They do not cure depression and people should not use an essential oil in place of prescribed medication.
However, essential oils demonstrate benefits as a complementary therapy alongside the conventional treatments for depression, such as behavioral therapy and antidepressants.
In this article, we look at the possible uses of essential oils in treating depression.
Evidence does not support essential oils as a treatment for depression in every case, but they may relieve certain symptoms.
Some animal 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 people at college who experienced sleep disturbances, which can be an effect of depression.
A different study showed that an essential oil called Asarum heterotropoides reduced behaviors in mice that resembled those of people with depression.
However, the psychology and brain structure of non-human animals are far less complex than in humans, and animal studies do not normally produce significant results.
Some research has shown that using essential oils may improve sleep, enhance mood, and improve quality of life.
Essential oils may also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders, which often occur alongside depression. Researchers estimate that around 43 percent 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 aromatherapist.
Oils that may help
While no evidence suggests that any single oil is suited to treating depression outright, people have cited the following oils as being useful in the treatment of certain symptoms of depressive disorders.
This report from 2017 on a number of studies suggested several oils that might have positive effects when used as part of a mixture, including:
- lavender, which featured in many of the compounds that researchers used
- rose otto
- roman chamomile geranium
The report suggests that aromatherapy massage with these oils has a greater effect on mood symptoms than inhaled aromatherapy.
However, the report also concedes that the quality of half of the studies is low.
Lavender was the most common oil in the studies and has also demonstrated positive effects on anxiety symptoms.
Quality of evidence on essential oils
Lavender appears regularly in studies as a useful remedy for certain symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Many of the alleged benefits of essential oils come from personal accounts rather than scientific data.
An essential oil that may be effective for one person may have no effect on another.
Essential oils are difficult to study, as the participants and researchers can often recognize essential oils by their scent, removing the random element of an experiment that makes it reliable.
For this reason, many studies exploring the benefits of essential oils on depression, 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 ineffective therapy for any condition.
More research is necessary before doctors will be able to recommend essential oils as a first-line and solitary treatment for depression.
However, as a complementary therapy, essential oils might improve or reduce individual symptoms for some people with depression and improve the effectiveness of other treatments.
What are essential oils?
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 of the plant after the distillation process forms an essential oil.
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 rub them into the skin.
Applying essential oils to the skin may cause an allergic reaction, skin irritation, and sun sensitivity in some people, so anyone planning to apply the oils topically must first mix them with a carrier oil, such as olive, almond, avocado, or coconut oil.
Medical professionals also recommend that people receive allergy testing before using essential oils.
Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several oils for use as food additives and classified them as "generally recognized as safe," they do not recommend digesting essential oils.
The FDA do not regulate essential oils used in aromatherapy, so apply caution when using the oils and seek medical advice on experiencing adverse effects.
How they work
The chemicals in essential oils can interact with the body through being absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream or by 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 might play an essential role in controlling behavior, emotions, memory, and mood.
The importance of scent
Pleasant scents can be be highly emotive.
Using essential oils to help ease symptoms of depression might work because of their smell.
A sense of smell is one of the five senses and a powerful connector between people and the world around them. People are very sensitive to smell, and researchers believe that an individual can recognize 1 trillion different aromas.
Aromas are highly emotive. Everyone reacts to scents differently — how they respond to a smell depends on what they associate with that smell. For example, they may associate a certain scent with a long-forgotten memory.
The emotionally suggestive nature of smells might link to the improvement of mood after aromatherapy from essential oils. This, in turn, may provide some relief in mood disorders, such as depression.
However, scientific research does not support its benefits, and evidence of the positive effects of aromatherapy on mood is anecdotal rather than rooted in study.
Risks and side effects
Further research needs to be completed to find out how essential oils interact with other treatments and medications.
Younger children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using the oils, as researchers do not yet know the effect essential oils may have on them.
Essential oils are distilled plant oils that play a key role in aromatherapy.
Because of the powerful actions of scent in triggering memory and positive emotions, aromatherapists and complementary therapists suggest essential oil as a possible treatment for depression.
However, much of the evidence supporting essential oils is low quality.
Some evidence, on the other hand, suggests that essential oils do work for certain symptoms and moods, and, if they do not cause adverse effects, might improve the effectiveness of other treatment approaches or reduce symptoms, especially after using a mixture that includes lavender.
Anyone considering using essential oils should speak to a doctor or aromatherapist to discuss the potential benefits and risks.
What are the other options for non-standard remedies for depression?
Home remedies that may help decrease depression include regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting 7–8 hours of sleep every night, and practicing relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation.Gerhard Whitworth, RN Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.