Can Essential Oils Treat Depression?

Essential oils are used for many purposes, from serving as a natural mosquito repellent to reducing back and neck pain. However, can essential oils help treat depression?

Essential oils do not cure depression and should not be used as an alternative to the treatment prescribed by a doctor. Essential oils can, however, be used as a complementary therapy alongside conventional treatments, such as behavioral therapy and antidepressants.

Certain essential oils may relieve some of the psychological and physical symptoms linked with depression. Some research has shown that using essential oils may improve sleep, enhance mood, and improve a person’s quality of life.

Essential oils may also help lessen symptoms of anxiety, which are common in people with depression. It is estimated that around 43 percent of people with anxiety and stress use some form of alternative therapy to help reduce symptoms

As with all forms of alternative therapy, essential oils should be used with caution. Always discuss the use of essential oils with a doctor or an aromatherapist.

Essential oils that may help treat depression

It is claimed that the following essential oils may help with some symptoms of depression:

Lavender oil may be used to enhance sleep and relieve anxiety.
  • Bergamot may reduce anxiety and stress
  • Bergamot, lavender, and frankincense had a positive effect on pain and depression in people with terminal cancer
  • Lavadin reduced anxiety in patients before surgery
  • Lavender may reduce anxiety-like behavior and inhibit depression, found in dental patients and lower stress and anxiety scores in nursing students
  • Lavender, frankincense, and rose may help relieve anxiety and fear during labor
  • Lavender, Roman chamomile, and neroli reduced anxiety levels in patients before nonsurgical heart procedures
  • Lavender can also enhance sleep
  • Rose may be helpful for anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Rosemary may provide antidepressant-like effects
  • Sweet orange may reduce or prevent anxiety
  • Wild ginger may inhibit depression-like behavior responses
  • Ylang ylang may reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate

Other oils that are reported to relieve symptoms of depression are:

  • Basil may reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Chamomile may calm emotions and reduce nervous tension
  • Clary Sage may reduce anxiety, stress, panic attacks, and depression
  • Geranium may relieve anxiety, stress, and nervous fatigue
  • Grapefruit may have a calming effect and decrease anxiety and stress levels

Quality of evidence on essential oils

Essential oils
More research on the benefits of essential oils may be needed before they can be recommended for treating depression.

Many of the alleged benefits of essential oils are based on personal accounts, rather than backed up with scientific evidence. An essential oil that may have “worked” for one person may have no effect on another.

Due to the scent of essential oils, it is hard to conduct studies where the participants and researchers do not know which essential oils are being used. For this reason, many studies that explore the effect of essential oils on anxiety and stress are inconclusive.

One research article summarizing systematic reviews of the use of aromatherapy for hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia concluded that aromatherapy is an ineffective therapy for any condition.

More research is required before doctors will be able to recommend essential oils as a first-line treatment for depression. However, as a complementary therapy, essential oils might improve or reduce individual symptoms and improve the effectiveness of other treatments.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are the compounds that are extracted from the bark, flowers, leaves, stems, roots, and other parts of plants.

The compounds are extracted from the plant through a process of distillation – usually by steam or water, or mechanical methods such as cold pressing. What is left of the plant after this process is referred to as essential oil.

Most studies that explore essential oils and depression look at essential oils used in aromatherapy. Here, oils are most commonly either inhaled through the nose or mouth or rubbed on the skin.

Applying essential oils to the skin may cause an allergic reaction, skin irritation, and sun sensitivity in some people, so the oils must first be mixed with a carrier oil, such as olive, almond avocado, or coconut oil. It is also recommended that people carry out an allergy test before using essential oils, as they can cause irritation.

Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved several oils for use as food additives and classified them as “generally recognized as safe,” digesting essential oils is not recommended.

The FDA do not regulate essential oils used in aromatherapy.

How do essential oils work?

The chemicals in essential oils can interact with the body through being absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream or stimulating areas of the brain through inhalation.

When specialized nerve cells in the upper part of the nose detect smells, they send an impulse to the brain along the olfactory nerve to an area called the olfactory bulb.

The olfactory bulb processes the impulse and delivers the information about the smell to other neighboring areas of the brain. These other areas are known as the limbic system.

The limbic system is a set of brain structures that are thought to play an essential role in controlling behavior, emotions, memory, and mood.

Importance of smell

Smelling essential oils at a market
Essential oils can interact with the body through the skin or via inhalation.

Using essential oils to help ease symptoms of depression might work because of their smell.

A sense of smell is one way that people connect with the world around them. People are very sensitive to smell and it is believed that an individual can recognize 1 trillion different aromas.

Aromas are very important and highly emotive. Everyone reacts to smells differently – how they respond to a smell depends on what they associate with that smell. For example, a certain smell may spark a memory that has been long forgotten.

Because smells are so suggestive, it makes sense that aromas from essential oils might promote improved emotion and mood; and this, in turn, may provide some relief in mood disorders such as depression.