Depression affects millions around the world. And depression medications come with side effects that worry many. For these, there is new hope: Aromatherapy.
Really? Aromatherapy for depression?
For decades, depression has been treated with serious medications. These include tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin-norepinephrine, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Yet many of these don’t work that well. They can also come with serious side effects. These include insomnia, nervousness, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, erectile dysfunction and diarrhea. Depressing stuff.
More than 350 million people around the world have been diagnosed with depression. It is one of the greatest causes of disability. By 2030, depression is projected to be the number one cause of disability.
So is there any real evidence that simply breathing in the aroma of an essential oil can treat depression? You betcha.
Evidence for aromatherapy for depression
A review of research published in the 2017 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal found over 500 studies on the topic during their investigation. After screening out studies that were not clinically based or qualified for other reasons, they found 12 randomized clinical trials that tested aromatherapy for depression.
The 12 studies included a total of 1,226 men and women. Some of the participants had other conditions such as cancer, pregnancy or menopause. Some of the women included in the research had postpartum depression.
The treatments of the studies included the following essential oil formulations:
• Lavender, bergamot and cedarwood
• Rose and lavender
• Lavender, pititgrain and bergamot
• Yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit)
• Bergamot, lemon clary sage, lavender, roman chamomile, geranium, rose, sandalwood and jasmine
• Melissa, juniper and rosemary
• Rose and lavender
• Lavender, geranium, rose and rosemary
• Lavender and geranium
Treatments ranged from every day to once every two weeks weekly. Some of the treatments included inhalation therapy alone. Others included aromatherapy massage. This is when a small amount of the essential oils are blended with a massage oil.
For the inhalation aromatherapy, the diffuser timing ranged between 5 and 20 minutes.
The researchers concluded after their meta-analysis:
“In the overall analysis carried out, aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms in a wide variety of subjects.”
Two studies that used inhalation therapy decreased depressive symptoms. This means they simply breathed in diffused essential oils for a few minutes each session. One was a 2014 study that used the Yuzu citrus fruit essential oil among 20 women.
A 2012 study on 28 women who were postpartum found that a blend of rose otto and lavandula angustifolia essential oils significantly improved their depression and anxiety scores.
Five of the studies using massage aromatherapy significantly decreased depression symptoms. This means they were given massages using massage oils that were blended with essential oils.
In one, 32 depression patients were treated at the Surrey Oaklands NHS Trust’s Day Hospital. The essential oils were chosen based on each patient’s symptoms. The results indicated a significant improvement of depression scores, using the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) or the Tyrer Brief Anxiety Scale (TBAS).
In a 2011 study, aromatherapy massage was used with cognitive behavioral therapy with 63 patients with depression and/or anxiety. The treatment resulted in significant improvement in scores among the patients receiving the aromatherapy.
In a 2013 study, 90 menopause patients with depressive symptoms were treated with aromatherapy massage or massage without aromatherapy. The massage-only group showed some improvement in symptoms. But the aromatherapy massage group showed significantly more improvement in psychological scores.
In a 2014 study of 25 depressed patients, some received aromatherapy massage for 40 minutes twice a week for four weeks. Those patients scored significantly higher on the Stat-Trait Anxiety Index, Beck Depression Inventory and the Short Form of Psychosocial Well-being Index. They also showed improvements in their brain waves, cortisol levels and levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Physical changes from aromatherapy
While depression can also indicate a missing element related to our spiritual life, our moods are also regulated by hormones and neurotransmitters.
The results of these studies illustrate that aromatherapy can have serious changes in our moods, yes. But they also show aromatherapy affects the production of particular hormones and neurotransmitters. More importantly, those that adjust and regulate our moods. In the 2014 study above, the researchers concluded:
“These results suggest that aromatherapy massage could exert significant influences on multiple neurobiological indices such as EEG pattern, salivary cortisol and plasma BDNF levels as well as psychological assessments.”
Most productive essential oils
The research also illustrated that some essential oils are better for certain issues. Their analysis found that lavender, bergamot and sandalwood provided significant benefit for depressive symptoms. And the Yuzu citris oil “alleviates negative emotional stress.” Most of the other oils used in the various studies have been found to have anti-anxiety and sedative properties.
Talk with your doctor before embarking on the use of essential oils.
Certainly, trying out several different types of essential oils for inhalation comes with little risk. Blending essential oils into a massage oil should be considered carefully, because of the contact with our skin. Using a very tiny amount with a base oil is advisable. One or two drop into a few ounces of jojoba or grapeseed oil should suffice. If multiple oils are used, one drop is better. Blending more than two or three essential oils together can also be problematic for a massage oil. Unless you really know what you are doing.
It’s also best to test the blended oil on a small area of skin before using it to do a full massage. Let it sit for several hours to make sure you don’t react to that oil.
Note that we’ve also discussed the evidence for St. John’s Wort and depression.
All of this is best done after discussions with your doctor or other health professional. And don’t stop any medications without first talking with the doctor who prescribed them.
Dalinda Isabel Sánchez-Vidaña, Shirley Pui-Ching Ngai, Wanjia He, Jason Ka-Wing Chow, Benson Wui-Man Lau, and Hector Wing-Hong Tsang, “The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2017, Article ID 5869315, 2017. doi:10.1155/2017/5869315
Conrad P, Adams C. The effects of clinical aromatherapy for anxiety and depression in the high risk postpartum woman – a pilot study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2012 Aug;18(3):164-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2012.05.002.
Matsumoto T, Asakura H, Hayashi T. Effects of olfactory stimulation from the fragrance of the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu (Citrus junos Sieb. ex Tanaka) on mood states and salivary chromogranin A as an endocrinologic stress marker. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Jun;20(6):500-6. doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0425.
Igarashi T. Physical and psychologic effects of aromatherapy inhalation on pregnant women: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 19, no. 10, pp. 805–810, 2013.
Lemon K. An assessment of treating depression and anxiety with aromatherapy. Intl Jnl Aromath, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 63–69, 2004.
Wu JJ, Cui Y, Yang YS, Kang MS, Jung SC, Park HK, Yeun HY, Jang WJ, Lee S, Kwak YS, Eun SY. Modulatory effects of aromatherapy massage intervention on electroencephalogram, psychological assessments, salivary cortisol and plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Complement Ther Med. 2014 Jun;22(3):456-62. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2014.04.001.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.