Millions of people around the world suffer from mood disorders, ranging from mild depression and anxiety to the extreme highs and deep lows of bipolar disorder.
There are many medications on the market to treat these disorders, each with its own set of potential side effects.
The healing power of essential oils offers another soothing option. Essential oils are volatile, which means they evaporate quickly and have molecules small enough to be absorbed by the olfactory receptors and sent to the brain’s limbic system, which controls emotion and memory.
The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that interacts with the limbic system including the amygdala, which unlocks the emotions. “When we smell, we feel,” wrote one scientist in 2008. 1
It’s the compounds found in essential oils—terpenes, specifically—that give essential oils all that power. Terpenes interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters, triggering the release of feel-good chemicals that can lift away a dark mood or help regulate mood swings.
Benefits of Terpenes on Mood
Some of the terpenes that have been scientifically proven to help balance emotions and lift symptoms of anxiety include:
At its core, alpha-pinene is thought to slow the activity of an enzyme that damages certain neurotransmitters in the brain, protecting both dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that are impacted by drugs in the benzodiazepine class, including Valium and Xanax, making it a natural option for reducing symptoms of anxiety.
Also abundant in conifers, beta-pinene is another monoterpene with stress-relieving powers. In studies including 2012 research appearing in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, when paired with linalool, beta-pinene effectively eased sadness. 2
While the above study looked at beta-pinene and linalool as complementary monoterpenes working in synergy to generate a positive emotional response, linalool on its own is also pretty powerful.
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A 2010 study in the journal Phytomedicine found that linalool—one of the most powerful monoterpenes found in soothing lavender—helped ease anxiety in mice, suggesting that the compound could also provide human benefits. That’s why spas often feature lavender scents to create a relaxing, soothing atmosphere. 3
Another synergic monoterpene, myrcene is most effective at relieving stress when paired with alpha or beta-pinene. Myrcene interacts with neurotransmitters associated with stress, including cortisol, which when released, forces the levels of feel-good chemicals in the body, including serotonin and dopamine, to drop.
While cortisol was once important for survival—the body releases it at times of stress, triggering a flood of blood glucose that provides the energy needed to escape caveman-era threats—individuals usually can’t run from today’s stressors. This causes that high blood sugar to stick around, creating health threats including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Sage, tansy, and wormwood (the ingredient found in the mysterious absinthe) are among the essential oils that contain the monoterpene thujone, a powerful mood booster.
Thujone boosts levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the busiest of neurotransmitters and one associated with easing stress and anxiety by reducing the activity of nerves in the nervous system. Higher levels of GABA result in a calmer, less stressed state of mind. 4
This sweet terpene is thought to have sedative qualities that ease symptoms of anxiety and stress. It elevates levels of dopamine and serotonin, providing a feel-good boost to the brain.
When levels of GABA are low, anxiety and depression are bigger risk factors. Rosmarinic acid helps boost levels of GABA.
Powers of Aromatherapy
There has been some research on the effectiveness of aromatherapy on mood disorders, suggesting that holistic medicine can be a complementary treatment option.
A 2017 study from Hong Kong researchers appearing in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that aromatherapy helped ease symptoms of depression, called the largest health concern of the 21st century. 5
Some essential oils that provide research-driven health benefits include:
Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender has high levels of linalool, as well as myrcene, so it works to relieve stress in two different ways. The two active compounds work in synergy to create a sense of calm when lavender is used aromatically.
In 2012, Thai researchers found that lavender essential oil reduced symptoms commonly associated with stress, including high blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. Their work appeared in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand. 6
Wild Orange Essential Oil
While lavender is the gold standard of relaxing essential oils, wild orange should be poised to take the purple flower’s place. Wild orange not only contains myrcene and linalool, but it also offers alpha-pinene, giving it three different mood-boosting components.
A 2017 study from George Washington University found that wild orange oil could help alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is often accompanied by anxiety and mood changes. 7
Star Anise Essential Oil
This licorice-scented essential oil contains four compounds that help ease stress, including linalool, alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, and nerolidol, making it an excellent option for easing anxiety symptoms—provided you enjoy the aroma of licorice.
Lemon Balm Essential Oil
Also known as Melissa, lemon balm offers high levels of rosmarinic acid, which sends levels of the neurotransmitter GABA higher, easing symptoms of anxiety.
Frankincense Essential Oil
This exotic essential oil has been shown to reduce heart rate and high blood pressure, two physical responses to stress, effectively easing anxiety.
Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon oil contains beta-pinene, which keeps stress hormones in check, but its bright, fresh aroma also promotes feelings of happiness. A 2006 study from Japanese researchers appearing in the journal Behavioural Brain Research found that the scent of lemon oil effectively eased stress. 8
Holy Basil Essential Oil
Holy basil contains linalool, which along with other compounds in the essential oil help control the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which not only eases anxiety symptoms but also helps prevent health problems associated with high blood glucose levels, which is released along with cortisol as part of our body’s fight-or-flight response.
Blue Chamomile Essential Oil
Blue chamomile contains thujone, alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, and myrcene, so it is one of the most effective stress relievers around. A 2016 study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that chamomile helped ease symptoms of stress and anxiety. 9
There are many different types of mood disorders which impact as much as 20 percent of the population, according to estimates. Many are caused by disruptions in the levels of certain hormones or neurotransmitters.
When GABA levels are low, dopamine and serotonin levels are also low, while the stress hormones norepinephrine and adrenaline are elevated. Because many essential oils have the ability to stimulate an increase in GABA, they can help regulate feel-good chemicals, so stress and anxiety symptoms are kept under control.
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