From juggling a busy work schedule, to managing your health and home, life can be demanding. Tough days happen, and when they do, you may find yourself feeling stressed, unfocused, or fatigued, or experiencing other mindset challenges.
Could essential oils, a form of aromatherapy, come to the rescue?
Aromatic oils are collected by steaming or pressing plants to capture the compounds that give off their unique scents, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. When inhaled or applied topically in a carrier oil, these scents provide potentially therapeutic benefits, including mood-stabilization.
You can experience essential oils by adding them to a diffuser, sniffing an aroma stick, mixing them into a massage oil, or adding a few drops to a cotton ball.
“Essential oils are distilled from different plants, and they all have different [potential] actions,” says Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic in Lakewood, Ohio.
According to Dr. Lin, some essential oils inspire calming effects and help you relax and relieve stress, while others support neurostimulation that boosts energy and improves focus.
Here’s how essential oils may affect your mood, in theory: As you inhale the oil, scent molecules travel through your olfactory system (your nose and nasal passages) and affect the brain through the limbic system, also known as the “emotional brain” — the part of the brain involved with behavioral responses, including stress and hormone levels, memory, heart rate regulation, and more, per the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.
Each essential oil is thought to interact with the limbic system in a different way, initiating various possible mood-boosting outcomes.
If you want to incorporate essential oils into your wellness routine, work with a certified aromatherapy specialist or integrative doctor to ensure you’re using them safely, to avoid risks like photosensitivity (when skin reacts to sunlight), allergic reactions, and toxicity from ingesting certain oils. In general, qualified aromatherapists have received training from an aromatherapy school approved by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA).
Read on to discover what is known about essential oils and mood.
Lavender Oil May Help You Sleep
Delicate, sweet, floral-smelling lavender contains plant chemicals that induce relaxation in some people.
Lin explains that lavender and other calming essential oils may promote sleep indirectly by reducing anxiety, and that may help you drift off. A review and meta-analysis in the December 2019 issue of Phytomedicine attributes lavender’s anxiety-lowering effects to linalyl acetate and linalool, key compounds that have proven calming and sedating properties for some people.
Before You Try It
One caveat: Some past research has evaluated people who ingested lavender oil to achieve the same effects, but Elizabeth Ko, MD, an internal medicine physician and the medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative at UCLA Health in Los Angeles, advises against ingesting essential oils. “When oils are ingested [directly and in capsule form], they’re deactivated by stomach acids, rendering them ineffective,” she explains.
Plus, some essential oils can irritate the mouth and create stomach ulcers, says Shanti Dechen, a certified clinical aromatherapy practitioner and the director of Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy in Crestone, Colorado. Instead, Lin recommends adding lavender essential oil to a bath or diffuser and inhaling to reap possible sleep-enhancing benefits.
More Essential Oils to Try for Better Sleep
Frankincense and chamomile also contain compounds that seem to reduce anxiety and promote sleep, Lin says.
A study of 60 elderly adults found that those who received chamomile extract capsules saw greater improvements in sleep quality than those who received a placebo. And prior research noted that chamomile preparations such as tea and essential oil aromatherapy have been used in traditional medicine to treat insomnia and induce calm.
While frankincense oil hasn’t yet been studied in humans, a small study of sleep-deprived rats published in a 2019 issue of the Journal of Oleo Science found that this oil relieved stress and countered the effects of sleep debt.
Peppermint Oil May Boost Your Energy
You may get a boost from a bright, uplifting scent like peppermint, Dr. Ko notes.
Some limited research in humans and animals shows that peppermint oil — with its bracing, intensely minty scent — may fight fatigue during exercise.
In one study, male college students who ingested a peppermint essential oil capsule an hour before activity performed significantly better on grip, vertical jump, and long jump tests than they did five minutes before taking the pill. They also performed better than the students who didn’t ingest peppermint essential oil.
Another study in rats found that those exposed to the scent of an essential oil mixture, which included peppermint, could swim longer before reaching fatigue than those exposed to distilled water (the control group).
While researchers can’t yet explain why peppermint oil might work to enhance energy, it appears that the aroma stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for alertness, leading to quicker audio and visual reaction times.
Remember, there’s only limited research on this, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doesn’t recognize that peppermint oil has these effects. If you still want to try peppermint oil for possible fatigue-fighting benefits, you might inhale it via a diffuser or aroma stick. Or, apply it to your skin using a carrier oil.
Before You Try It
While some research participants derived benefits from ingesting peppermint essential oil capsules, Lin warns that certain essential oils can upset the stomach and cause gastritis if taken by mouth. “Oral ingestion should be directed by a trained herbalist,” she says.
More Essential Oils to Try for Improved Energy
Intense scents like cinnamon, clove, jasmine, and patchouli are Lin’s other go-to essential oils for fatigue, which she recommends on the basis of on her personal and clinical experience. Research is limited on these, yet in the same rat study mentioned above, the essential oil mixture that relieved exercise-induced fatigue also contained clove oil.
Lemon Oil May Soothe Anxiety
The fresh, zesty scent of lemon essential oil may boost your mood and calm jitters.
Past research found that lemon essential oil improved mood significantly more than lavender oil or water (the control substances). It may also increase norepinephrine, a brain chemical linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Meanwhile, another small study found that patients who sniffed lemon essential oil for 30 minutes had significantly less anxiety after orthopedic surgery than the control group.
According to a review published in the journal Antioxidants in October 2022, lemon oil may work by accelerating the production of dopamine (a feel-good chemical in the brain). The mechanisms are still unclear, but a study of mice in a 2019 issue of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that limonene, a major compound in citrus oils, may have antidepressant effects.
You may diffuse lemon oil into the air or apply it topically to your skin with a carrier oil, suggests the Cleveland Clinic.
Before You Try It
Beware that lemon oil and other citrus oils react with ultraviolet light and can cause photosensitivity when applied to the skin. “You can get sunburnt very quickly,” Lin says. Use caution when applying it directly to the skin, and do so only after you’ve consulted your integrative practitioner or aromatherapist.
If you use lemon oil on your skin, wait at least 12 hours after application before exposing your skin to direct sunlight, per the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS).
More Essential Oils to Try for Better Mood
Other citrus oils — like orange and bergamot — may also have uplifting qualities, Ko says, according to her personal and clinical experience. Again, research is limited, but one study found that postpartum women who inhaled bergamot essential oil experienced some relief from depression symptoms.
Rosemary Oil May Help You Focus
Reach for piney, woodsy-smelling rosemary. “Rosemary has really strong antioxidant properties and it [can be] great for stimulating mental clarity and focus,” Lin says.
In a past study, people who sniffed rosemary essential oil for more prolonged periods performed better on visual processing tasks and serial subtraction tests than those exposed to the rosemary aroma for shorter periods.
Another small study found that students remembered images and numbers better than the control group when rosemary essential oil was spritzed into the air in the testing room.
Rosemary essential oil contains 1,8-cineole, a compound that may affect learning by preventing the breakdown of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine when inhaled. Acetylcholine plays a vital role in learning, memory, and attention.
Inhale rosemary oil or apply it topically with a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut oil, Lin suggests.
Before You Try It
Note: The Cleveland Clinic advises avoiding rosemary oil if you’re pregnant or have epilepsy or high blood pressure.
More Essential Oils to Try for Better Focus
Woodsy, warm, and sweet-spicy sandalwood may also increase focus. Research found that alpha-santalol, the main compound in sandalwood essential oil, potentially boosts attentiveness and mood.