"You Smell Like Brain Health": Aromatherapy For Anxiety and Depression

Monday, August 25, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

“I once saw a dog with no nose!” 

“How did he smell?”


(Ba dum dum, ching.)

That’s one of our favorite jokes around here and it’s all about the smelling today, folks. So buckle in and get your nostrils ready. 

It’s aromatherapy time. 

How Does Aromatherapy Work? Antioxidants, Cell Protection and Sedation

Aromatherapy is often seen as hippy dippy bullshit, and indeed there are a number of claims that are not currently backed by clinical trials. However, a number of studies have shown promise in this area, linking specific oils to reductions in anxiety and depression. So let's check out the science.

While there is still some debate about how aromatherapy works, it might be moderately dependent on the oil itself. For example, there is some evidence that certain oils might act more on hormonal regulation which may partially explain why menopausal women had reductions in hot flashes, pain and depression when treated with aromatherapy massage18(specific oils mentioned below).

But, for most common aromatherapy treatments, the general consensus seems to be that odor molecules hit receptor sites in the nose and send chemical messages to the parts of the brain that regulate mood and emotions1, most notably the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. 

Now the neurons in the limbic system are pretty damn important. In previous posts we discussed the idea that neurons in the brain can be responsible for a number of issues when they have trouble protecting themselves from damage. When this happens, neurons often die which can lead to psychological problems like deepening depression (more here). Protecting these cells is vital for the regulation of mood and other bodily processes. 

So what protects brain cells? 

Increasing certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, may assist with protecting cells and helping to generate new ones. But antioxidants are also cell protectant by helping to fight off free radicals that can kill these neurons. And some essential oils have these antioxidants7 along with other chemical components that may speed healing or provide sedative effects in other ways. 

But we have to eat them, don’t we? Can we really inhale antioxidants? 

If you believe you can inhale oxidants through smoking or that vile smells can cause nausea, you believe in the ability of inhaled substances to have some effect on the body. But inhaling antioxidants is a little trickier than just inhaling a fucking blueberry, which for the record is remarkably unwise. You need something more concentrated. Enter essential oils. 

Just how effective is this breathing in antioxidants thing? Recent studies note that plant polyphenols—present in essential oils—do indeed act as antioxidants in the body, whether through olfactory transmission (smelling), transdermal transmission (through the skin) or ingestion8, though I wouldn’t eat them unless you’re an old pro at this. Other researchers found that in rats who were induced to have dementia, inhaled lavender oil protected brain cells and prevented cell death in short order, likely due to its antioxidant properties20.

Demented rats. I hear their memories are not as sharp as they used to be. Also, their memories are not as sharp as they used to be. 

It seems that the chemicals we put on our skin or inhale may have some potential for protecting cells, though it probably takes repeated exposure of specific oils. However, this is not to suggest that aromatherapy can cure depression by reversing the damage to neurons on its own, only that these oils may provide a temporary protectant effect that helps to regulate transmitters and thus mood. And not all oils have the same effects despite having high antioxidant profiles, meaning that there is more to this story than simple antioxidant induced cell protection.

It is also possible that some oils stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that runs from the skull down into the abdomen and transmits sensory information to the brain. A part of the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms us down after fight/flight), this nerve is activated when we smell or taste food and prepares the body for digestion as well as plays a role in a number of other organ systems. But this nerve also helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate. It seems to make sense that a part of the parasympathetic nervous system which happens to be responsive to smells may activate in some fashion to the scents in certain essential oils and trigger calm, though few studies have been conducted to explore this link making it necessarily speculative.

Regardless of the why, there are a few oils that test far better than the others. So what are some of the more effective essential oils for mental health issues? 

Lavender Oil, Anxiety and Depression

Lavender may be especially useful for anxiety because it stimulates brain cells in the amygdala in a way that is similar to sedative  medications6, possibly because of linalool and linalyl acetate which has been shown to be a sedative even in mice injected with caffeine9

What’s that you say? You sometimes want someone to inject you with caffeine to start your Monday morning? Yeah, turns out you can totally do that shit. But only if you’re a rodent. 

Those lucky caffeinated bastards.  

In non caffeine-injected peeps, lavender oil reduces anxiety ratings in preoperative patients2, and in those undergoing chemotherapy3. In the chemo patients, lavender oil in a humidifier lowered blood pressure, decreased pulse, reduced pain and anxiety, decreased depression and improved patients’ sense of well being. 

Studies in the rodent population found similar results, noting that in high stress situations, lavender had a calming effect4. However, in no-stress situations lavender oil contributed to nervous system arousal and increased anxiety symptoms4

And we’re back to tweaked-out mice.  

Luckily, the human population seems to respond a little differently, even in lower stress situations such as watching disturbing movie clips. In that study, oral lavender oil decreased anxiety for participants5.

We’re less tweaky, I guess. Or maybe it’s because humans have the ability to worry more about everything due to our huge brains, leading us to be under at least a little bit of stress at all times. Or maybe the rats in question were just upset because they were being forced to sniff essential oils alone instead of going to the caffeine party that was happening next door. I bet they wanted to go too. You know, “For science.” 

Lavender Mixtures, Stress Relief and Depression

Now, for some reason, researchers mix lavender oil with all kinds of other shit, making it tricky to ascertain whether those other oils are doing a hell of a lot. But I will give you a quick run down anyway, because some of these combos also seem effective for depression. The fact that most of the individual oils don’t have significant effects in clinical trials by themselves leads me to believe it might be something about the combination that is creating the perfect storm of awesome, or that they are simply enhancing the effects of the lavendar.

These are a few of the more compelling studies: 

  • Lavender and rosemary essential oil sachets reduced anxiety symptoms in test taking10
  • Lavender and bergamot applied topically to the abdomen triggered significant decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, lower stress and more relaxed feelings11.  This lead researchers to conclude that it may be beneficial in the treatment of depression or anxiety.
  • A mixture of lavender, marjoram, eucalyptus, rosemary, and peppermint was found to decrease pain and improve depressive symptoms in arthritis sufferers12
  • A mixture of lavender and rose oil has also been shown to alleviate some symptoms of anxiety and depression in high risk postpartum women with no side effects13.
  • A mixture of lavender, rose geranium (one proposed hormone balancer), and jasmine decreased menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, pain and depression18.

And there are more besides the lavender combos: 

  • Clove oil decreased depressive symptoms in rats, indicating that it might be effective in the relief of depression and stress anxiety in humans16.
  • Ylang ylang oil triggered a significant decease in blood pressure and increases in skin temperature, and subjects reported feeling more relaxed17.

So, lots of kudos to researchers for tweaking out humans and mice just so they could calm them down again. Anything else those dudes do to rodents in the name of science? 

Angelica Oil and Depression

Angelica oil shows a great deal of promise in the rat population. One study found that angelica oil acted much like diazepam (Valium) and had significant antidepressant effects on stressed rats14. Other research has verified these links and shown reductions in social failures through increased rat interaction time15

Whether increasing interaction time while using essential oils holds true for humans is another story, though reductions in depression and anxiety do tend to assist people in the social sphere. In any case, the words, ”increasing rat interaction time,” evokes a picture in my head of an overly intrusive Micky Mouse, though I think intrusiveness might be a part of Disney World training. 

“Hiya, folks!” 

Get out my shit, Mickey. before I shoot you up with caffeine and flowers.  

On a related note, want to shoot yourself up with flowers? And by “shoot yourself up” I mean use a dab of essential oil on your wrist or pillow like a normal person? Check these out (each is linked to a place where you can purchase it if you want to):  

And whichever one you choose, you may even be able to use it as a form of exposure therapy to combat scary thoughts or phobias. 

What the what?? Seriously, you can’t make this shit up. 

Essential Oils and Exposure Therapy

One study paired essential oils with electric shocks during the day by having subjects  smell the oils while getting the crap zapped out of them19. At night, scientists exposed people to the essential oil alone. They found that this led to a reduction in the fear of the shocks. Theoretically, consistently pairing an essential oil with scary thoughts or scary events might assist you in combating the fear if you then put that oil on your pillow at night, because that association amounts to a type of cognitive behavioral exposure therapy treatment (discussed more here in: How To Deal With Fears, Phobias and Intrusive Thoughts: Exposure Therapy). This essential oil exposure therapy thing should work with whatever oil you choose, provided the scent is one you want to pair with anxiety.

While this post does not contain an exhaustive list of beneficial essential oils, those listed seem to be the most popular in terms of clinically verifiable stress relief. 

*Aromatherapy should not be used as a stand alone treatment for depression. If you are suffering from major depression, please seek the assistance of a clinician. 

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0032518/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19962101 
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442972
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23285826
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19382124
  6. https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/aromatherapy
  7. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2014/614187/
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835915/
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1817516
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19258850
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21922934
  12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15778570 
  13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22789792
  14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15501315 
  15. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16005501
  16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23462195
  17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16807875
  18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2529395/
  19. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v16/n11/abs/nn.3527.html#sthash.s3bxnAwb.dpuf
  20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23351960 

Topic-Relevant Resources

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices