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Essential oils for depression — is that a lot of nonsense, or can aromatherapy actually help? Let's take a look!

OK, so — here at SteadyHealth, we're quite aware that essential oils have become a whole multi-level marketing scheme in more recent times, and that someone you've not seen since high school is probably getting in touch with you "just to see how you are" right now to ultimately try to work that old pyramid. 

We don't like pseudoscience, either. At the same time, we know that depression is incredibly common, and than over half of depressed people have turned to so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" to seek relief from their symptoms. Some of those people will be interested in trying essential oils. Now the question is, can they help with depression? And if so, which ones?

Do essential oils have the potential to help treat depression?

Maybe. Also, maybe not. Research has reached contradictory results, such as (brought to you courtesy of a meta-analysis on the topic):

  • Of five studied analyzed, two found that inhalation aromatherapy reduced depressive symptoms. It seemed to offer the greatest benefits to people who were angry, tense, and anxious. 
  • Massage can play a role in helping relax depressed people to improve the mood. Research actually tentatively indicates that aromatherapy massage is more effective than massage without essential oils. 
  • Interestingly, some of the studies investigating whether essential oils could help alleviate depression stated that a mix of oils was used without actually mentioning what was in the mix. This is one of the factors that made the authors conclude that many of the studies they reviewed were of poor quality.

Which essential oils seem to help with depression?

The essential oils that studies have indicated as (potentially) beneficial in reducing depressive symptoms include:

  1. Lavender
  2. Bergamot
  3. Sandalwood
  4. Yuzu
  5. Rose otto
  6. Cedarwood 
  7. Sage
  8. Chamomile
  9. Jasmine
  10. Rosemary

Why might essential oils help with depression?

Some of the essential oils we mentioned above contain, compounds like limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate, the authors of the meta-analysis noted. These compounds are already known to have an anti-anxiety effect, and many people with depression are also anxious. Some, like lavender and chamomile, are notorious for having generally calming and even sleep-inducing properties

It is possible that the active compounds in essential oils really do have the ability to directly reduce at least some of the symptoms depressed or depressed and anxious people experience, in other words. There is another factor, though, that needs to be considered. Smells make a direct impact on those areas of the brain that are also responsible for processing emotions. Smells can induce an acute sense of distress if they were previously associated with unpleasant events, and they can also do the opposite — invoke positive memories of times during which we felt safe and comfortable. 

This seems to suggest that smelling, say, lavender oil may be beneficial for you if you associate the smell with a favorite grandmother. If you associate it with a nasty ex, on the other hand, you may want to steer well clear. 

What if you're depressed and would like to try essential oils?

Even if they offer nothing but a placebo effect — which can itself be pretty powerful — there's no reason not to try, as long as you keep some basic safety considerations into account:

  • Nobody in their right mind has ever suggested that essential oils can be a stand-alone therapy for depression. If you are depressed and not yet diagnosed, seek medical attention. Talk therapy and antidepressants are the first-line treatment choices, and both are effective for a large number of people. Other lifestyle interventions such as regular exercise and meditation can also play a role in helping you feel better. 
  • While some people will tell you to ingest essential oils orally, this is not safe. Don't do it. 
  • Essential oils can induce toxicity. Symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, feeling drowsy, diarrhea, vomiting, and even seizures.
  • Essential oils can also irritate the skin, leading to pretty severe rashes in some cases, and they can be pretty nasty to get in your eyes. 
  • If you notice severe symptoms after ingesting an essential oil, call an ambulance. If you have ingested an essential oil inadvertently, call poison control to ask for advice. This obviously applies to children who ingested essential oils as well. 
Perhaps the safest way to enjoy essential oils is by way of massage (administered by a trained professional), and that is, coincidentally, also the form of aromatherapy that research has revealed to have the largest effect on mood in depressed people. Another nice coincidence is that you'll definitely get a massage this way, and massage can be very relaxing. 

In conclusion

There is no conclusive evidence that essential oils have a large potential to help people alleviate depressive symptoms. There is also no evidence that they can't help at all, and in fact, some evidence that they can help a bit. It is, therefore, not completely ridiculous to try sniffing some Yuzu or lavender, or to have a nice massage that includes essential oils. Don't make use essential oils your only treatment for depression, however — talk therapy and antidepressants are a much more effective bet. 

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