To be clear, aromatherapy is not a substitute for medical treatment by a mental health professional. Clinical depression is a serious disease and it’s important to follow whatever treatment plan you have chosen with them.
In addition to that, it’s always a good idea to have things in your life that make you happy or at the very least, put you in a better mood.
Likewise for all of us. You might not have severe depression or any clinical form, but perhaps that recent breakup or death of a loved one has put you in a temporary funk.
How many senses do we have? Some believe 12 but the first 5 are indisputable. Stimulating any number of them might help perk you up.
You can play positive music, wear bright colors, and bask yourself in light. In addition to these sights and sounds, have you considered smells?
A number of human clinical trials have found correlations with exposure to certain scents and feelings. Happiness aside, research about essential oils for anxiety and panic attacks are factors we also considered in compiling this list. Because let’s face it… it’s hard to be happy when you’re anxious!
1. Lavender oil
Check out the bestsellers for Doterra, Mountain Rose Herbs, or whichever brand you prefer. This one will be at or near the top of the list.
One of the reasons is because this floral scent puts a smile on the face of many. So much that it has been clinically studied in a couple double-blind and placebo controlled trials.
The first is unusual because it involved an edible essential oil; the German-developed Silexan, which is lavender in a capsule you swallow. Note that your typical bottle is not food grade.
Here’s how the trial worked:
- 539 adults with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) participated and were split into 3 different treatment groups.
- Silexen, the proprietary lavender essential oil supplement, was pitted against a placebo version and the medication Paroxetine (Paxil) which is a SSRI drug prescribed for anxiety disorders, depression, and OCD.
- Each group used their treatment once daily for 10 weeks.
- Scoring was based on the well-established Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA) and Clinical Global Impressions (CGI).
- It was double-blinded, meaning neither the participants nor the practitioners knew who was getting what.
As you see, both the low and high dosages of Silexan produced more improvement than the medication Paroxetine (Paxil) and the placebo. The German and Austrian researchers also claimed that (1):
“In addition, Silexan showed a pronounced antidepressant effect and improved general mental health and health-related quality of life.”
In a similar trial for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improvement was also seen. (2)
Then there’s the Silexen trial for “subsyndromal” anxiety. That’s anxiety which isn’t severe enough for a clinical illness yet still a life hurdle. It wasn’t matched against meds but rather just a placebo. As with the other lavender oil study, it dramatically outperformed placebo. Plus, they pointed out it helping with sleep without sedation and similar side effects. (3)
There are a couple softgel supplements you can buy on Amazon that contain Silexan:
Keep in mind that here in the U.S. it is sold for use as a dietary supplement only. It should not be used for the treatment of clinical depression or any other disease.
As far as the more common ways lavender EO is used, such as in a room diffuser or on your skin with a roll-on, there are studies to suggest those uses may help, too.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is that period immediately after giving birth, when many mothers experience a few days of unexplained gloom and doom.
At a hospital in Indianapolis, 28 women who were considered to be at high risk for this participated in a small pilot study. Using a blend of lavender and rose otto oils, they found that inhalation benefited significantly more versus placebo, according to the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD-7). (4)
2. Bergamot oil
Being a type of orange, bergamot is far different from the flower we just discussed. Yet they seem to spur similar feelings, which is one reason why lavender and bergamot for sleep and sadness blend together so well.
One test out of Thailand used this duo in a blend that was applied topically to the abdominal skin and massaged in. They wanted to see if this transdermal absorption would work for depression and anxiety.
In the 40 participants, they monitored not just emotional states, but also things like blood pressure, pulse, and breathing. Compared to placebo, there was a significant decrease in those metabolic parameters and an increase in feelings of calmness and relaxation. (5)
Meanwhile in a study of 58 hospice patients who had terminal cancer, a blend of bergamot, lavender, and frankincense oil had improved pain and depression scores, more so than the control group using general hand oil for their massages. (6)
How about just bergamot essential oil on its own?
No human clinical studies have looked at it alone, though animal research has.
In an aromatherapy study with rats, it produced results similar to diazepam (Valium) when it came to reducing anxiety and corticosterone, which is “the stress hormone” produced by the adrenal gland. (7)
3. Perillae Herba oil
Not to be confused with Korean perilla oil, as that is a non-essential, stable cooking oil derived from the vegetable Perilla frutescens.
Kampo is basically the Japanese version of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Beginning in 1967, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare approved 4 Kampo herbal medicines for reimbursement under their national insurance program.
Today, there are a total of 148 Kampo drugs approved in Japan and one of them is called Perillae Herba. In English, it’s also called shiso herb, beefsteak plant, and purple mint. The medicine is the leaves of the aforementioned Perilla frutescens plant. (8)
As part of their traditional medicine they use it for breathing problems like asthma, coughs, and colds. They also use it as an antispasmodic to induce sweating and reduce muscle spasms, especially with GI disorders. That’s according to the The New Oxford Book of Food Plants.
Another emerging use for the plant is as a natural antidepressant. Specifically, they believe it’s a compound called l-Perillaldehyde that’s responsible. That’s the primary component of Perillae Herba essential oil.
Japanese researchers put it to the test using mice, in which stress and depression was induced on them. After once-daily inhalation therapy for a 9 day period, it appeared to boost their mood.
PAH = pure isolated l-Perillaldehyde. As you see with the carrier (vehicle) the mice still had high immobility during the forced swim test. Yet with the l-Perillaldehyde, their immobility decreased in a dose-dependent manner, going all the way back to healthy level.
When they tried the same using cinnamaldehyde, from cinnamon essential oil, there was no benefit.
Based on that test and several others for gauging depression-like behavior, these scientists concluded (12):
“These results suggest that the inhalation of PAH [l-Perillaldehyde] shows antidepressant-like activity through the olfactory nervous function.”
To reiterate, kampo traditional medicine uses the leaves – not the oil – for battling depression. Though based on research, scientists now believe it is the l-Perillaldehyde and other essential oil compounds in the leaf which appear to be the active ingredients. (13) (14)
The bad news is that no one manufacturers this essential oil… yet. In the future perhaps that will change, considering that the government of Japan actually provides insurance reimbursement for the use of the whole leaves in the treatment of depression when under the care of a Kampo practitioner.
4. Anise oil
Switching continents and moving over to the Middle East brings us to this traditional Persian medicine.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum L) should not be confused with the totally unrelated Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) and Chinese star anise (Illicium verum). Those two contain safrole, which is a genotoxic and carcinogenic compound. (15)
The real anise, also called aniseed, is an expensive spice that’s actually good for you. It’s rich in antioxidants and is being studied for health benefits.
In 2017, the first human trial was published that evaluated it for mild to moderate depression. In this double-blind trial, 120 patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) were divided into 3 groups; anise oil, Colpermin (peppermint oil), and placebo.
Why patients that have a GI disease, too? Enteric coated capsules of anise oil are being studied for IBS, so the trial offered potential benefits for that and mental health. (18)
Using Total Beck Depression Inventory Scores, here’s how each of the 3 groups ranked:
At the end, the treatment group (anise) and active group (peppermint oil) were much closer to their baselines versus placebo, which had more severe depression.
Gelatin capsules called AnisEncap are what they used. Each contained 200 mg of anise oil and the dosage was 3 per day.
New findings for what old Persian books have been saying all along:
“Anise has a quality to elate mood and, consequently, ameliorates depression.”
Now that’s just one trial and it’s not enough to even tell us if it works for IBS, let alone those who don’t have it.
If it does work, they still don’t know what compounds are responsible. Still, the fact that there is both animal and human research on anise catapults it credibility among what are believed to be good essential oils for depression. What we really need to see though are some trials using plain ol’ bottles of Young Living or Plant Therapy! (19)
As far as the inferior imitator to aniseed, make sure you are aware of the star anise benefits and side effects.
5. Chamomile oil
You probably already know that chamomile tea is touted for insomnia and to promote tranquility.
Some of the compounds believed responsible for those apparent traits are the plant’s volatile oils. So sure, they’re in the leaf tea, but might the concentrated EO be even better for you?
One of the earliest pieces of research on this was done at a Turkish University in 2012. They used the essential oil of chamomile flowers in 3 different concentrations on mice. Caffeine was used as a stimulant reference group.
Well-established animal psychological tests were used before and after, such as the plus-maze, tail suspension, social interaction, and others. Based on these, they found the essential oil to have a stimulant-like effect (similar to caffeine!) and behavioral changes that were beneficial; less anxiety and more physical activity, including greater amounts of social interaction. (20)
A 2017 study drew a similar conclusion based on the improvement of “depressive-like behaviors” in rats given Roman chamomile oil inhalation therapy. (21)
There are several other animal studies but enough about them. What about humans?
The Depression Research Unit at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine did a double-blind and placebo-controlled trial on 57 women and men with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Some also had minor depression.
For the group given the 220 mg dose of chamomile extract capsules, taken twice daily, they experienced meaningful improvement vs. placebo in the Hamilton Anxiety Rating scale.
Benefits were also seen in scoring for Beck Anxiety Inventory, Psychological Well Being, and Clinical Global Impression Severity. (22)
UPenn did another in 2016 using more people (179) but a drawback was that it was open label, so the people knew what they were getting. A higher daily dosage of 1,500 mg was used over 8 weeks and produced similar results for those same tests. It worked so well that their conclusion stated (23):
“Future comparative effectiveness trials between chamomile and conventional drugs may help determine the optimal risk/benefit of these therapies for patients suffering from GAD.”
An exhaustive review of medical literature of herbal remedies for depression echoed this sentiment. Chamomile was one of the 7 that appeared to have real evidence of “antidepressive influence” based on preclinical and clinical trials.
If you’re curious what the others were, we’ve already talked about lavender. The other 5 we didn’t. The top essential oils for depression might include hypericum (St. John’s wort), borage, roseroot, saffron and ginger, however the research to date is primarily for other forms of these plants, which means that the oils may or may not be relevant. The compounds in raw leaves, flowers, and roots can vary immensely when compared to essential compounds. (24)
That’s the case with rosmarinic acid. It’s a compound in fresh rosemary and other herbs that has been linked to improvement in mood, yet virtually none ends up in the steam distilled volatile oils. (25) (26)
The one essential oil to avoid
Most people want to talk about the positive influence aromatherapy can have on your mood, however there can be the opposite effect, too.
It’s the same with all senses. Take a sunny day that makes people happy, while clouds and storms can bring a bout of sadness.
Cedrol, which is the main compound in cedarwood oil, has been found to “significantly decrease” motor activity and prolong sleeping.
Interestingly enough, the same Japanese scientists found that lavender and roman chamomile oils had the opposite effect on the rats, which only further supports the theory that those two are among the best mood boosters. (27)
There may be a time and place for lethargy and slumber, but it’s generally not what you want with mild, moderate, or severe depression. Low energy and lack of enthusiasm is what you are trying to battle, not bring more of! Cedarwood should be on your avoid list.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.