It is estimated that 5% of adults suffer from depression globally. It is a common mental health disorder that is sadly rising fast post-pandemic. The medical profession does not recommend antidepressants for mild depression, as they are not the first line of treatment. Neither should be used for treating children with depression. Suicide is the fourth biggest cause of death in 15-29-year-olds, and again, anti-depressant medication should not be the first line of treatment for this group either. (World Health Authority 2021) Aromatherapy is an excellent complementary therapy to support people during times of stress and adverse mental health. Today as part of our women’s mental health month, we look at essential oils for depression.
The most effective essential oils for depression are Yuzu, Bergamot, Rose, Melissa, and Sweet Orange. Each affects the psyche slightly differently, whether uplifting mood, promoting restfulness and sleep, or reducing anxiety. They can be used topically in creams, lotions, and massage oils, in the bath, or aromatically as inhalants or in diffusers.
There are three conditions I dread writing about. The first is cancer because people understandably cling to any possibility they can find that essential oil can help them (there is still no medical proof that any of them will, outside of a petri dish, I’m afraid). The other two are migraine and depression because medical theories change daily as to what their causes might be. The truth is we don’t know why some people suffer and others don’t, and even if we do have clues, they seem to make up cocktails for many different reasons. All I can give you here is an understanding of what aromatherapists choose as essential oils for depression and anecdotal evidence of how they may be able to help.
How Common is Depression?
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Societally, it is a majority shareholder in the burden of disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year, costing employers between $17 billion and $44 billion. (Forbes, 2022) Half of the employees with depression are untreated.
According to a report by the World Health Authority this year, the prevalence of depression has risen by 25% post Covid. People have lost their businesses, and the cost of living is soaring. Many people suffered after extended periods of being alone, and for many, assessing the rest of the world led to a very negative mindset.
The WHO believes that as many as 80-90% of people in the Global South (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) may live with undiagnosed mental health conditions. (Open Access Government.org 2022)
Despite these statistics - depressing in their own right - governments are only allocating an additional 2% spend to mental health. That said, it is no small amount of cash. Even before the pandemic, the US budgetary allocation was 1trillion dollars. Depression can lead to suicide, as it is believed that 70% of people who die by suicide suffer from mental health issues of which depression is a contributing cause. (Open Access Government.org 2022)
This is seriously bad news. However, I guess that is good news for aromatherapy because while it should never be used as a replacement for medical advice, it can be incredibly helpful as a complementary therapy.
Women and Depression
Women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression as men (Ratio 1.7:1), although the reasons for that remain unclear. (Albert, 2015)
Research suggests that the risk may primarily stem from biological sex differences rather than depend on race, culture, education, or dietary factors. However, there may be numerous other potentially confounding social and economic factors. Interestingly though, there is no clear evidence that the chances of a woman having depression might be greater in countries where they endure poorer lower socioeconomic status than men. The rates of depression seem to be the same as in countries where there may be an equal footing. (Albert, 2015)
Young women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression than young men, but that gap decreases a little at the onset of puberty. That said, young women are at the greatest risk of depression globally at the onset of puberty. Before puberty, though, incidences in young boys are much higher. Incidences of depression in both sexes seem to decline after age 65. (Albert, 2015)
Perhaps a cruel truth in treating depression is that clinical trials are usually undertaken on men to prevent having to take hormonal fluctuations that women endure into account. Since female depression seems to spike at the onset of puberty, during menstrual and menopausal changes, and during and after pregnancy, researchers agree that hormonal fluctuations may be a common cause of depression. (Albert, 2015)
By contrast, essential oil studies are usually done on rodents and monkeys rather than on people! So we’re not doing very well scientifically. But, resoundingly, we hear stories of how people feel more relaxed and happier when they use essential oils.
Symptoms and Patterns
Diagnosis is made based on depressive episodes, which may be shorter than you would imagine. The sufferer reports feeling sad, irritable, or empty for at least two weeks. During this time, they take little interest or pleasure in activities for most of the day, nearly every day. Two weeks is a very long time to feel that down, but it may be a shorter time than you would have imagined for a diagnosis.
Other symptoms may also be present.
Poor concentration, feelings of low self-worth, or guilt are common. There are often feelings of lethargy and tiredness or very low energy. Changes in appetite and weight are also prevalent. Sleep is often disrupted. The person may feel hopeless about the future and have thoughts about death or suicide.
It’s not unusual for the body to speak the mind and to change the thoughts into fatigue and aches and pains, even though the mind has not yet realized how low it feels.
During these depressive episodes, withdrawal from social life is common. The person may experience significant difficulty in personal and family relationships and function adeptly at work or school.
Depressive episodes can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. These diagnoses will depend on how many episodes the person experiences and how often. How severe they are and how much they disturb a person’s life.
What Causes Depression?
In truth, we still don’t know yet.
With the discovery of the chemical nervous system in the 1990s, it seemed likely that neurotransmitters might be a causal factor. Understanding how serotonin modulated mood and dopamine contributed to motivation became important. We still don’t know whether depression leads to low serotonin levels or whether those low levels may have caused depression in the first place. Clearly, though, there does seem to be a relationship.
In the latter part of the last decade, newspapers began running headlines saying, “Depression may be a biological response to negative life experiences,” which seems like mansplaining at an epic level. However, closer examination shows that the brain seems to set up a protective mechanism to protect the psyche when we suffer shock or hardship.
So, there seem to be a massive cauldron stuffed full of social issues and psychological and biological factors that can lead to depression. Adverse life events like unemployment, bereavement and traumatic events are likely to trigger it. Depression then creates more stress through work absence and its effects on relationships, which worsen the affected person’s life situation and the depression itself.
As an Aromatic Pain Specialist, I should point out the huge correlation between chronic illnesses and depression. Again, which causes which is hard to say, but chronic illness and depression often live hand in hand.
Diagnosis and Treatment
There are effective treatments for depression.
Depending on the pattern of depressive episodes and how they develop in severity over time, doctors often begin with talking therapies as the first line of defense, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy.
School and community-based initiatives that teach young people coping strategies are remarkably effective at prevention. Exercise programs have also seen great benefits for older people.
Traditionally, medications for more severe cases are SSRIs, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, TCAs, and Tricyclic Antidepressants. These can be tremendously helpful but also carry side effects, especially sexual dysfunction.
What Essential Oils are Good for Depression?
There does seem to be some kind of relationship between depression and the sense of smell. When a group of volunteers with depression were analyzed, they all seemed to have a poorer sense of smell than healthy volunteers. In this case, there does seem to be a two-way relationship. Perhaps the loss of smell separates the person from their worldly experience. Regardless, depression and loss of smell seem to go hand in hand. (Kohli, 2016)
Molecular medical research on aromatherapy has been steadily increasing for use as adjuvant therapy in managing psychiatric disorders and to examine its therapeutic mechanisms. (Xiao Nan Lv, 2013)
Most aromatherapists seem to agree that while yuzu is a relatively new addition to Western aromatherapy, it has a very powerful action on mood. It is rapidly becoming one of the most suggested essential oils for depression.
Chromogranin A is a protein expressed by neuroendocrine cells. It is seen as an indication of the state of the sympathetic nervous system and activities with the adrenal system (Many studies have confirmed the correlation between anxiety/depression and the salivary Chromogranin A (CgA) level (Li, 2020).
Research done in 2013 proved that inhaling yuzu essential oil suppressed the sympathetic nervous system, the part that is responsible for our fight and flight response during stress. (Matsumoto, 2013)
The trial done by a Japanese team concluded with their belief that inhaling yuzu oil could alleviate negative emotional stress. (Matsumoto, 2013)
The results of another study done by the same laboratory suggested that yuzu might have the same beneficial outcomes of premenstrual mood changes as lavender does (Matsumoto, 2017)
Next to lavender essential oil, Bergamot has the most research associated with it.
Trials show that both aromatherapy massage and inhalation of bergamot can be a wonderful support to nervous system function.
Studies show that bergamot essential oil provides sedative and anxiolytic effects similar to diazepam. (Saiyudthong, 2015) That said, it is still unclear why that is. Trials done on rats that suffered an enforced swimming test to make them depressed were then beheaded and assessed to see what changes had taken place within their sympathetic nervous system.
Even though those inhaling bergamot essential oil avoided becoming depressed, no changes were seen within the expected biological markers in the HPA axis - the set of functions that fire during stress. (Saiyudthong, 2015) So, the reasons why it is so beneficial remain hidden.
A 2008 study on terminally ill patients in a hospice setting showed that massage with lotions comprising lavender, frankincense, and bergamot reduced pain and depression. (So Young Chang 2008)
Within the last couple of weeks, an evidence review has been done into rose essential oil, detailing the effects of 38 trials. Most of them are rodent trials, sadly. But the review showed that Rose essential oil reduced activity in the sympathetic nervous system. It induced more neurotransmitters which I describe as the difference between gray depression and coming back into technicolor reality. Rose essential oil-induced nerve growth factors by neurogenesis and synaptogenesis mechanisms, which in layman’s terms means that it grows new nerve cells and junctions so effectively that it resets the nervous system. (Mohamadi, 2022)
In my book, Rose Goddess Medicine, I predicted that there would be fast developments after the results of an intercontinental study into Rosa damascena and its effects on sexual dysfunction caused by SSRIs in 2015.
The essential oil reversed the effects of many sexual dysfunctions in men, from erectile dysfunction to delayed ejaculation and loss of libido. (Farnia, 2015)
Rose is generally specific for grief and depression, especially if there is a connection to love. My book explores all aspects of how rose essential oil can be used to heal and especially support mental health.
One of the most calming essential oils for depression. It is uplifting and soothing.
Not only should it help you feel more hopeful, but it should help you to relax and may also improve your sleep.
Melissa's lemon balm plant has a three-way set of actions upon the GABA receptor. I call it the triptych.
GABA is the body’s main calming neurotransmitter.
Lemon Balm extracts encourage the body to make more GABA, create more receptors to catch it and influence the actions of an enzyme called GABA Transaminase.
GABA T is involved in the body’s clean-up crew called reuptake. This is the process we see in SSRIs, although clearly, that is serotonin reuptake. (Fermino, 2015)
Some are left in the synaptic gap when GABA - and serotonin are projected across nerve junctions. GABA - T collects it and recycles it to be used again. Melissa essential oil inhibits reuptake. When reuptake is inhibited, the levels accumulate, and obviously, we will have more GABA. This also seems to be the same as serotonin for Melissa.
This seems to be mainly related to the actions of limonene and citral on the GABA receptor (Fermino, 2015). However, inhalation of many different essential oils - including melissa- increases levels of GABA since olfactory neurons express it. We’ll talk about that a little more in a moment.
5. Sweet Orange
So many trials, but we overwhelmingly see that limonene has a powerful antidepressant effect on mood (Zhang, 2019).
VINEVIDA’s Sweet Orange essential oil comprises almost 90% limonene.
We have produced other articles that you may find helpful.
Olfaction and massage seem to be the most effective ways of balancing mood by far. Details of the most current understanding of how we can use inhalation of essential oils to support healthy mental health can be found here. This might be the most important aromatherapy information you can read if you want to understand how best to use essential oils for depression.
Here is an old blog post about essential oils to uplift mood.
Never use essential oils for depression as an alternative to seeing the doctor. Depression is a dangerous and debilitating disease, and while fragrance can be so helpful at uplifting mood, please don’t try to work through this alone. I’d love to hear your stories about using essential oils for depression. Who knows, perhaps your story might help someone else who is struggling too.