Essential Oils And Aromatherapy: Could They Work For Bipolar Disorder?

Updated June 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition primarily characterized by significant shifts in mood. If you’re living with bipolar disorder, you may be eager to find easy-to-use methods for smoothing out your intense high and low moods. Plant essential oils might be an option. They appeal to many people due to their simplicity, natural origins, and pleasant scents. 

But are essential oils effective, or are they simply another misguided health fad? Can essential oils and aromatherapy really help with bipolar disorder?

Though they can’t take the place of psychotherapy from a qualified mental health professional, there’s evidence that certain essential oils may be useful for managing common symptoms of bipolar disorder. Aromatherapy may help improve your mood, relieve anxiety, or help you fall asleep, for example. 

This article explores how this type of treatment might work and how you might use it to help manage bipolar disorder.

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What are essential oils?

An essential oil is a substance containing a high concentration of aromatic compounds derived from plants. Aromatic compounds are volatile, meaning they tend to easily vaporize into gases at room temperature. These substances are what give many plants their pleasing smells, like the sweetness of flowers or the spicy scents of herbs.

Aromatic chemicals are extracted from plants using a variety of methods, including distillation, solvents, or physical pressure. By separating these compounds from the plants that make them, manufacturers can concentrate them at much higher levels. This means that a few drops of essential oil can have a stronger fragrance than an entire plant. 

It’s worth noting that essential oils are not “essential” in the sense of being necessary for life or health like the essential amino acids. The name comes from the fact that these oils contain the “essence” of a particular plant’s scent.

Essential oils are often used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which patients are exposed to pleasant scents to help with relaxation, sleep, and the management of challenges like pain and anxiety. Though there’s not yet a scientific consensus on the effectiveness of aromatherapy, some research has provided evidence that it may alleviate certain symptoms.

Why use aromatherapy and essential oils?

Those who find aromatherapy helpful for managing psychological conditions often adopt this method because it’s fairly simple and can be self-administered easily. Essential oils are widely available, with no need for a prescription, and using them requires little equipment or specialized knowledge.

You can easily test many different scents and figure out which ones have the most beneficial effect on your mood and stress levels. And since you don’t need large quantities of essential oils to feel their effects, you can often use them on the go. This can be helpful if you find yourself in urgent need of a way to soothe your mind.

Another potential advantage of aromatherapy is that, if used correctly, it comes without the side effects that some individuals experience from medications for bipolar disorder. There’s little risk of essential oils causing harmful interactions with other pharmaceutical drugs. Though there are some safety precautions to follow (see below), aromatherapy is often a safe way to supplement other forms of clinical treatment for bipolar disorder.

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What does the science say about essential oils and bipolar disorder?

Essential oils have not yet been widely investigated as treatments for bipolar disorder specifically. A systematic review of complementary treatments for this condition found no published studies examining the use of aromatherapy for this condition. However, there have been trials that have shown effects on common symptoms experienced by individuals who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

For example, a 2021 research review concluded that several types of essential oils showed promise in relieving anxiety or depression. This suggests that they might be useful for reducing the intensity of depressive or anxious episodes, which are often experienced by those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Some essential oils might also be able to help lower stress, which can be a trigger for manic phases of bipolar disorder. A 2013 experiment found that nurses who used an aromatherapy treatment during their workday showed significant reductions in stress symptoms. 

Individuals with bipolar disorder often experience difficulty sleeping during both manic and depressive episodes. This may contribute to other health effects, including negative moods and cognitive difficulties. A review published in 2014 concluded that inhaled essential oils showed positive effects on sleep quality. 

Studies like these suggest that people experiencing unwanted effects of bipolar disorder may be able to find some relief by using essential oils for their calming and rest-promoting properties. More research is necessary before these can be considered clinically verified treatments. In the meantime, there’s little risk in testing them out and seeing if they improve your quality of life.

Which essential oils might help with bipolar disorder?

There are several essential oils on the market. If you’re interested in seeing whether essential oils can help you manage your bipolar disorder, you may be unsure where to start. The following plant extracts may decrease some common symptoms of bipolar disorder:

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender essential oil may be the most extensively studied aromatherapy treatment, and many people find its sweet fragrance soothing. Many studies suggest that it might help reduce depression and help with related symptoms such as lack of sleep.

Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia)

Derived from a sour citrus fruit a little bit like lime, bergamot orange oil is often used to promote calm and reduce feelings of worry. You may be familiar with its odor and flavor if you drink Earl Gray tea. Some research indicates that inhaling this tangy scent can relieve anxiety and lower the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the human body.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)

This common kitchen herb has a woodsy, piney scent that many consider invigorating. In some randomized trials, the smell of rosemary has shown positive effects on alertness, memory, and cognitive performance. If your bipolar disorder symptoms include mental fatigue or difficulty thinking clearly, you might find that aromatherapy with rosemary essential oil can help.

Sandalwood (Santalum)

Long used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, as well as in incense for religious practices, sandalwood has a rich, sweet scent that’s often described as calming and uplifting. It may help improve your mood, and at least one randomized, controlled trial found that it could relieve anxiety.

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Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

There’s some evidence that the sweet, earthy, fruity smell of ylang-ylang can promote feelings of tranquility and well-being. Note that the linked study found that this scent appeared to slow down the speed of cognitive processing, which suggests that it’s not a great choice for situations where you need to stay focus. But if you’re having trouble quieting racing thoughts, this essential oil might help you calm down.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)

You may already know that some people swear by chamomile tea as a way to calm their nerves and promote sleep. But did you know that some studies have also found antidepressant effects from chamomile essential oil? This light herbal scent might help you feel less down during depressive phases.

How to use essential oils safely

Though essential oils lack many of the dramatic side effects of other substances used to treat bipolar disorder, they aren’t totally risk-free. For example, some can be poisonous if taken internally. It’s often best to avoid swallowing essential oils or applying them to mucous membranes, and most companies suggest keeping them away from curious children.

Some people like to apply essential oils to their skin, but this can cause skin irritation in certain individuals or with some types of oils. Citrus-based essential oils, in particular, can dramatically increase your risk of sunburn. It may be best to ask your doctor about each oil and be cautious about using them outdoors. 

You might want to dilute any essential oils you’re using topically to 2% concentration or lower, using a neutral “carrier oil” like coconut oil. And since sensitivity can vary from person to person, it’s probably best to test any essential oil on a small patch of skin before applying it more widely.

The safest way to use essential oils may be through aromatherapy, inhaling their odors without putting them directly on or in your body. You can use a scent diffuser or simply dab a drop or two on a tissue and sniff it. Keep in mind that some people can still experience sinus irritation from strong scents like cinnamon or lemongrass. Aromatherapy may be safest in a well-ventilated space.

Aromatherapy, psychotherapy, and bipolar disorder

Many individuals with bipolar disorder have reported positive effects from aromatherapy with essential oils online. Yet this practice doesn’t have the robust evidence base of cognitive-behavioral therapy and other psychotherapeutic or medication-based treatments. It may be best to use aromatherapy to support and complement your work with a trained therapist.

If you appreciate the convenience and availability of essential oils, you may prefer online psychotherapy over traditional face-to-face appointments. Talking with a mental health professional online allows you to participate in sessions from your own home. You can even make use of your preferred aromatherapy treatments during chats with your therapist, potentially easing the stress of talking about challenging thoughts and emotions.

Long-term studies of online cognitive-behavioral therapy have found that it works just as well as face-to-face treatment. Whether in randomized trials or routine clinical practice, it’s been found to substantially reduce symptoms of a wide variety of mental health conditions. Many people also find it easier to consistently follow treatment recommendations when working with therapists online.

Takeaway

There isn’t yet conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of essential oils for bipolar disorder. However, some studies show positive effects on common symptoms of bipolar disorder, such as depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and cognitive difficulties. 

When used in conjunction with evidence-based treatments, aromatherapy with essential oils might make bipolar disorder easier to manage. Get started with a licensed therapist by contacting BetterHelp; we’ll match you with a professional based on your needs and preferences, often in less than 48 hours.

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