Millions of Americans experience symptoms of mental health problems every year and the number of people seeking treatment is also growing. However, healthcare for mental health is prohibitively expensive, and many people are not covered for it on their insurance. Whilst essential oils for depression should not be seen as an alternative for good medical support, they can be a complementary therapy to support talking therapies and pharmaceutical interventions.
Using essential oils for depression is a great way to try and uplift mood, but also to stabilize the internal chemistry that can accompany low mood. That said (and I hold my hands up as being complicit in this) often advice about essential oils for depression focuses on prohibitively expensive oils and complicated protocols of use.
To that end then, this article attempts to level the playing field a bit to get really simple about how to use essential oils for depression and focuses on inexpensive ways to access it.
Before we get into the actual essential oils for depression though, let’s take a birds eye view of the problem at large. Because if you have come here looking for some support in finding essential oils for depression, the chances are you, or a loved one, are not really feeling on top form.
To that end, I want you to know that you are not alone.
Depression is on the Rise
Numbers of people reporting feeling depressed are rising fast.
The government has responded to that by plowing huge amounts of money into the system.
In 2019, spending on mental health treatment and services reached $225 billion (Open Minds Market Intelligence Report). That number was an increase of 52% since 2009. It included investment into prescription meds and a wider range of accessibility to therapies, psychiatric stays and substance abuse rehabilitation facilities.
Add to that the indirect costs on the country. Depression is estimated to account for an additional $44 billion in losses to workplace productivity (One Mind at Work).
Mental Health was already a huge expenditure of America’s healthcare budget.
And then the pandemic hit.
According to Gallup polls, in 2023 the percentage of people being diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime, has now reached 29%. That’s a colossal surge of ten percentage points from when records began in 2015.
Around 17.8% of the US population reports either feeling depressed or currently being treated for depression.
In real terms, this accounts for over 50 million American adults.
The Statistics are Complex
In George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of the future, 1984, the doleful cry was “All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others.”
This was never truer than today’s depression stats.
Younger people, women, and people of color are disproportionately most at risk from depression.
Women (23.8%) and adults aged 18-29 (24.6%) also have the highest rates of current depression, and/ or treatment for depression.
Those aged between 18-29 years old (34.3%), and 30-44 years old (34.9%) are greatest at risk, with significantly greater depression diagnosis rates than those older than 44.
The number of women reporting depression is rising much faster than in men too.
36.7% of women now report having been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives as opposed to just 20.4% of men. That increase in incidence has risen at almost twice the rate of men since 2017. Rates of depression rates in Black and Hispanic adults have now also surpassed those of White (respondents in the poll).
COVID’s Impact on the Depression Pandemic
Clinical depression figures were already climbing before the pandemic, but numbers have spiraled out of control in its wake. Loneliness, social isolation, fear of being infected by the germ all have a part to play.
Psychological exhaustion, especially amongst front line health care workers, increased substance abuse and the disruption to mental health treatment services all seem to be linked.
It is worth considering that women are disproportionately at risk from depression and during the pandemic, Three quarters of workers in all healthcare occupations in 2019 (78%) were women. Likewise, many people of color were involved in the lower paid positions on the front line, which clearly exposed them to yet more emotional and psychological risks. (Gallup, 2023)
Why are Essential Oils for Clinical Depression So Important?
In 2023, almost one in four adults (22.87%) who had experienced more than 14 mentally difficult days every month, reported that they had not sought medical help because they could not afford to see a doctor.
Mental healthcare can be prohibitively expensive — even higher than physical health costs. According to therapist directory, GoodTherapy.org, An hour's worth of talking therapy can range from $65 to $250 for those without insurance.
If someone is being treated for a major depression, they can spend an average of $10,836 a year on health costs. (One Mind)
Almost 60% of young people living with major depression receive no treatment.
More than 5.5 million(10.8%) of adults with mental illness are uninsured. Hispanic adults diagnosed with a mental illness were found to be the least likely to have health insurance. Almost one in five (19%) reported having no insurance cover.
Nationally, 10% of young people (=1.2 million) with private medical insurance have no mental or emotional difficulties coverage built in. Statistically, Asian youth are least likely to receive specialty care, with 78% reporting that despite feeling depressed, they’d received no mental health services in the past year.
In 2021, an estimated 12.3 million American adults seriously considered suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.7 million actually attempted it. That year, suicide was responsible for 48,183 deaths, which is about one death every 11 minutes.
We agree with the FDA that essential oils for depression should not be touted as a cure. If you think you may be suffering from depression please seek medical support, AND…also consider taking some time to work with some essential oils.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression has many faces and different people exhibit different symptoms.
These can include feeling sad, hopeless and tearful. It's not unusual for people with depression to also experience feelings of anxiety. Often people feel they can’t be bothered to do things that they enjoyed doing before. They may find excuses to avoid social situations because they make them feel more uncomfortable and nervous.
Depression can often present with physical symptom too – these can make you feel tired and lethargic, but irritatingly, depression often also affects how well you sleep. It’s very common to have more aches and pains and to notice more pain in your body too.
You might notice your appetite getting less, and having less desire to have sex.
For most of us, low moods come, hang around for a few weeks then disappear. Again, we might see this as worry or sadness, or even anger, frustration or low self esteem. Low mood usually gets better after a short time, rather than being a symptom of depression.
In many cases, just making small life adjustments can make a radical difference in life. Getting more sleep, talking your problems through or resolving difficult situations , can radically improve your mood.
But if a low mood hasn’t moved on after about two weeks then there may be reason to consider depression.
Further symptoms might include no longer being able to concentrate watching the TV or reading the paper. You may notice your appetite has not returned, or conversely, you may be comfort eating. Again, insomnia is not unusual, but likewise you may feel you want to sleep more and that getting out of bed is much harder than it was before.
Severe depression may mean you have thoughts about harming yourself or suicidal thoughts.
Treatments for Depression
Traditional treatments for depression usually take the form of talking therapies and or pharmaceutical medications.
Three of the common depression treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy, or a combination of these.
Interpersonal therapy focuses on you and your relationship with those around you. The idea is that challenges within relationships can leave you feeling depressed. Arguments and fall outs can be stressful, and life changes such as births of children, redundancy and grief can all affect how people relate to each other. Likewise depression can make interactions with loved ones harder too.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy examines if certain childhood experiences might now be negatively affecting your mood and thoughts.
The objective of psychodynamic therapy is to make the client more self aware and to understand how the past may influence their present behaviors.
In all cases, essential oils for depression can help you feel braver and more positive about investigating these subjects.
The Doctor’s Medications
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It is involved in around 300 different processes, including mood modulation. Thus, it is not really understood if low levels of serotonin lead to depression or vice versa, only that there is some kind of correlation.
Our nervous system relies on two types of signaling, electrical signals along nerve fibers, and then chemicals to transmit messages between the electrical gaps. These chemicals are neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are dispatched across the gap and should be picked up by receptors, but in depression there can be problems with this. There may not be enough receptors, or perhaps not enough serotonin. Sometimes there is enough of both, but the serotonin gets lost somewhere across the gap.
What’s left in the gap is then collected up by the nervous system, and recycled, in the hope that this time it might find its way easily across to meet with a receptor.
This is called reuptake.
SSRIs intervene by preventing this reuptake. The idea being that hopefully they will finally find their way to a receptor of their own accord, and as such there will be a build up of serotonin in the system.
These are the most commonly prescribed meds, but sadly, only about half of the people who have them prescribed respond well to them. Side effects are mild, but can include feeling agitated, anxious or shaky, feeling sick and other digestive disturbances. SSRIs can also often lead to sexual dysfunction in men.
Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)
These work in a similar way to SSRIs, except rather than just working with serotonin, these prevent the reuptake of both serotonin and a hormone of the parasympathetic nervous system, norepinephrine.
Again, these can affect the digestive system.
These antidepressants are called atypical because they don't fit neatly into any of the other antidepressant categories.
Tricyclic antidepressants are older treatments really and so tend to cause more side effects than newer antidepressants. Consequently, they are not often prescribed unless other antidepressants have not been helpful.
Mono-Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)
MAOIs may be prescribed, often when other medicines haven't worked because they can have lethal side effects.
You need to stay on a very strict diet when taking MAOI requires a strict diet because they interact with a chemical called tyramine. Importantly, there is a theoretical risk of interaction with clove essential oil.
Clove essential oil is not strictly speaking one of the best essential oils for depression, problems are more likely to occur when using clove essential oil as an antimicrobial agent or for toothache.
How Do Essential Oils for Depression Work?
In truth, we can give you scientific nuggets of information, but we don’t fully understand it. We just know that they do.
It is well recognized that the part of the brain that interacts with smell is the same part of the brain that governs our thoughts and mood.
When we inhale essential oils it instructs our brain to do different things.
So for example when we inhale grapefruit essential oil it stimulates our nervous system to go faster. It raises our blood pressure but we are also more motivated, happier and more switched on.
Conversely, one of the main essential oils for depression is lavender essential oil because it calms us down and helps us to get to sleep.
We do have clinical explanations for some of the physiology we see, but actually much of the magic of how essential oils work for depression is how they alter our thoughts, not only helping us feel more positive, but helping us to tackle some of the problems in our lives that might be causing the depression. What that means then is that the essential oils work on our mind, our emotions and our bodies in the hope of uplifting and sustaining a better mood.
Are Essential Oil for Depression The Future of Mental Health Medicine?
Essential oils for depression and anxiety have been gaining popularity with the scientific community for about a decade.
Their pharmacological effects have been well proven now, and they have the added advantage of not having the same side effects that the doctor’s anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs can have long term.
We’ve talked about the side effects antidepressants can have. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for anxiety but they cause lethargy, drowsiness, dizziness, vertigo, tolerance, and sedation (Rombolà et al., 2017). Worryingly, these are more likely to make older adults fall over, which carries its own dangers, and benzodiazepines are thought to exacerbate their cognitive decline. So interest is increasing in finding alternative ways to treat mental health problems in ways that avoid these problems.
Essential oils for depression and anxiety have been shown to interact with neurotransmitter systems such as the serotonin, cholinergic, noradrenergic, and histaminergic systems as well as with the main calming mechanism in our nervous system GABA (Rombolá et al., 2009).
Using Essential Oils for Depression with the Waking State
Essential oils are also proven to interact with the waking state.
One of the key mistakes people make when they start using essential oils for depression is they try to get them to do too many different things. It’s a common thing, and it happens with lots of conditions.
Essential oils for depression can work in many ways. We want to choose one or two ways. We don’t want to try and do them all.
I suggest you start with uplifting essential oils for depression in the day and relaxing ones in the evening, in the hope that they can help support supportive sleep.
Thus as I talk about the different essential oils for depression and what they do, concentrate on what I call the energetics. Don’t get too bogged down by the neurotransmission stuff.
It makes sense to break the day down into three parts if you can. Morning, to get a boost we’ll use stimulating oils that give you that kick out of bed and make you feel a bit more positive.
Lunchtime and afternoon, we’ll go relaxing but not sedative.
Evening, we’ll go super relaxed so you can get some sleep, and/or we can work on supporting a healthier body clock.
So as I list the actions of each of the essential oils for depression, I’ll also call them morning, afternoon or evening oils so you get a sense of how we want the energy to flow.
How to Use Essential Oils for Depression
Research shows that the most important action of essential oils on mood happens when you inhale them. You can use essential oils for depression topically, but they will take about twenty minutes to get through the skin and start circulating around the body. If you inhale them, the effects start after about five minutes.
Further, if you apply essential oils for depression to the skin, they have to be metabolized by the liver and so they have a slightly different form by the time they do finally get to the brain.
Both are good though, and it often helps to use a variety of different ways.
Inhalation seems too simple to be true…how can essential oils for depression do anything just by sniffing them, but they do.
You can have a drop on a tissue.
I tend to inhale directly from the bottle (which will annoy the purists because it means lots of oxygen can get into the bottle and make it deteriorate faster. I don’t care. Mental health trumps my oils every single time)
You’re going to start to see an effect after about five minutes, and we know that the changes in the body continue even after you put the bottle down, for about half an hour. That said, the longer you inhale the oil for, the more thorough the “treatment” is going to be.
So, my favorite way to do this is to invest in an aroma pendant (sometimes known as diffusers, these cost less than $10 on eBay and Amazon) and then just put a drop on there. That way I’m breathing the oil even when I’m not thinking about it.
Be careful with lava bead ones, because the oil sits directly onto the skin with those. That’s fine, as long as you remember to dilute your oils (which you need not do for an aroma pendant otherwise) to protect your skin.
I suggest inhaling essential oils for ten minutes, twice a day. Clearly, if you just wear your aroma pendant, simply change your oil at lunch time and then at dinner time.
Essential Oils for Depression and GABA
GABA is our main calming neurotransmitter. Oddly, it is, in part, made by smelling things.
Olfactory neurons express GABA, so when we smell present fragrances our body makes more GABA. These neurons also co-express to make more serotonin, dopamine's, oxytocin and estrogen as well as other neurotransmitters and hormones.
When levels of GABA are higher, they help to keep glutamate in check, helping us feel calmer and more in control of what’s going on in our lives. Inhaling essential oils for depression deliberately engineers a much calmer and happier state.
Lavender and geranium are brilliant in the bath and you can get away with a drop or two or sweet orange essential oil too. I would not recommend putting any of the other citrus essential oils in the bath. They can irritate your skin.
To use your oils in the bath, add a couple of drops to a teaspoon of carrier oil, then add to your bath water.
Great. Just be aware of the issues with phototoxicity (We’ll look at that as we go).
Blend your oils into creams and lotions, into massage oils, or a great one is to make a rollerball blend that you can keep putting onto your wrists and neck so it can get into the system really quickly.
Know that research shows that the effects of essential oils are cumulative. That is the body gets better at using them over time. So, even if you don’t experience any difference from using your essential oils for depression straight away, keep on using them.
The Top 6 Essential Oils for Depression
Let’s start with the citruses.
These are perhaps the most important essential oils for depression because you feel a notable difference almost immediately when you use them.
There is plenty of research we can draw on here–
If you are not sure, bergamot is an inedible green orange! Named after Bergamo in Italy, it is only grown for its essential oil. Lots of that goes to the perfumery industry because it is a happy, upbeat scent, some goes into making Earl Grey tea and the rest goes to aromatherapy.
It’s a really nice oil to use because it does smell happy, light and airy. It feels like a smile.
It’s quite a reasonably priced oil, and is available everywhere.
The evidence for bergamot as one of the best essential oils for depression does not only rely on how people report it makes them feel. It is also proven that there are less stress hormones in the saliva if you have spent some time with the oil. (Watanabe, 2015)
For this to happen, bergamot essential oil must have engaged the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part that governs rest and restore. It slows the heart rate and blood pressure, and calms the whole system down.
Interestingly other trials done with bergamot show that it does a great job uplifting mood, it does not really have much of an effect on sleep quality. (Chen, 2022)
We’ll talk more about how to use essential oils for depression in the next section, but its important to know that citrus oils carry a risk of phototoxicity.
This is because the oils are not distilled, like most essential oils for depression are, they are pressed from the rind of the fruit with tiny needles. This means that there are some waxy lipids that come across into the oil, which irritate the skin when they are exposed to sunlight. You really need to avoid coming into direct sunlight (or sunbeds for 12 hours after you have applied it. This would not be too much of a problem, except for the fact that I have recommended using it in the morning.
So, in order to avoid this, we keep the maximum dilution really low.
Bergamot Safety Data
If you use a dilution of 0.4% or lower, it is safe to use topically in daylight.
Also, citrus oils deteriorate quickly, and old oils are the ones that cause the most risk of phototoxicity. Replace your citrus essential oils for depression between every six months to a year.
Alternatively, inhaling bergamot essential oil means you wouldn’t have these risks of skin sensitivity.
2. Sweet Orange
This is my personal favorite uplifting essential oil for depression. This one is an afternoon oil. It is proven to be uplifting and relaxing, without being sedative.
Research reveals that it is the limonene that does the trick. This is not surprising because sweet orange oil is composed of almost entirely limonene.
It also appears in many other essential oils for depression, lemon, lime, grapefruit essential oils, so even though some of these won’t be covered in depth in this article, they are still worth experimenting with.
I always say “use sweet orange essential oil when you feel like you have been smacked with the ugly stick!” You know the days. You look in the mirror and think “What in Heaven’s happened to my face when I slept last night?!”
Just one drop of sweet orange essential oil in your moisturizer does wonders. T will bring a bloom back to your skin, making it look way better. But more than that, sweet orange is one of the most important essential oils for depression, because it really engenders positivity. Everything feels a bit less scary (you might want to look at all the clinical trials they have done where they give kids sweet orange essential oil to inhale before seeing the dentist) and a bit more hopeful. Sweet orange is optimism in a bottle.
Sweet Orange Safety Data
Again, this a phototoxic oil, so only use topically in the evening and do not use old oils. Replace your bottle of sweet orange oil regularly. Not suitable in the first sixteen weeks of pregnancy.
Lemon is a morning oil. Invigorating, bright and imaginative. I use lemon essential oil if I have a deadline looming and still don’t know what to write. Or, when I am editing my work and I find it sounds boring and dull. When your living depends on it, that can suddenly feel very scary.
It’s no accident that lemon conjures images of Scilly, blue skies, beautiful vistas…its medicine is very much about creating pretty pictures, imagination and enthusiasm.
I always think it’s a bit like the heroine of the Arabian Nights stories, Scheherazade. She beguiled the Sultan to keep her alive by keeping him captivated with adventure stories. It’s useful to remember that he’d killed many wives before because he got bored of them very fast, so she’d have been in a really nasty situation really. Afraid for her life, she was still able to weave a delicious spell of jeopardy, excitement and romance.
We’d all love to be pirates and beautiful princesses, but when life really does get as Grimm as a fairy tale (gingerbread anyone?) it’s not quite so attractive is it. Part of you wants to run, the other wants to stay in bed, pull the duvet over your head and hope that tonight you will not dream.
One of the reasons that Lemon is one of the best essential oils for depression is it says, “No, no, we’ve got this! Batten down the hatches, let’s ride out the storm and go in search of gold…”
I like this one, because it doesn't feel calm and numb, it loves the excitement of things being a bit choppy and chaotic and it helps you to enjoy it.
Also, don’t forget that every pirate does indeed need a lemon…otherwise he’s in danger of scurvy!
Lemon Safety Data
You’ve got the picture now. Guard against phototoxicity. Do not use old oils. Only use very small amounts on the skin, because it has the capacity to be irritating (actually, maybe that’s the story teller in it!
This is a more unusual oil but it is gaining huge amounts of interest in the clinical labs, for mental health issues, but specifically for hormonal disturbances. If your mood drops through the floor prior to menstruation this might be a brilliant option for you.
The paper this information comes from gauges these effects by tracking levels of CgA in saliva. CgA (Chromogranin A) is a protein that is secreted by the adrenal gland when we come under stress.
Studies have shown that the amount of CgA increases in saliva very quickly and sensitively to stressors like public speaking, trying to do mental arithmetic and doing exams.
CgA levels also increase in women with severe premenstrual emotional symptoms, in the late-luteal phase (usually the week before menstruation). 17
Inhalation of yuzu essential oil is proven to reduce mood disturbance in four main areas: (tension–anxiety, depression–dejection, anger–hostility, and confusion). What’s more the effects are proven to continue to improve for as long as 30 minutes after you have finished sniffing it.
Yuzu Safety Data
Again like the other citrus essential oils for depression, don’t use old oils and there is a risk of phototoxicity. That’s not there with inhalation. Suitable for use after the first 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Geranium is an afternoon or evening oil. This one is another great one of the essential oils for depression if hormones affect your mood, or if you have been suffering from long term stress and your mood is affected by exhaustion.
Geranium essential oil supports the adrenals and is relaxing, but is not sedative.
This is also a fantastic choice if you are worried about money. There is no scientific evidence to support that statement, however, I see it over and again, that the fear of what your debts can do loosens its grip when people use geranium essential oil, especially in the bath.
When tested on perimenopausal women, it was proven that inhaling geranium essential oil can increase levels of estrogen in your system. Estrogen naturally falls when women go through menopause, but this also happens monthly before younger women menstruate. It is thought that estrogen may be the molecule of worry, since when levels fall, people do seem to be more anxious. Supplementing with estrogen has been proven to help men with OCD for example.
Geranium Safety Data
There are no concerns about phototoxicity on this one. It is safe to use diluted on the skin at any time of the day and is safe to use during pregnancy after the initial sixteen weeks.
Evening time, time to get the lavender essential oil out. (It’s tremendously blended with geranium essential oil, incidentally.
Lavender is proven to interact with the GABAergic system, with serotonin and with dopamine.
Lavender is relaxing and soothing, and has the power to get you to sleep. If you are suffering from anxiety, this is a great help. It’s great to put a drop or two on your pillow when you go to sleep.
Lavender Safety Data
Fine to Use at any time of the day, but it will make you sleepy. No problems with phototoxicity and it’s not an oil you are going to expect will irritate the skin. So safe and easy to use and suitable for use in pregnancy after the first 16 weeks have elapsed.
Ordinarily I would give you some essential oil for depression recipes but honestly, I think you will do way more good simply sitting and inhaling your essential oils for depression a few minutes a day.
Take that time to really focus your thoughts on getting better. If you fancy throwing in some positive affirmations…why the hell not.
To give you a guideline, as an aromatherapist, I’d expect to be able to discharge a client after six weeks of using essential oils for depression. They may not be completely better, but they would have enough skill and wherewithal to be able to start making their way alone in the world.
I hope this article has been helpful, and the very best of luck with your journey. I hope that your essential oils for depression serve you well.