The Lightbringers: Herbs for Brightening Dark Winter Days

Artist: Hiver Fond

Looking up into the skies, this week we will witness darkness envelop the stars for the longest time of the year, for we’ve finally reached the shortest day here in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice.

Solstice in Latin means sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”) which demonstrates how the sun is at its turning point in the southernmost part of the sky from the Earth’s equator. From here on, the days will grow longer once again.

Us northern dwellers become enveloped by these darker days, some of us perhaps finding it difficult to find motivation to step outside into the world and complete the usual tasks that didn’t take any effort before. Around this time of year, its not uncommon to feel an encompassing heaviness and a veil of the winter blues weighing us down.

Because light is not so prevalent now and we’re not exposed to the long hours of sunshine that we’re used to, our biological system can actually produce an overproduction of a hormone that guides us towards sleep, melatonin. This can leave us feeling heavier, dull, and for some folks it can even manifest as 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 become a bit overbearing when we feel submerged under a cover of winter blues.

I think an important consideration here is that it’s perfectly normal and natural to feel a bit melancholic and lowered energy during this time of year. A critical understanding for the herbalist is to understand the rhythms of Nature and how those mirror into our inner world as well. I’m not sure if Seasonal Affective Disorder is a “disorder” at all… in fact, it seems to me to be a part of the natural order of things.

But in our productivity-driven, yang excessive culture, slowing down in that way just isn’t… well, culturally accepted!

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

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) This wonderful culinary herb has been around for thousands of years and used all over the world to warm and flavor food, but also to bring warmth into the home; especially around this time of year. It’s an herb that everyone can benefit from as its aromatic and pungent taste is uplifting to the senses. It has a strong action upon the circulatory system, improving circulation, bringing blood to the periphery and energy up into the mind to improve mental clarity. Having Rosemary around during this time of year can help to clear out the fog, uplift the heart & spirits out of mild depression.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)  As an effective antispasmodic, nervine and emmenagogue, this herb is especially helpful when there is marked amounts of nervousness, tension, and most specifically deeper depression. The psychological indications for this are not when there are just feeling of melancholy but more of the brooding, dark, and tormented depression. People who may be supported by Black Cohosh tend to feel like a black cloud hovers over them and follows them wherever they go, especially just before menstruation. 

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea) shines 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 that anyone taking this herb should know, 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! Rhodiola is an adaptogen, so it helps to support the body stress response by increasing the body’s resilience and resistance so we can manage stressful reactions to an external stimuli with more grace. Please use caution with bipolar conditions.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) I love this plant! I’ve made multiple percolations (tinctures) from Centella and used it over the years to invoke a sense of invigorated energy coupled with a sense of peace and calm. I feel like I’m on top of my game when I take this herb (geez, I think I need some!). This is a balancing tonic that brings stimulation to the brain through cerebral blood circulation that helps to lift those boggy foggy states that can roll in and cloud our perception and thinking. 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, peaceful wakefulness. 

Eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus) For someone who’s been stressed or depressed and fatigued for along time, this adaptogenic herd helps to increase mental alertness and physical endurance and helps to reduce the effects of long term exhaustion. This is one of those remedies, like many adaptogens actually, that 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. 

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) I use the spagyric essence preparation the most because I just love it. It’s like this warm aromatic hug to my senses with one single drop on my tongue. I often give it to friends too, and the response is always with a smile and curiosity. I’ve watched this plant lift many faces.

Below I quote Sajah & Whitney’s description of Melissa as they depict this plant in a beautiful way:

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. There are wounds within many of us from a time in childhood where we were told to quiet down or behave while we were simply expressing our full joy, our full selves. In this way, many of us took on the belief that we couldn’t authentically be ourselves or express ourselves, for fear of being rejected or reprimanded. It is in this way that 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. 

Linden (Tillia spp.)

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 and dangle like bright pink 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. Mimosa’s action is should work fairly quickly; so for those of you needing a stronger pick me up – Mimosa might do the trick.

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) known classically known as “sunshine in bottle.” This plant is a nerve trophorestorative, meaning that it works to restore and tone nerves that have 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. Taking St. John’s Wort might help someone worn out from grief and needs some nervous system repair. St. John’s wort is a remedy that needs a little patience, so if your feeling the blues – don’t expect to feel positive and upbeat after a day or two (maybe for some folks) but allowing a few weeks for this gem to take action. If you know that your susceptible to SAD and want to start a remedy for preventative measure next year – perhaps taking this herb a few weeks into fall allowing time for the plant to work its magic.

Please note: It’s important to consult your doctor if you are taking pharmaceutical drugs before you consume this herb as there are many herb drug interactions with St. John’s Wort.

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

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 too. This energy 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 Hawthorn Berries letting them simmer on low for 20- 30 mins, then turn off the stove, and add the Mimosa flowers, Gotu Kola, Holy basil and Roses and let steep with a lid on for another 15-20 minutes. Strain and add some honey to taste. 

Uplifting Spirits Formula:

25% Mimosa flowers (Albizia julibrissin)
20% Eleuthero root (Siberian ginseng)
20% Hawthorn berries (Cretaegus spp.)
20% Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
10% Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
5% Rose petals (Rosa spp.)

These herbs that I’ve suggested are mere guidelines to start you out if your 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. Every human on this planet is formulated with a different constitution, so I encourage you to talk with your local herbalist to see if these would be a suitable choice for yourself. And if you’ve been experiencing heavier states of depression, please talk with a professional health care provider, as you deserve the utmost care and support right now.

And hard as this may be, I always encourage a little outside time everyday too if its possible, or some form of movement or exercise. Personally, I try to get myself outside around noon and walk for about 30 – 45 mins daily, 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.

Artist: Hiver Fond

It’s also worth considering this element of light and how its drastically changed over the last 100 years with electricity. We are so busy with our own personal lives today, that we can easily forget that life only a century ago – which wasn’t actually so long ago – was drastically different from the one we live now.

Today we are less limited by the sun than our ancestors were, as we have our friend tungsten around to illuminate us! Can you imagine life without light & electricity? It’s a bit hard to fathom isn’t it?

I think sometimes these feelings of depression and tiredness are actually the intelligence of our own bodies telling us to slow down and take a break – because our own human physiology is actually still functioning in the same way it did before we used all this artificial lighting. And a thought worth pondering is that our own physiology may actually be having a hard time keeping up with the busy world that we’ve created today! 

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.

It was rare to travel after dark; we didn’t use cars or planes and we certainly weren’t staring at computers, iPads, fancy phones and 50″ flat screen T.V.’s!

Today we push ourselves because we have the resources to do so. We have light at our finger tips and we work into the deep hours of the night, probably unaware sometimes of when the sun actually sets. We can continue on as if darkness doesn’t exist, pushing ourselves to a point of exhaustion. It has inoculated our minds that we mustn’t stop – because if we were to stop, the jobs won’t get done, we’ll become lazy and less productive or even worse … bored.

Maybe a little more boredom could be good!? This is a time of year when we need to be resting more. 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 contemplate or journal about the year past – write about what has served you and was has not, what you want to bring forward 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 Winter Solstice!

Elisha S Barker is an evolutionary herbalist from the tiny Islands off the coast of British Colombia. She’s a lover of the Northwest forests and holds a strong passion for tending and utilizing the plants that grow in her surrounding ecosystem. As an herbalist, her wish is to support and convey how nature can be employed in an effective, respectful and accessible way to empower people to take better care and heal themselves.


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