Can the power of smell using essential oils ease depression and anxiety?

Some studies have shown that certain aromas can help with symptoms of anxiety

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The power of smell using essential oils can help determine and manage some physical and mental ailments such as depression and anxiety, aromatherapists claim.

'Aromadiagnosis' is an alternative therapy increasingly used by practitioners to identify ailments they say can then be improved through inhalation of natural essential oils, many of which are derived from plants and fruits.

The goal of the therapy is to help ween some patients in the UAE off long-term, traditional medication for certain conditions.

However, research is limited and anecdotal evidence is based on patient interactions from practitioners who support the practice.

Scientifically, it is hard to draw any conclusions to make clinical recommendations regarding aromatherapy
Dr Waleed Ahmed, psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Abu Dhabi

Few long-term studies have evaluated the effectiveness of aromatherapy in mental health.

However, the University of Hong Kong’s department of rehabilitation sciences found inhalation and massage aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms.

Evgenia Noskovo is the co-founder of Freya House, one of the few alternative therapy clinics practicing aromadiagnosis and aromatherapy in the UAE.

“It is an alternative to some medications, and there is supporting evidence that it works,” she said.

“A lot of these oils have antioxidant properties that can be effective in maintaining general good health.

“Smells can trigger a brain response and also be absorbed into the blood.”

Effects of oils on mood

Dysfunction in the brain can lead to a multitude of physical and mental behavioural issues that can manifest in depression, anxiety, memory loss and brain fog.

Essential oils evaporate at room temperature and circulate in the air, which is when they are detected by smell.

Once inhaled, they easily penetrate the blood brain barrier, in a similar way to oxygen, carbon dioxide, alcohol and some drugs, therapists say.

That can then influence how brain signals are received, in the form of hormones and neurotransmitters that are key to developing our mood and mental state.

According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers, aromatherapy has proven effective in relieving anxiety in cancer patients.

Meanwhile, research in the journal Neuroimmunomodulation found citrus oils, like lime, proved most effective in combating depression.

Some therapists say aromadiagnosis can help determine which blends of essential oils are most suitable to help with a person's particular physical or mental health. Photo: Andrew Scott / The National

Aromatherapist Kateryna Azar uses essential oils with yoga sessions in Dubai, and practices aromadiagnosis to spot physical and mental ailments in her clients.

“We test each client’s response to multiple smells, around 63 in total, and that can help us create a blueprint of that person’s physical and mental state,” she said.

“Our sense of smell is very powerful, and can determine how we are feeling, or parts of our health that may need extra attention or care.”

Aromadiagnosis can help determine which blends of oils are most suitable to help with an individual’s particular physical or mental health condition, according to Ms Azar.

Natural oils

Aromatherapists say all citrus oils are natural mood enhancers, and can trigger mental clarity and feelings of peace and happiness.

Popular blends to improve mental state include wild orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, bergamot and tangerine.

Other blends that combine amyris, patchouli, frankincense, lime and oils from the ylang-ylang plant are thought to be effective in maintaining focus, particularly in those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Each of us will respond slightly differently to each smell. If we have a specific response to certain oils, that can identify certain mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety,” said Ms Azar.

“Then we can act accordingly by offering other smells most associated with that particular oil.

“They can help release the brain to think more clearly, and give focus and clarity of thought, particularly those who have a sense of hopelessness.”

Reliance on medication

More than 350 million people are thought to experience some level of depressive symptoms worldwide.

While antidepressants can be effective in those with the most severe symptoms, medication is not always suitable for those with milder mental health conditions.

The prescribing of antidepressants — that control the brain’s mood indicating hormone serotonin — has risen steadily in the UK.

An estimated 7.8 million people were issued at least one prescription in 2019 to 2020, according to research in the British Medical Journal.

From 2005-2017, the number of children aged 12 to 17 prescribed antidepressants in the UK more than doubled.

Side effects of antidepressants are relatively common, including drowsiness, dry mouth, profuse sweating, or weight gain.

At least one in four of those taking antidepressants in the UK has reported sexual difficulties, and about one in 10 experiences restlessness, muscle spasms or twitching, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea or dizziness, the BMJ said.

Despite the option of more natural therapies to ease depression and anxiety, medical experts have been reluctant to support aromatherapy as a viable alternative.

“There is currently no evidence to support a cure for depression or anxiety using aromatherapy,” said Dr Waleed Ahmed, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi.

“There are a few inconclusive and not so robust studies showing some benefits of aromatherapy and massages using essential oils in helping some of the symptoms in very specific types of medically ill patients with depression or anxiety.

“Even in those studies the evidence is more in favour of helping with anxiety symptoms rather than depressive ones.

“Scientifically, it is hard to draw any conclusions to make clinical recommendations regarding aromatherapy.

“Moreover, we have to be wary of the possible side effects — not all essential oils are equal; some are adulterated.

“As it is not medicine, they do not undergo the same manufacturing scrutiny that is required for medicines.”

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Updated: August 22, 2022, 5:05 AM