While there’s been a lot of science on the palpable health properties of essential oils, there’s really very little peer-reviewed research on the emotional and/or psychological effects. They are much harder to measure, and to be done well, require large studies that just aren’t likely to be funded anytime soon. However, there IS data out there, and we can sort through it for some “proof” that “aroma” therapy works too, not just the biochemical/medical actions of essential oils.
There does appear to be enough data to confidently say that at least one essential oil will likely noticeably reduce stress (the most commonly researched outcome) for many individuals. Here we’ll look at the three most studies oils in this regard, which may help you choose the best for yourself — or at least inspire you to try them all; none is to pricey to not experiment.
The “big three” essential oils researched in this regard are lavender, bergamot and sandalwood. Each of these oils has been the subject of several controlled studies. The effects of each oil is distinctly different (they are, of course, very different chemical structures); at the same time, they’ve all shown statistically significant results in controlled studies relating to anxiety reduction.
We all know about lavender – it’s aromatherapy’s most commonly-used essential oil, with a broad array of healthful properties. By far, it has the greatest amount of research supporting its stress-reducing potential. Interestingly, it’s physiological effects are similar to its psychological effects: it’s calming and soothing to the skin, as it is calming and soothing to the mind. Of the three oils here, lavender has the most sedative action. It directly supports sleep, reduces aggression, and lessens anxiety.
In research, lavender’s sedative action can result both from inhalation and ingestion. A recently published series of studies showed daily ingestion of a slow-release capsule containing 80mg of lavender essential oil was proven as effective as benchmark sedative pharmaceutical drugs: Journal of International Clinical Psychopharmacol. 2010 Sep;25(5):277-87: “Silexan, an orally administered Lavandula oil preparation (Ed. note: 80mg, or approx. 2 drops per capsule) is effective in the treatment of ‘subsyndromal’ anxiety disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial.”
Sandalwood is a proven stress reducer, without being sedative like Lavender. Lavender actually slows response time, where sandalwood does not. One study’s participants inhaling sandalwood reported feeling greater clarity and relaxation — being more grounded and centered. Another study showed inhaled sandalwood to improve the sleep/wake cycle, resulting in deeper, more effective rest (as reported in the Japanese Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2007 Aug;27(4):167-71, “Effect of Santolol on the Sleep/Wake Cycle…” Further,sandalwood also did not need to be inhaled to produce this effect, just as long as it reached some critical level in the bloodstream.
Bergamot is the most popular anti-depressant essential oil, most often being employed as an aromatic rather than being ingested or topically applied. As reported in the Korean Academy of Nursing journal. 2009 Jun;39(3):357-65:
“The effects of aromatherapy onstress and stress responses in adolescents”, adolescents wearing aromatherapy amulets impregnated with Bertamot showed a statistically significant reduction of stress and depression relative to controls.
Bergamot oil is also known to reduce one’s perceived level of pain. Italian researchers confirmed the mechanism of this in Fitoterapia. 2010 Sep;81(6):453-61. Epub 2010 Jan 20: “Neuropharmacology of the essential oil of bergamot,” explaining that bergamot prevented the certain circuits in the brain from being reinforced by continued exposure to a stress (otherwise, the circuit becomes more powerful, and the stress can become overwhelming.
So, a frequently asked by beginning aromatherapy practitioners: “what oil should I use for depression or anxiety”? These oils are the place to start. One needs to be willing to experiment to see what works best for them. If you know you like woody aromas, try the sandalwood, florals, the lavender, sweet/tart citrus, the bergamot. They may ALL work for you given different conditions.
Use of the oils for stress reduction is very, very flexible. The first choice for using bergamot is in an aromatherapy diffuser of any type. Lavender and sandalwood are frequently topically applied, in addition to diffuser use. The idea being that you should find the oil AND the method that works for you by experimenting with all the possibilities — the science says that one of these is highly likely to make life a little easier for you