Just a dab will do.

Mugwort-Basil Mover-Shaker

1 pt. Holy basil (Tulsi sp.)

1/2 pt. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

¼-1/8 pt. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Combine herbs, steep 1-2 tsp. per cup of hot water for 15-20 minutes. This blend is particularly useful for stagnant, stuck depression. The aromatics of the basil and lavender serve to move about energy and stuck emotion while mugwort helps to ground. If (like me), you find mugwort a bit too drying, add a bit of mallow leaf, root or some elm bark.


Traditional Tea

1 pt. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

A squirt of St. John’s Wort tincture (Hypericum perforatum)

1-3 tsp. of lemon balm per cup of water, infuse 10-15 minutes. Add a squirt or two of SJW tincture. This is a more classic combination for SAD and it is quite effective. I’m not very fond of SJW as a tea, I’ve read in numerous places that the dried herb doesn’t last long and is not very effective. I’ve made the tea and every time find that it is simply bitter and astringent, lacking the complex flavor of the tincture. Lemon balm, on the other hand, makes a delicious tea. These days, I find myself recommending people combine the tea with the tincture. Lemon balm has a particular affinity for the stomach. When anxiety/depression sets in causing gastric upset, try Lemon Balm with a little St. John’s Wort.

*Note* If you have found SJW tea to be more useful than an astringent-bitter tea, please don’t hesitate to let me know.


  2 Responses to “Shades of Gray”

  1. Yes on Vitamin D3 for we northerners-wish I’d known that when I lived in the Arctic. Yes, on SJW as tincture rather than tea which I never use. And don’t forget Rosemary!

  2. Living in Rochester my first 18 years definitely put me in touch with SAD but back then we knew little about that. Even Seattle has more winter light that Rochester.

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