The Best, Evidence-Based Essential Oils for Depression

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Last updated October 25, 2021.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Research confirms that essential oils are a viable treatment option for depression. They’re also safe, inexpensive, and pleasant to use.

If you have depression, finding the most effective medication, in the right dosage and with the fewest side effects, can be tricky.

So, many people turn to natural methods, including essential oils, to fight depression.

If you are looking for a natural way to address depression, here’s why using essential oils is worth considering.

Evidence for the Use of Essential Oils for Depression

Using essential oils may sound like a spa treatment rather than serious medicine.

But a robust body of evidence supports the claim that essential oils are effective in treating depression, as well as stress and anxiety.

The US National Library of Medicine database lists over 300 scientific studies on the use of essential oils for depression

The prestigious Mayo Clinic summarizes the evidenced-based benefits of essential oils and puts relief from depression and anxiety at the top of the list.

The National Cancer Institute cites several studies on the use of essential oils for treating depression and other quality of life issues that affect cancer patients. 

How Essential Oils Work for Depression

So, let’s take a look at how essential oils are thought to work in the brain to help with depression.

There is a connection between the sense of smell and other brain functions.

Smells travel as chemical messages via sense receptors and the olfactory nerve to the limbic area of the brain, and particularly to the amygdala and the hippocampus.

These are the areas of the brain associated with emotions, mood, pain, pleasure, and also with memories.

Smells become associated with emotions themselves and can also invoke memories of emotions.

So, for example, if you use an essential oil while meditating, you learn to associate the fragrance with a state of deep relaxation.

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Over time, the same relaxation occurs with just the smell of the oil, without the meditation.

Studies at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have shown that the link between smell and mood can be measured in physiological changes, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.

Research conducted at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, similarly found that essential oils can affect heart rate, stress levels, blood pressure, breathing, and immune function.

Researchers also discovered that essential oils can increase levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). 

Anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan work by enhancing activity of GABA, the brain chemical of relaxation.

" A report in the Journal of Biological Chemistry examined the impact of hundreds of fragrances on the brain and found gardenia essential oil to be as good as Valium at calming the nerves, with none of the side effects. 

Sweet smells have been shown to reduce pain by activating the opioid receptors in the brain.

It’s been found that the molecules in essential oils are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier.

And once they enter the brain’s limbic system, they can have a direct impact on mood.

There is such a strong connection between smell and emotions that people who lose their sense of smell often develop depression. 

Conversely, people who are depressed may have low sensitivity to smells.

The Best Essential Oils for Depression

There is a long list of essential oils reported to bring relief of depression and accompanying stress and anxiety:

  • angelica (Angelica archangelica)
  • basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
  • cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
  • clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
  • frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
  • geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
  • grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
  • jasmine (Jasminum officinale)
  • lavender (Lavandula angustifolia is the best variety for anxiety)
  • lemon (Citrus limon)

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  • lime (Citrus latifolia)
  • neroli (Citrus aurantium)
  • orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini)
  • patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • Roman chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
  • rose (Rosa damascena)
  • rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • sandalwood (Santalum album)
  • sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)
  • turmeric (Curcuma longa)
  • vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides)
  • wild orange (Capparis mitchellii)
  • ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

Key Research Findings on Essential Oils for Depression

There have been many studies conducted on the efficacy of essential oils for depression.

Here are some of the most notable ones.

Lavender Essential Oil (Lavandula angustifolia)

In research that sought to find a natural alternative to benzodiazepines for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), lavender oil capsules were found to be as effective as the anti-anxiety drug Ativan, and without the sedative and dependency side effects.

Lavender oil is particularly good for panic attacks and general nervousness.

It’s been found specifically helpful for postpartum depression and for the restlessness, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances that accompany post-traumatic stress disorder

One way lavender oil seems to work is by increasing both theta and alpha brainwave activity

Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be applied without dilution, so you can rub it directly onto your wrists or behind your ears.

Lavender has been found to penetrate into the bloodstream within minutes, with blood levels peaking in about 20 minutes.

You can diffuse the oil at night or use a sachet under your pillow to improve sleep and reduce ruminative thoughts.

Citrus Essential Oils

Citrus-based essential oils are said to invigorate the senses, reduce mental exhaustion and fatigue, and elevate low moods.

There are a number of citrus-based oils recommended for depression:

  • bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
  • grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
  • lemon (Citrus limon)
  • lime (Citrus latifolia)
  • neroli (Citrus aurantium)
  • orange (Citrus sinensis)

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Citrus essential oils have been found to normalize hormone levels and immune function and bring about a state of balance known as homeostasis.

One research team found citrus essential oils to be “more effective than antidepressants.” 

They are best used in diffusers.

Of all the citrus essential oils, bergamot, a type of orange, is a standout.

You may be familiar with it as the “secret” ingredient in Earl Grey tea.

One study found bergamot works as well as Valium by reducing cortisol.

A clinical trial confirmed the therapeutic effects of a blend of bergamot and lavender

This combination lowered blood pressure, decreased pulse rate, and induced feelings of calmness and relaxation.

Similar results were found with the transdermal absorption of ylang-ylang essential oil

A word of caution: If you apply a citrus-based oil topically, don’t expose that area of your skin directly to the sun.

Citrus essential oil oils can increase photosensitivity in some people.

Clary Sage Essential Oil (Salvia sclarea)

Depression and anxiety are linked to both low levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Clary sage essential oil treats depression on both fronts by significantly increasing serotonin, while decreasing cortisol. 

A study of menopausal women found that clary sage oil had impressive antidepressant properties

Clary sage oil is said to be an uplifting oil, promoting feelings of hopefulness and confidence.

Another study compared the antidepressant effects of clary sage, chamomile, rosemary, and lavender. 

Clary sage was found to have the strongest antidepressant effects due to its ability to modify dopamine pathways in the brain.

Gardenia Essential Oil (Gardenia jasminoides)

Gardenia essential oil is often used as a natural remedy for depression, stress, and anxiety.

A report in the Journal of Biological Chemistry examined the impact of hundreds of fragrances on the brain and found gardenia essential oil to be as good as Valium at calming the nerves, with none of the side effects. 

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Of all the fragrances tested, gardenia had the greatest effect on the calming neurotransmitter GABA.

In fact, gardenia essential oil increased GABA’s effect by more than five times and worked better than drugs that modify GABA — sedatives, relaxants, and sleeping pills — minus their side effects.

The head of the research team, Professor Hanns Hatt, PhD, enthused that they had found “a new class of GABA receptor modulator” and that the study results “can be seen as a scientific basis for aromatherapy.”

Confusingly, one common name for Gardenia jasminoides is cape jasmine, but look for gardenia essential oil rather than jasmine since they are not the same plant.

You’ll like the price better too, since true jasmine essential oil is very expensive.  

Tips for Using Essential Oils for Depression

Essential oils are derived from nature, but they are still powerful!

If you are taking any medication, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before using essential oils.

Remember that essential oils are extremely concentrated — it takes a whopping 250 pounds of lavender flowers to make one pound of lavender essential oil. 

So, before using any essential oil topically, do a skin test on the inside of your arm to be sure you are not reactive.

If you are going to apply an essential oil topically, it is generally recommended to dilute it in a carrier oil such as jojoba, coconut, apricot kernel, or almond oil.

If you are new to using essential oils, I recommend you check out the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s safety information.

Buy Quality Essential Oils

To get the health benefits you want, make sure to buy the genuine article.

If the product says “fragrance oil” or “perfume oil,” it is probably synthetic or contains additives.

Even the terms “therapeutic grade” or “aromatherapy grade” are unreliable.

While they might be used by reputable manufacturers to indicate high quality, there is, in fact, no formally approved grading standard for essential oils.

On the label, look for “100% essential oil” or “pure essential oil” and for the correct name of the plant species, eg, Lavandula angustifolia, for lavender.

Other indicators of good quality are that the plants have been grown organically and that the oil was distilled or mechanically pressed without the use of chemicals.

In some cases, essential oils can be taken orally.

In these cases, make sure that the oil is “food grade.”

Try to find pure oils, i.e., those that are not altered or adulterated.

For example, very expensive essential oils such as jasmine or patchouli essential oil are often diluted with other oils.

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Keep your essential oils in dark glass bottles to prevent oxidation and tightly sealed to prevent evaporation.

Use an essential oil for at least two weeks before deciding whether or not it works for you.

Long-term usage (3 months to a year) is needed for the best results.

Note: While aromatherapy can be a useful adjunctive therapy, it is not intended to replace standard medical care. Talk to your doctor before changing your dosage or discontinuing any medications you currently take. 

Essential Oils for Depression: Take the Next Step

Substantial research findings confirm that essential oils are a viable alternative treatment for depression.

And unlike antidepressant medications, they are safe, inexpensive, and actually pleasant to use.

Essential oils can help depression by a variety of mechanisms.

They restore neurotransmitter balance, reduce stress hormones, and bring about positive physiological changes.

Typically, essential oils used for depression offer significant additional benefits, such as a reduction in stress and anxiety and improved sleep.

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