Can essential oils -- which people throughout the world have used for therapeutic purposes for nearly 6,000 years -- help treat depression?
Some physicians say yes -- particularly mild, situational forms of the ailment. But others caution that they wouldn't recommend treating more serious forms of depression exclusively with essential oils, which are found in lavender, bergamot, chamomile and ylang ylang. "It's not a cure-all. [Essential oils] can help, but to depend on them to cure depression alone is kind of ridiculous," says Mark Sherwood, a naturopathic physician who runs the Functional Medical Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife, Dr. Michele Neil-Sherwood.
Essential oils are completely natural -- they're concentrated extracts removed from the seeds, leaves, blossoms and roots of plants. Each plant has its own set of active ingredients and is used for different therapeutic purposes; integrative health specialists use them to help people with a range of conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, constipation and pain.
A French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, learned of the healing properties of lavender around 1910. After he burned his hand during an experiment, Gattefosse rinsed it with lavender. His hand began healing the next day. The chemist later conducted experiments on the healing properties of lavender with soldiers wounded during World War I.
[See: Coping With Depression at Work.]
Aromatherapy, also known as essential oil therapy, involves the art and science of using naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of the body, mind and spirit, according to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. The approach seeks to combine the physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance a person's innate healing process. Aromatherapy can involve the use of diffusers, which are similar to vaporizers, as well as candles and lotions. Lavender, bergamot and chamomile capsules are also available. Aromatherapists, massage therapists and pharmacists can apply essential oils to the body or conduct aromatherapy sessions in which the patient inhales the substance. These products are available at stores such as Whole Foods, health food stores and from online retailers. On Amazon, for example, a 4-ounce bottle of lavender oil costs about $14.
Some physicians believe the body's olfactory system is the key to how aromatherapy works, though clinical research isn't definitive. Inhaling essential oil molecules can stimulate the parts of the brain that store emotions and memories, Neil-Sherwood says, and these molecules can promote positive feelings of happiness and joy. "We're very driven by our senses," adds Angela Fitch, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
The results of a clinical trial published this spring in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research of 140 women admitted to an obstetric and gynecological unit found that inhaling a lavender scent for four weeks helped prevent stress, anxiety and depression after childbirth. The women were divided into a group that received aromatherapy, inhaling three drops of lavender essential oil every eight hours for four weeks, and a control group. The study found the patients who received aromatherapy had significantly lower depression scores at two weeks, one month and three months after giving birth.
A study published in 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Biomed Research International found that 44 older people suffering from chronic pain experienced significantly reduced depression, anxiety and stress levels after they participated in a four-week aromatherapy program, compared to the 38 people in the control group. According to a 2013 study on animals published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal, lavender has analgesic, sedative, anticonvulsive and neuroprotective properties. Continuous exposure to lavender essential oils for seven days significantly decreased anxiety and depression-like behavior in rats undergoing maze and forced swimming tests, the study found.
Some physicians say essential oils show promise for treating depression, but caution they would like to see more clinical research on their effectiveness in treating the malady. "Nobody says we can use something that's not been proven to be effective to treat cancer," says Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, director of psychiatry at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "Like other chronic diseases, depression is difficult to treat."
However, Dr. Patrick Fratellone, a cardiologist and integrative physician in New York City, says he uses essential oils to help treat patients for depression, PTSD, sleep disorders and gastrointestinal issues. Fratellone notes that some patients suffering from depression want to avoid taking medications used to treat the disease -- such as Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft -- because they can cause unpleasant side effects, such as fatigue, constipation, a flattening of emotions, nausea and loss of libido. Essential oils could be part of a treatment regimen including talk therapy, yoga and exercise, physicians say.
If you're suffering from depression and are considering starting a treatment regimen that could include essential oils, experts suggest you take these steps:
1. Consult with your primary care doctor or team of physicians first. "Depression can be a serious condition, and self-treatment can be dangerous," says Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program in Rochester, Minnesota. "Once you have a good foundation from a conventional standpoint, you can jointly explore where other complementary therapies -- such as aromatherapy, exercise, meditation, yoga [and other approaches] might be right for you," Bauer says.
2. If you decide to move forward, look for a doctor, acupuncturist, aromatherapist, naturopathic physician, yoga instructor or reiki master who is experienced in using essential oils to treat depression and other conditions. Research candidates by searching for them online, asking them specific questions about their experience using essential oils, why essential oils might help them and how different oils work, and by requesting recommendations from your doctor, Fratellone says.
3. Consider going to an integrative wellness center, which may use essential oils as part of its approach. Such centers are often found in large urban population centers, though they may be more difficult to find in remote rural areas, Fitch says. Integrative wellness practitioners can help you develop a plethora of strategies to deal with your ailment that could include essential oils and dietary changes. "Many of us are quick to jump on wanting a pill to fix [us], but sometimes if we take the time to figure these things out, there's a lot of help to be had," Fitch says.
Ruben Castaneda is a Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. He previously covered the crime beat in Washington, D.C. and state and federal courts in suburban Maryland, and he's the author of the book "S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C." You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him at LinkedIn or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.