Essential Oils for Depression: Are They Effective?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
November 4, 2020

Essential oils are extracted from plants and have become increasingly popular in our culture. Those that generally prefer holistic and alternative treatments tend to be big proponents of these natural remedies. Names that were only found on spice racks and tea bags in the past are now profiled in comprehensive essential oil directories.

Essential Oils for Depression

Nutmeg and cinnamon are no longer reserved just for pumpkin pie, as nutmeg is touted to alleviate digestive issues while cinnamon is publicized for its energizing effects. Essential oils are not only used for physical healing, but can be used for emotional and mental restoration as well. Essential oils have been used to treat conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. But, the question is, are they truly effective? Do essential oils for depression really work?

Essential oils are utilized in aromatherapy, an alternative medicine that uses aromas to instigate healing. Compounds are removed from various parts of plants, trees, and flowers and are then distilled, resulting in concentrated substances that become an essential oil. Most people inhale the oils or massage them onto their skin. Essential oil advocates assert that certain types of smells can positively influence moods and attitude.

Ylang ylang, rose geranium, and lavender are three essential oils that have been used to treat symptoms of depression. They are said to relax nerves, to reduce stress, to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, to regulate breathing, and to lessen adrenaline. Moreover, these oils are used for revitalization and to energize and boost mood. 

Rose is another essential oil that is used to treat symptoms of depression and works to raise libido, to accelerate circulation, to improve memory, and to heighten overall mood. Roman chamomile is used to alleviate depression and is endorsed for its stress reducing, calming, and relaxing effects. Bergamot, yuzu, sage, jasmine, and rosemary are other essential oils that can be combined to combat depressive symptoms.

Some research has been conducted to assess the efficacy and success rates in utilizing essential oils for depression. Unfortunately, essential oils are hard to study, as an essential oil that is successful in one person may have no result or impact in another. Additionally, due to the distinctive scents, research cannot be randomized as subjects and investigators are usually able to distinguish specific scents. Thus, experiments have low reliability and are often inconclusive, making it difficult to assess the benefits, hazards, and overall efficiency of essential oils.

Although essential oils are used to treat symptoms of depression, it is not a comprehensive treatment in itself. Essential oils are a natural remedy to help a person to alleviate their symptoms and to cope with their condition, but are not representative of a cure. Essential oils can be used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, such as psychotherapy or medication, and may improve their efficacy, but is not to be used as a stand-alone treatment.

So, do essential oils work and are they effective in treating depression? Despite the excitement that invigorates the essential oil culture, research remains inconclusive about whether essential oils are truly effective. The fact of the matter is that most success stories are often personal recollections and have no basis in science. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate essential oils, so vigilance is still necessary to ensure that they are being used safely. 

While essential oils may be used in conjunction with other treatments, they cannot be the only type of treatment for depression. Instead, essential oils should be used as an adjunct to help a person to manage and cope with depressive symptoms. 

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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