Depression and Phytotherapy: Healing with Plants and Herbs

Woman in kitchen with coffee cupThere is a range of both situational and organic causes of depression. Genetics can also play a role in depression; new studies in something called epigenetics have proven that it only takes one generation of mice to pass down a fear of something that parental mice had a bad experience with.

The theory which drives much of present-day pharmaceutical intervention, espousing that low serotonin is a cause of many depressive states, has not been proven. What we do know is that making serotonin more available in the brain can shift the depressive symptoms. However, it is now becoming clear that people who take antidepressants (most common are serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are more susceptible to recurrences of depression through their lives than people who do not use these medications.

I am concerned that this approach may be prescribing a life sentence of an ongoing struggle between depression and medication for people who take antidepressants rather than allowing a natural state to facilitate change and growth. Also of grave concern to me is the way that we have forever shifted culture by trying to rid ourselves of uncomfortable symptoms while perpetuating a belief system that only positive feelings are acceptable. This is not in sync with the cycles of nature in any way.

We forget we are of the natural world. This approach does not understand that symptoms are only a small part of what really needs our attention. Our culture’s classic symptom-oriented response leads to exactly what the word depression describes: a condition of “pressed-down energy”—-stuck energy that may be very important to look at, exploring the meaning of the situation and allowing it to influence our life choices, leading eventually to change that will re-establish and support the life flow.

The Role of Serotonin

Regarding current chemical trends in treatment, let’s look briefly at what we do know about serotonin: it (along with melatonin and other chemicals) is a neurotransmitter and neural protector that is incorporated into every neural network on the planet, as well as within the human body. Serotonin acts as an information carrier (neurotransmitter), a hormone transmitter, and a modulator of various tissues. It regulates neural networks that refine the communication between the brain and the heart, allowing them to work as a cohesive system.

Serotonin plays a huge role in neuroplasticity (growth of new neural networks in the brain), which is necessary for any living adaptive system. It helps to unify the entire brain into a cohesive biological system by modulating the brain and central nervous system, and continually altering the chemistry of target neurons. It influences form, influences sensory and motor neurons in order to track the source of stimuli from outside the system, and regulates the information that comes to us through our senses.

Serotonin neurons are in our heart, brain, digestive system, and immune system, and are activated by stimuli outside of the body. Serotonin exists (in the body) in any place we touch the outside world and the outside world touches us; it is the interface. As information touches the neural network the serotonin neurons coordinate our physiological response.

The serotonin chemical is highly reactive to any kind of change in the environment. It modulates the information received through our senses, the sensory gating channels. As sensory inflows occur it narrows or opens the gates to what becomes our awareness. In depression it would appear that these gating channels are narrowed and do not allow the sufferer to have a complete picture of his here and now situation.

The Body Connection

Over 70% of the serotonin in our body is manufactured in the gut, so I would assume this would be a good place to begin the exploration of dealing with depression—looking at the condition of the gut flora, the diet, and the overall physical health of the person with depression. Some depressions are simply caused by poor physical health which needs to be remedied.

For others, depression may be situational. In this case, I think it is important not to seek to suppress the experience, but to facilitate the cycle that one is in, so that the meaning of the mood issues can be perceived and lead to a new way of being rather than be pushed back to status quo. Herbs that can support this process as well as other etiology will be listed later in this paper.

These days, it is rare to find a person whose depression hasn’t been perceived from the perspective that to be “down” is an illness, rather than a part of the rhythm of life. And while I understand the extremely high severity and difficulty in some cases, I repeat that I think we have exacerbated depression through suppression of a natural cycle.

Situational depression happens for more reasons that we can count, and many that we don’t understand. Some causes are that a person might be recovering from loss or trauma, or dealing with unmet needs from another stage of life. Especially potent are the unmet needs of childhood that leave some aspect of the person stuck in an earlier stage of development, despite the progression of the body through time. This is seen as soul loss in some cultures.

Depression is often related to the feeling of helplessness that leads to a state of despair and of giving up. It is extremely important for the person to explore and acknowledge the meaning of the depression and take the difficult steps to remedy their situation—whether something is not working in their present day reality, or there are unprocessed stimuli from a past experience, as seen in posttraumatic stress (PTSD) or soul loss.

Often it may be a combination of the two, the present-day situation triggering the old issue and making it difficult to perceive the present accurately. When we look at the role of serotonin and how it modulates information from outside it is easy to see how, if we ignore either the difficult life situation or the old material, we can upset the inherent regulatory balance of the chemicals involved.

Depression: Physical, Psychic, or Both?

My main orientation to mental health and depression grows from a Reichian perspective—anything that is suppressed will come out in other ways, because energy needs to move. Energy is just information, something that comes to do the work of informing us of something. This is similar to the way electric currents run through a wire or water through a hose. Its nature is to move.

In my work at Body-Psychotherapy of Seattle, I look to open the compromised system and restore the flow of life on the five levels of existence: the body, emotions, thinking mind (thoughts), actions (will/ behavior) and the “big mind” (spiritual/etheric influence of a person). The point is to create an integration of a person’s life experience between these five realms so they work in coherence with one another rather than, for example, overusing the thoughts to justify one’s actions or to deny one’s difficult emotions.

Working physically with the body is important to me because whatever physiological and muscular reaction we have to the external environment become involuntary reaction patterns wired into the nervous and muscular systems. These responses are set into motion when the body senses something that remotely resembles a past compromising situation, even if that is not happening in the present. Over time, chemical reactions and the associated muscle memory create strong, overused muscles that become an actual physical armoring that keeps us stuck reliving our early life experiences over and over again.

One of the major challenges of depression in our culture is the necessity to be high functioning all of the time. I would approach depression very differently if we had a society that had built-in flexibility to allow people to adjust to these natural cycles when they beckon. Chronic stress and feeling a lack of meaning in life contribute to, if not cause, depression. This creates a real dilemma in finding healthy responses.

Putting Phytotherapy into Practice

Herbs can play a major role in supporting a person’s entire system to meet the demands placed on it while undergoing a difficult change process. It is important that an herbalist refrain from trying to be the sole health care provider for someone with serious depression. It is important to have a guide (or several) working together to negotiate all levels (body, emotions, thinking, behavior, etc.) into synchronicity.

I am less and less comfortable giving out lists of herbs for certain conditions. I think that an herbalist must have his or her own allies to call upon in order to promote health in another. It is our relationship and our experience with the plants that that charge the treatment. But I can suggest some approaches to choosing herbs.

First, be sure to think about the person’s constitution and match herbs to the unique disposition. In Ayurvedic medicine, there are three dosha, which are elements that make up a person’s composition. Everyone has a different combination of these elements, which may become unbalanced to unhealthy levels. Different substances can affect the traits of the dosha in different ways, so it’s important to tailor the remedy to the person.

For example, do not give a drying herb to someone with an aggravated dry (Vata) state; this is a person who might have dry mucous membranes and an airy personality, and be easily distracted. Nor should you give sweet herbs to a Kapha, a person who is overly earthy, lacking expression, and slow moving. They would do better with spicy or bitter remedies, those that might confuse and exacerbate the symptoms of a Vata person.

As you can see, the symptoms of depression will manifest differently in different constitutions; basically each constitution will be exaggerated in its imbalanced state. A Pitta person may be agonizingly irritable and restless, a Vata will demonstrate confusion and lack of concentration, and a Kapha will cover all of the windows and stay in bed for months.

All of these are common symptoms and may co-occur in one person, but look closely to see the subtleties and with practice you will be guided in choosing appropriate herbs. Overall, herbal remedies for depression need to be stimulating (to get things moving) as well as nourishing to the body and soothing to the nervous system.

More Tips for Internal Stability During Depression

People in any depression should avoid as many environmental toxins as possible; eat organic foods; and avoid caffeine, sugar, and processed foods. They should surround themselves with a natural, nonstimulating environment.

Promote healthy gut flora through the use of probiotics and regular elimination practices. If one’s feces smell strongly, be sure to take this as a warning sign from the gut.

For a period of time, promote good elimination through the use of herbs like Aloe, Rhubarb, Licorice, and Pasqueflower, or use bitters such as Dandelion or Gentian Root. This is going to be especially important in working with people with the cold, damp constitution, as they will tend toward a slower metabolism. But the Pitta and Vata may also have absorption problems for different reasons.

After creating a well-functioning environment in the gut, use alteratives (a category of herbs with tonic effects) to support the liver in removing toxins from the body. Dandelion and Pasqueflower, as mentioned above, are also categorized as alteratives. Many good blends are available. One I make for myself includes Ashwaganda, Burdock, Red Clover (for the blood), and Yellow Dock.

Extremely important is the use of nervines—beneficial plants—throughout the treatment course to soothe the nervous system and calm anxiety. Some of my favorites: Lemon Balm, Scullcap (especially helpful for racing or obsessive thought patterns typical of a Vata or Pitta person), Rosemary, Passion Flower, and Milky Oats (which would be good for a Pitta person, as it is so cooling and damp). And, of course, the use of St. John’s Wort should also be considered in depressive states—although studies suggest it works best in moderate cases. The sun herbs, like St. John’s Wort, Hawthorne, Rosemary, and Frankincense (as aromatherapy), are especially good in seasonal depressive states.

All depression treatments must include getting out into natural light on a regular basis; even if it is dark and cloudy, this will have a positive effect. Moving the body through walking or exercise is also crucial, but especially hard to facilitate in the person with a Kapha constitution.

After supporting the liver and the nervous system, look to adaptogens—stabilizing herbs—to put some zing back in the kidney and adrenal systems, as these are heavily taxed in depression. There are many wonderful adaptogens; I vary my blends regularly to get a sense how the different herbs work and work together.

Always use herbs you are familiar with, so you can sense how they are affecting you or, if you are a therapist, your client. I love Schisandra, Ashwagandha, Polygonum, Gotu Kola, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Dong Quai, Ginseng, and Motherwort.

Wisdom in Worldly Healing

For me, the most important treatment guidance is taken from the practices of other cultures. In South America and Africa, shamans travel between the worlds to resolve soul loss, some of which is described above. Much of the work I do involves treating soul loss of several types, but, different from the indigenous practices, I like to make sure that I have fully prepared all aspects of a person’s system so that they can retain the results long after the treatment ends. I do the scouting and the guiding, but my style also puts the onus of the work on the client: with my help they bring awareness to their old patterns and interrupt them via interventions (for example by thought-stopping, a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention).

I teach them how meet the old underlying need, building relationship and nurturing the young parts of themselves from within. Over time and with vigilance, the information that once ran through neural network systems in predictable, outdated, and problematic patterns can begin to pool as if in a dam, and finally overflow to form new neural networks that better fit the current reality.

Another model that I always have in mind with depression is from ancient mythology involving the underworld. Persephone is a Goddess who was abducted to the underworld by Hades. She faced many challenges there. But up above her mother Demeter searched and held ground for her until she was returned. Innana of the Sumerians traveled the same journey, having to face the fierce Goddess Ereshkigal in the underworld until her time came to be released. This is this same journey that one takes through the belly of depression. An herbalist working on these levels might consider using Spagyric Essences, alchemically prepared herbal remedies which can positively affect depressive states. They are prepared by first distilling the essential oil, the Soul, out of the plant; then leaving the hydrosol and plant matter to ferment and distilling the alcohol from that. This is the Spirit level of the plant. The remaining plant matter is purified through fire until it is reduced to white ash from which the mineral salts, the Body of the plant, is extracted. All three are put back together to form a remedy that works on the etheric levels to create change beyond the body. That change trickles down to the body and facilitates health. Organic Unity carries a line of Spagyric Essences that are made from wildcrafted plants, prepared according to corresponding astrological influences and infused with healing prayers and love. In my experience, this care makes a huge difference in the potency of the remedy and its impact on the client. I highly recommend them.

Finally, I think that the most important thing to keep in mind when working with a severely depressed person is that they must not be left on their own. Like Demeter, someone must hold space for them and watch for them from above, creating an anchor to the larger world. This space must be held by someone who is not afraid of the dark. Someone who is patient and kind, wise and strong. A practitioner with knowledge of the territory, a big loving heart, and good boundaries!

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Aylee Welch, LICSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jane

    January 9th, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    There are so many things that you can do to keep yourself healthy that I think that it is important to remember that there are many different connections that have to be made to keep the body healthy both on a mental and a physical level. You have to keep all aspects in check because without this sort of balanec everything essentially gets out of kilter and therein lies a big part of the problem for a lerge part of the population. What may be the answer for one of course won’t be the answer for another but you can’t always rule something out… you have to look at the big picture and look at how this works in the role for everyone and not just in individual cases.

  • bernie

    January 10th, 2014 at 4:01 AM

    I think that there are a lot of people who feel exactly the same way but have been afraid of saying it out loud. Thanks for being that voice of reason when it feels like no one else has any left anymore.

  • carlton

    January 10th, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    After so many years of being depressed finding the right mix of medications, diet and theraoy for me has been a life changing event. I didn’t think that there would ever be light in my life again but now that there is I can see what darkness I was living in for so long.

    I am sure that there are those for whom this is abused and over prescribed and those who do not think this out very carefully, but for me there was no other way other than to add medication to the mix. It wasn’t necessarily my first choice but after so long struggling without it I decided that I wanted to try. We tried several different medications before settling on what has worked the best for me.

    I am happier now than I have been in years and I would never trade this back in for the life that I was “living”.

  • Dannielle

    January 11th, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    I agree with Carlton. This might not be the right choice for you but there are people who actually get their lives back after going on medications like this. I don’t think that they would be so readily available if they weren’t safe and effective.

  • Aylee

    January 11th, 2014 at 8:24 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my article. I agree that sometimes pharmaceuticals can be a really important factor in regaining equilibrium in depression. But I also think there are things we must try first and make sure that we are taking the best course of action for our bodies and the environment. I think for some practitioners, and clients too, SSRI’s seem like the only course of action available and I wanted to put out there that are many options and approaches to explore in treating depression. I am so glad you were able to find the help you needed.

  • Christopher

    January 12th, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    Hi,I agree with both Aylee and Carlton. I have been a psychotherapist for 25 years and have been treating my own depression/anxiety for years using meditation, diet,and education..or anything else I could get my hands on. I have never used medication and have had many clients over the years and only a small percentage of them have had positive experiences with meds. I never discouraged their use and only when they expressed a desire to rid themselves of the meds and take charge of their own healthcare treatment would they improve. The meds often make it so people cannot improve and often make their condition worse.

    And diet is crucial to emotional and spiritual health because as Aylee states 70 % of seratonin is produced in the gut and if the gut is not functioning as it should a person will likely not improve to point of being truly happy. This is my experience and some people like Carlton exist out there but are rare.Or maybe he was able to change his gut or increase seratonin levels some way.

    In addition to herbs I use foods such as leafy greens and most of all eliminating sugar as much as possible which includes fruit and most grains. The grains permitted are quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat and need to be soaked and only take up 20% of meal. Just about everyone has a hard time following this diet so it is a Process of change.

    Anyway, my experience for myself and my clients needs to be about taking charge of our own health with meditation, food, and nature.

    Warmest of feelings to all,
    Christopher Diggins, MA, LMHC

  • carlton

    January 13th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    Thanks for at least understaing Christopher. I have met people in the past who are so closed off to one thing or another that it would be hard to even talk to them about my situation. I sense that you at least grasp a little of what I have gone through and that you see that while this may not be the choice you would make for yourself you are willing to accept that it works for me and wish me well.

  • Anabel

    January 13th, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Did you know that depression is the most common mental illness and that 1 out of 4 people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime? These maladies are not to be taken lightly however. Anyone suffering from depression and anxiety knows how much these affections can hinder your life and make even the most basic of tasks seem insurmountable.

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