Snippets Issue 14 : The Spring Cleaning Issue


Tips for treating seasonal ailments and beating the winter blues.


By Katie Haegele

Beat The Winter Blues

Talking about seasonal depression with herbalist Sarah Powell.

Q: Is seasonal depression real?
A: Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is real and can cause real suffering for people who may begin to truly dread the change of seasons and their accompanying feelings of hopelessness, despair, and anxiety. This is not just 'cabin fever' or elevated crankiness, but is seen as real depression that simply seems to follow seasonal patterns.

Q: What causes SAD, and how do you treat it?
A: It could be tied to several possible origins: Melatonin deficiencies, perhaps, as the production of melatonin is tied to depression, or low clinical levels of vitamin D, which is actually a hormone delivered to us naturally via sunlight. Many cases of depression can be linked to vitamin D deficiency and actually there has been a lot of hubbub lately about vitamin D, which was pretty much ignored until recently. A 2000 IU supplementation would be a good idea for a person who appears to be suffering from SAD (to start with); Another link to sunlight is to use full-spectrum light boxes to treat SAD 'naturally' or non-pharmaceutically. People also need to go out into the sun as much as possible in the winter and leave the sunblock behind!

Q: Are there teas/herbs that are especially helpful?
A: Of course! I think a lot of success can be achieved herbally, and herbal medical treatment requires the same level of commitment given to a pharmaceutical, as well as the same respect. Though often more mild in form, herbal medicines are made up of active chemical constituents that will affect the chemical make-up of our bodies. Many of these compounds have been clinically isolated in recent years, basically verifying why exactly our ancestors have been using them for sometimes thousands of years with great success.

While neither herb alone seems to be effective against SAD, the combination of St. John's Wort and Fresh Lemon Balm has been found to be indispensable. These would be taken in tincture or glycerite form, which is basically a botanical extract using alcohol or glycerin. This is the most effective remedy for the clinical condition. Lemon Balm is known as mood elevator and St. John's Wort is essentially an SSRI and affects one's serotonin levels in the same way as brand name drugs like Prozac or Paxil without the side effects.

My feeling too is that this winter darkness brings on a kind of defeat of the spirit. I would want to supplement the Lemon Balm/ St. John's Wort tincture/extract with spirit lifting herbal teas and aromatherapy. Herbs high in volatile oils (or essential oils) can have exactly this effect, and I might turn to fresh lemon balm for its mood enhancing qualities; organic, dried rose petals for their gentle effect on the spirit; lavender buds for their wonderfully soothing, calming nature; rosemary, for its ability to bring mental clarity. A tea made up of herbs such as these would be wonderful for someone seeking comfort: perhaps a combination of chamomile, rose, lavender, lemon balm, and rosehips. In the fall, someone might dig up a pot of lemon balm (it's a mint with a heady lemony scent and grows readily anywhere) and bring it inside. In the middle of winter, what could be more wonderful than burying your nose in a pot of lemon balm and inhaling deeply: aromatherapy in its purest form!

If you're a girl, chances are good you've got piles of sweet-smelling body products in your possession. If you're a girl OR boy who likes to make things - and we know you are, Cut Out + Keepers - you just might like to try your hand at making them yourself. This winter I cooked up some plant-based body products for the first time, and I loved how it turned my little kitchen into a warm, perfumey apothecary while outside the cold air pressed against my window.


Before I got cooking, though, I met with a professional herbalist - Maia Toll, who runs her herb shop, The Apothecary Garden, from a beautiful old house in Philadelphia's historic Chestnut Hill neighborhood. To learn her trade Maia spent a year living and studying with the herbalist Gina McGarry in County Westmeath, Ireland, where she and the other students made herbal medicines to treat the people and farm animals in their rural community. "It was an old-fashioned apprenticeship - we chopped wood and carried water," Maia said. Today she consults with clients and makes recommendations on treating everything from sleeplessness to skin ailments.

She also knows how to make some yummy body products. Below are a few recipes and treatments she was kind enough to share with us, along with one quick tip before you begin: When buying herbs look at their color, smell, and taste. Think of this as food shopping - you wouldn't buy fruit or vegetables that look wan or dried, so don't buy herbs that are dusty and colorless. Ask to touch and smell the herbs before you buy them.



Maia recommended a steam every morning with one drop of thyme oil, which has antimicrobial properties to kill any germies up there, and one drop of lavender oil, which has a calming effect. (These oils can be found at any herb shop and many health food stores.) This treatment is more than just nice smelling; the steam acts as an inhalant to carry the oils into your nasal passages. I've been doing it at home nearly every day in the weeks since meeting Maia and have found it to be very soothing for my sore sinuses. Just boil a kettle of water and pour it into a large mixing bowl, add the oils, drape a towel over your head and breathe deeply. Bonus: thyme boosts the immune system.


  • 1 tablespoon colloidal oatmeal
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground apricot kernel
  • 2 ounces oil (such as jojoba, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, or olive oil)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons aloe or hydrosol
  • 10 drops essential oil of your choice

Mix everything together in a bowl, store it in a glass jar, and enjoy!

* To ease the discomfort of a COLD OR FLU, Maia uses an old, old recipe she learned from her mentor called Fire Cider. Put equal parts chili peppers, onion, garlic, ginger and horseradish in apple cider vinegar. Let the concoction sit for one month. Strain, then add honey to taste. Then drink it!


  • 1 cup oil (olive, apricot, almond, or grapeseed) or shea butter. Any combination of these to equal one cup is also fine.
  • 1/4 cup beeswax
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • a few drops of a pure essential oil to taste

Gently heat the oil on the stove. (When I made this recipe I quickly learned that beeswax and oil are very hard to clean out of cooking pots. I used an old coffee can instead and placed it in a pot of water to act as a double boiler.) Add the beeswax and honey to the oil. Make sure the heat is high enough to dissolve the honey completely or else it will separate from the oil. When the beeswax melts take the pot off the flame and add essential oil. (I used peppermint, yum.) Do a taste test to see if you like it. To test the consistency, put a tablespoon of the concoction in the freezer for 5 minutes. If it's too soft add more beeswax; if it's too hard add more oil. Pour the finished balm into containers (this batch filled about 8 small pots) and let it cool before putting the lids on.

The Apothecary Garden is located at 7721 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The store accepts orders over the phone and will ship overseas. 215-247-2110.

Sarah Powell is a trained medical anthropologist and herbalist based in Philadelphia. Check out her website and her shop.


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