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Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts. They serve many medical purposes, from acting as a natural mosquito repellent to reducing back and neck pain. Some people use them to support depression treatment.

Some research suggests various essential oils may have benefits as a complementary therapy alongside the conventional treatments for depression, such as behavioral therapy and antidepressants.

One common use of essential oils is known as aromatherapy. Ways of administering oils include inhalation and massage.

However, essential oils do not cure depression, and people should not use them in place of prescribed medication.

In this article, we look at the possible uses of essential oils in treating depression.

essential oils that may be used for treating depression being poured into a glass Share on Pinterest
Treasures & Travels/Stocksy

Some studies have shown that certain essential oils may relieve psychological and physical symptoms linked to depression.

One 2016 study showed that inhaled lavender improved the sleep cycle of college students with sleep disturbances, a symptom of depression.

A different study showed that an essential oil called Asarum heterotropoides (wild ginger) reduced behaviors in mice that resembled those of people with depression. However, the psychology and brain structure of nonhuman animals are less complex than in humans, and animal studies do not normally produce significant results.

Some human research from 2021 has shown that using essential oils such as lavender may improve sleep and quality of life. People with depression often experience sleep problems.

Essential oils may also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders, which often occur alongside depression. Researchers estimate that around 43% of people with anxiety and stress use some form of alternative therapy to help manage symptoms.

As with all forms of alternative therapy, use essential oils with caution. Always discuss the use of these oils with a doctor or certified aromatherapist.

Although research suggests that essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these. A person should talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils, and they should be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. A person should always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

While no evidence suggests that any single oil is suited to treating depression outright, people have found some essential oils useful in treating certain symptoms of depression, and scientific evidence is emerging to support these claims.

A 2021 review found evidence that the following essential oils may help with symptoms of depression.

Essential oilPossible benefit/s
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)reduce anxiety
boost mood
increase calmness
manage blood pressure
relax breathing
reduce stress
Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis)reduce anxiety
boost mood
Yuzu (Citrus junos)reduce anxiety
antidepressant effect
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)lower levels of cortisol in saliva, suggesting stress reduction
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)reduce stress and anxiety
antidepressant effect
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)reduce anxiety
Sage (Salvia officinalis)boost mood
Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia)boost mood
Combined lavender and Damascus rose (Rosa damascene)reduce anxiety
antidepressant effect
Combined lavender, ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), and neroli (Citrus aurantium)reduce anxiety

Historically, evidence supporting the use of essential oils has been largely anecdotal. Now, however, scientists have started finding evidence that essential oils can bring about physiological changes, for example, by impacting the nervous system. These findings may help explain why essential oils are beneficial, which ones can help, and why.

Various studies have looked at the use of essential oils for depression, but researchers often find the quality of evidence is often low, making it hard to confirm the results.

One reason essential oils are difficult to study is that participants and researchers can often recognize their scents. This removes the random element of an experiment that makes it reliable.

In addition, essential oils do not need approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to go on sale, and the ingredients are not standardized. This can make it difficult to compare oils, as the strength, composition, and purity may vary.

The ways of administering essential oils also vary, making it hard to compare studies.

As a result, many studies exploring the benefits of essential oils on depression, anxiety, and stress are inconclusive.

More research is necessary before doctors can recommend essential oils as a first-line treatment for depression.

However, as a complementary therapy, they might improve or reduce individual symptoms for some people with depression and improve the effectiveness of other treatments.

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

Distillation by steam, water, or mechanical methods, including cold pressing, are usually the methods for extracting the compounds from the plant. What remains after the distillation process is an essential oil. Though usually, they are not actually oily but range anywhere from thin fluid to a thicker, viscous consistency.

Most studies exploring essential oils and depression look at their use in aromatherapy. During aromatherapy, people either inhale oils through the nose or mouth or dilute them with a carrier oil and rub them into the skin, as in a massage.

Massage oils consist of a carrier oil — such as olive, almond, avocado, or coconut oil — with a small amount of essential oil.

Medical professionals also recommend that people do an allergy patch test before using essential oils.

To do a patch test, dilute 3 drops of essential oil in a tablespoon of carrier oil and rub the mixture into an area the size of a quarter on the inside of the forearm. If there is no allergic response within 24 to 48 hours, it should be safe to use.

It is possible to develop allergies to essential oils after using them many times before. If a new allergic response appears, the individual should stop using it immediately and avoid its aroma.

The chemicals in essential oils interact with the body when they are absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. They can also stimulate 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 might play an essential role in controlling behavior, emotions, memory, and mood.

People should apply caution when using essential oils, for various reasons.

The FDA does not regulate essential oils used in aromatherapy, so a person may not know exactly what the ingredients are or how pure the oil may be.

Possible adverse effects of using essential oils include:

  • skin irritation
  • poisoning from taking oils by mouth
  • allergic reactions
  • interactions with medications

Here are some tips for using oils safely:

  • Check with a doctor before using them as a treatment, as they may not be safe for everyone and interactions can occur with various drugs.
  • Seek advice or treatment from a qualified aromatherapist before using a specific oil.
  • Never ingest or swallow essential oils.
  • Obtain oils from a reliable source to ensure the ingredients are safe and the quality is suitable.
  • Always dilute with a carrier oil, such as almond oil, before applying to the skin.
  • Seek advice if adverse effects occur.
  • Avoid use on young children and during pregnancy, as it is unclear what effect they may have.
  • Consider who else is inhaling the aromatherapy. Other people may have an allergic reaction, and some oils are toxic to pets.

Further research is needed to find out how essential oils interact with other treatments and medications.

Some types of oils have FDA approval for use as food additives, but essential oils are not safe for human consumption, and a person should never swallow them.

Here are some answers to questions people often ask about treating depression with essential oils.

Which essential oil is good for depression?

Lavender has shown promise in research studies. Other options include chamomile and rosemary.

Can essential oils help calm anxiety?

Lavender, sweet orange, yuzu, and rosemary may help lower anxiety.

Which oils can help you sleep?

Lavender and chamomile may help improve sleep, researchers say.

Essential oils are distilled plant oils that people use in aromatherapy. Research suggests some essential oils, such as lavender, may help treat symptoms of depression.

However, more studies are needed to confirm that they are effective.

Anyone considering using essential oils should first discuss the benefits and possible risks with a doctor or certified aromatherapist.