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Herbs for Depression: Why What You Smell Can Help

Updated on November 10, 2013
Aromatherapy can aid in fighting depression
Aromatherapy can aid in fighting depression | Source

What’s in a Smell?

Ever wondered about natural cures for depression? Well, find out how aromatherapy may have a powerful affect on your mood.

Marcel Proust was one of the greatest 20th century novelists. In his seven part book series, Remembrance of Things Past, he opens with a stunning and rich description of how the power of smell can evoke powerful memories: “"and as soon as I had recognised the taste of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me ... immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set ... and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine." Consequently this phenomenon became know as a “Proustian memory“.

We’ve since shed some light on the exact brain mechanisms involved in Proustian memory. Similarly, the field of neuroscience has provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the world of smell and how it can affect us emotionally. Humans can thank (or sometimes curse) a yellow area of the top of each nostril called the olfactory epithelium, an area approximately the size of a small postage stamp. Granted ours pales in comparison to many mammals, but this area is jam packed with olfactory receptor cells. Bowman’s glands produce mucus that bathes and protects the olfactory epithelial cells. Odors are comprised of molecules and the ones we are able to smell have certain chemical properties, such as weight and both water and fat solubility. If these chemicals pass the entrance test, they are dissolved in the mucus layer which in turn stimulates these 10 million or so receptor cells.

Here’s where it gets interesting (well for me, anyway). A signal then travels from the olfactory bulb to different areas in the brain: the thalamus (part of the limbic system) and the frontal cortex. Here comes the way in which our sense of smell differs from many animals. In only primates (yes, you are one) signals are also sent to the limbic area in the brain. Ha! See we are special. Finally we’re reaching the purpose of my long drawn-out, potentially boring soliloquy… Among other things the limbic area is responsible for a variety of emotions as well as memory. This helps explain how a scent can resurface powerful memories and can elicit some surprising emotions, huh?

Natural Cures for Depression- Aromatherapy 101

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils used for the treatment of a variety of conditions, most notably, depression, anxiety, stress-related disorders, insomnia and even chronic pain. Used for centuries, aromatherapy has recently been the subject of more and more studies.

Generally, aromatherapy oils are diluted in some form of carrier, like jojoba, almond or even olive oil. They can either be massaged into the skin, diffused into the air, added to a bath, or even dropped on your pillowcase at night. The room diffusers are a very efficient way of quickly and efficiently distributing the aroma. There are a variety of diffusers each using a different method of dispersing the scent. There are electric fan diffusers, nebulizers, candle diffusers, reed diffusers and a simple makeshift tissue diffuser. The reed diffusers use reeds (that looks like sticks) that are inserted into a glass bottle containing the essential oil(s). The reeds absorb the oil and efficiently emit the scent. They’re probably the most attractive of the diffusers, so they’ve become quite popular. If you’re on a budget, you can use the frugal diffuser method. Just take a piece of tissue paper, place a few drops of your oil on it and keep it close to you. This method can be nice if you want to move around.

Fighting Depression
Fighting Depression | Source

Fighting Depression with Scents? Say WHAT?

This information is not meant to substitute the advice of a medical doctor.  The studies on aromatherapy show it’s effective for mild to moderate depression, feelings of sadness or even grief.  It’s not meant to treat the persistent anhedonia of clinical depression as a stand alone treatment.   One study has looked into aromatherapy for its possible use in clinical depression  and the results are promising.  However, more research needs to be done.
Recent studies have shown certain essential oils used in aromatherapy can improve depression to various degrees.  Certain scents have fared well in these studies, although some experts advocate experimenting with the ones that you find pleasurable and that trigger happy memories.  In other words, some well studied aromatherapy essential oils like jasmine, for example, might not be the most effective for you.  The brain produces “happy chemicals” called endorphins.  As we know smell and memory are tightly bound together, so choosing the scents that bring back memories from happy times plays a role in endorphin stimulation. 

Lavender is powerful for fighting depression
Lavender is powerful for fighting depression | Source

What You Might Want to Sniff

Research on aromatherapy and depression is still in its infancy, but some early promising results have emerged. More research, clinical trials and improved methodology needs to be done. These therapies are not recommended for treating clinical depression, but rather for mild to moderate depression. For more information on aromatherapy and its treatment of psychiatric disorders, a 2006 study Aromatherapy in the management of psychiatric disorders: clinical and neuropharmacological perspectives details some initial findings.
Lavender has been one of the most widely studied, and in addition to producing feelings of contentment, it also has a soothing, relaxing effect. In one four week single blind repeated measurements study, researchers studied 42 women who complained of insomnia. The subjects reported beneficial effects from the lavender oil, not only was the insomnia better, but their depression had also improved. Lee IS, Lee GJ. Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006;36(1):136-143.

Ylang ylang, like lavender, has antidepressant and sedative properties. The Natural Medicine Journal describes a recent study on ylang ylang oil and states: “A controlled trial conducted in Thailand tested the relaxation properties of ylang ylang oil. The oil caused a significant decrease in blood pressure, a significant increase in skin temperature, and a greater sense of calm and more relaxation. The authors conclude that there is evidence of the effectiveness of ylang ylang oil for relief of depression and stress in humans.”

Naturopaths credit geranium with both calming and uplifting effects. It’s also said to have a positive effect on hormones and may be useful for women experiencing depression stemming from menopause. In one study, aromatherapy and massage were used to treat women experiencing menopausal symptoms. Geranium, rose, lavender and jasmine with almond and primrose oils as carriers were given to the women once per week for eight weeks. The study concluded: “aromatherapy massage may be an effective treatment of menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, depression and pain in climacteric women.” The problem is deciphering whether it was the aromatherapy that had the positive effect, the massage, or the combined effect.

Bergamot oil is used in aromatherapy for depression, anxiety and digestive problems. One study headed by the Cancer Care Center in Australia studied the effects of aromatherapy on cancer patients experiencing depression and anxiety. Bergamot was one of the essential oils used in the study, however the study concluded that “Aromatherapy, as administered in this study, is not beneficial”

Neroli is another essential oil used by aroma therapists for the treatment of depression. Neroli essential oil was studied in hospice patients and shown to have a positive effect on depression.

Marjoram, peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary have calming and soothing properties. A 2005 study involving arthritis patients showed these essential oils (and lavender) had an effect not only on decreasing depression in the subjects, but also pain.

How to Use Aromatherapy Essential Oils

Never use aromatherapy essential oils without a carrier oil!  They are quite potent on their own and can cause a lot of irritation if placed directly on the skin.  You must dilute the essential oils in one of the following oils:  jojoba, olive, almond, grape seed, avocado, wheat germ or even peach.  Yes, peach oil exists, folks… and it smells fantastic.  Many essential oils have directions for use, please follow them.  A good rule of thumb is to add one to three drops of essential oil to a 5 ml teaspoon of the carrier.  

I hope this will be a “DUH!” moment for you, but never ingest essential oils as they may be toxic if taken by mouth.  Had to say it….

Bergamot oil can cause skin to be light sensitive.  Also, vapors from aromatherapy can cause eye irritation.  Never use near a child’s face.  Always consult a health care provider before using aromatherapy with children.

Some aromatherapy essential oils can cause drowsiness or sedation.  Chamomile and lavender are likely candidates.  There is the possibility that these calming oils can interact with drugs, supplements and herbs enhancing the sedation effects and/or having other side effects.  Research is sorely lacking in this area.

Diffuser | Source

Fighting Depression? Go Ahead... Get Your Sniff On!

There’s no doubt about it, we all feel a little blue from time to time.  Sometimes a phone call to a friend for a rant might be what the doctor ordered.  Or a brisk walk or full blown gym workout might be just the endorphin surge you need.  Heck, listening to your favorite song can go a long way in lifting your spirits.  But, how often has someone told you to go have a good, long sniff?  Rev up those diffusers, ladies and gents, your olfactory bulb is waiting,  Step in that marvelous tub with a few drops of jasmine, see how you feel afterwards, you might be pleasantly surprised.  Or, go the old fashioned route and bake yourself some of Grandma’s cookies.  You know the ones.  Those delightful morsels that bring you back to the good old days.  Rekindle those Proustian memories, you’ll be sitting on Grandma’s couch all cozied up in front of her fireplace in a flash.  


Submit a Comment

  • wordscribe43 profile imageAUTHOR

    Elsie Nelson 

    6 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

    Jools, thanks! I love lavender as well, it's one of my favorite scents. Even if you don't suffer from depression these scents can still lift your mood if you're feeling a little "ho hum." Thanks for coming by.

  • Jools99 profile image


    6 years ago from North-East UK

    Wow, what an informative and interesting hub. I love lavender and I sprinkle the oil on my pillow if I can't sleep. I am interested in trying more of these even though I don't suffer from depression. I like the idea of using natural ways to lighten my moods though.

  • elayne001 profile image


    7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    I totally believe in aromatherapy for depression. When I smell lavendar, everything changes. It helps me sleep and cheers me up. Thanks for a very informative hub.


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