Aromatherapy usually involves gentle massage with special scented oils. It may also involve the presence of particular aromas from the heating of essential oils in a room. An essential oil is a liquid that is distilled from the scented parts of a plant.
The way essential oils work on the brain is not understood, although it has been shown that they can have an effect on the brain's electrical activity. It is thought that most of the effect enters the brain through the sense of smell. With massage there may be an effect through the skin as well.
Aromatherapy alone: There is little evidence concerning the effect of aromas alone on depression. One small controlled study of hospital patients with depression found that citrus fragrance may improve mood. One group was exposed to the fragrance and at the same time their antidepressant dose was reduced substantially. By the end of the study only 25% of this group remained on antidepressants. The other group did not receive aromatherapy and remained on their standard dose of antidepressants. Both groups showed the same amount of reduction in depression over the period of the study. This suggests that the fragrance may have been effective in combating depression. However, it is possible that the aromatherapy group would have improved without the fragrance, despite the reduction in levels of antidepressants. In addition, the sample was very small and confined to male hospital patients.
Aromatherapy combined with massage. There is also some weak evidence that the effects of massage may be enhanced by the addition of essential oils to the massage oil. A small randomised controlled trial involving people with depression found greater improvement in mood after aromatherapy massage than massage with grape seed oil.
Aromatherapists are listed in the Yellow Pages. Many shops sell aromatherapy oils.
Both aromatherapy alone and aromatherapy massage appear to be promising treatments for depression. However, at this stage, there is not enough evidence to recommend these treatments for depression.